THE NEW GIRLS is a 1979 novel by Beth Gutcheon. It relates the lives of five teenage girls, students of an expensive and exclusive girls' boarding school in New England, USA, in the 1960s, and is not a pretty story. It is a fictional exploration and exposé of life in the school Beth Gutcheon herself attended, Miss Porter's, in Connecticut. Among daughters of the rich and famous, the most celebrated graduate of Miss Porter's was Jackie Kennedy.
In the July 2009 issue of Vanity Fair there is an article by Evgenia Peretz on a 2008 scandal at Miss Porter's. A student was systematically tormented by her classmates and allegedly became so distressed that she cheated on a test and then confessed to the cheating, and was expelled. Instead of going quietly she is suing the school, something not dreamt of by the characters in The New Girls.
In a small irony, the article begins by invoking the imagery of a fiction writer: ‘It's the perfect Edith Wharton morning at Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut – brisk and snow-covered, with icicles hanging from the porticoes of the white clapboard nineteenth-century dormitories.' I have read a fair bit of the work of Edith Wharton, but I would not have known what a ‘perfect Edith Wharton morning' might be without the added description, and I am not even sure I believe it.
However, the article led me to the novel, which arrived swiftly from Amazon. That gave me the opportunity to compare the two reading experiences, the non-fiction and the fiction. There are many kinds of non-fiction, as there are many kinds of fiction, and this was simply a lone sample. However, it was a starting point, and consisted of two standard forms: the serious feature article with photographs, and the straightforward modern novel.
The exercise was instructive. I found the two readings absorbing but very different in quality. The article was in a crisp first-person, opening with the writer's visit to the school (where her mother had been a student) and moving on to discuss the case of the litigious girl in the context of the school's 166-year history. The pictures were, in the tradition of the magazine, marvellous illustrations of the text.
The leading photograph is particularly striking and resonant. The current headmistress (sic), Kate Windsor, a handsome blonde of forty-three, stands before the somewhat creepy portrait of the founding Miss Porter, and the faces, while unlike, come eerily forward as two versions of one. Photography can behave as fiction behaves, tweaking the viewer's vision, disturbing the smooth surface of the facts with suggestion. Oddly, when the book came I noticed that the author portrait bore some similarity to the picture of Kate Windsor.
I was absorbed by the article, a cheerful voyeur, peering in on the place and the events. My imagination was stirred by the revelations of the facts, which for various reasons could go only so far. There was something tantalising about it all, and that, I realise, is why I immediately ordered the novel. I hoped it would take me deeper into the meaning of the place. And I was not disappointed.
The New Girls did what I expect fiction to do. It took off fearlessly, moving into the hearts and minds of five girls at Miss Pratt's, and followed their lives from the age of fifteen to thirty. The picture of a section of American society in the lead-up to the Vietnam War was unveiled at the same time as were the narratives of the girls' lives. I knew that the only limits were those of the author's imagination, and the limits the story imposed on its own world. So there could, in a sense, be more possibility here than in the non-fiction story of Miss Porter's. That is not to say that there is anything flawed or unsatisfactory in the Vanity Fair piece. Its non-fiction nature binds its detail and outcomes.
I REALISE THAT fiction and non-fiction move beyond the realm of the printed word, in particular into film, but here I am confining myself to the printed word. The boundaries between fiction and non-fiction writing have always been elastic, and today are particularly insecure. For the sake of argument I will deal with works that can be defined fairly simply as ‘true' or ‘made up', since I am interested in how fiction writing appears to contribute to people's lives, to a culture, and how a culture might be in part defined by the art of the fiction writer. I will not enter the debate about the borrowings that go on between the two, about whether there are in fact these two kinds of writing.
When I read fiction I like to be taken into a little dream where just about anything can happen, according to the frame of the particular narrative. It might be strange to say I go into a dream, but it seems to me that this may be the key to fiction. Its creation and reception involve a free giving-over of the ordinary response to the realities of the world. The process sometimes used to be called the willing suspension of disbelief. Even fantasies and fairytales impose their own logic and work within it.
In fiction the imagination has the licence, perhaps the imperative, to invent, to take things further, to shift time and space and shape and form, in order to construct a new and different world, a different reality, a reality that can open the reader's heart wider and deeper and afford a stronger connection with other people's lives and situations. Reading fiction is a creative act.
One of my most beloved books as a child was a thin and unexceptional illustrated paperback called East of the Sun and West of the Moon. I was taken first by the language of the title, its rhythm and play, and by its mystery. Over many years I have found the phrase coming back to me, playing in my mind with sweetness and pleasure. The story is a Norse folktale, and contains some elements of ‘Beauty and the Beast'. The otherworldly title refers to a place that is nowhere and everywhere, and in the context of the story this description is acceptable, and it holds deep fascination and also a kind of breathtaking horror. Much of the action takes place as the girl rides on the back of one or other of the winds in her search for her beloved, who resides east of the sun and west of the moon. This magical journey is a mirror of the trip the young reader takes through the pages of the fiction itself, a kind of trip all readers of fiction take when they give their minds over to the pleasures of the world of everywhere and nowhere.
The delicious thing about fiction, as I see it, is that the reader knows the story is not true, that it is a game which the reader is invited to play. There is no such place; there are no such people; these things did not happen. But they just might happen, and they do happen within the world of the fiction. It is the world of possibility, a place where opportunity and chance are limitless. The world of fiction is bound only by its own rules, its own borders, which shift with every piece of fiction as it is written.
In East of the Sun and West of the Moon there's the narrative of the journey and the place it takes you to - or, more accurately, the images you see and the feelings you get. I remember the sensation of wanting to re-read the story, to get back into it in order to envisage, through the agency of language, the white bear knocking on the window, the girl on the back of the wind, flying along in search of the imaginary, nonexistent place. I wanted to feel again the tension of the quest and the strange relief that came with moments of resolution and hope and consolation along the way.
The illustrations in the book also drew me in. They were of muted magical forests and impossibly treacherous mountain peaks. The most common picture for the cover of editions of this story is that of the girl flying along, urgent, confident, on the back of the big white bear. It is straight out of a dream. It releases in the reader's imagination something that gives an ability to grasp the real world more securely, as a result of having followed the imaginary world. It is a kind of thrill. It is a special kind of trigger to thought and creativity.
It is not so very far from the White Rabbit, who led Alice from this world into the world of Mad Hatters and March Hares. The world Alice finds is a perfect example of the world of fiction. It resembles the real world above ground in many ways, but the details are all its own, and the logic is true to itself.
These examples are extremes of fantasy and imagination, and serve mainly to demonstrate one end of the scale of fiction. All fiction bears within itself the imaginative spark that shows up so clearly in the fairytale and in Alice. There is also a whole canvas of social history in Alice, but this is only one level - fiction deals with many levels - the descent underground or through the mirror takes the action into the other side of reality, to the dream place east of the sun and west of the moon.
IF THERE ARE already so many made-up stories from which to choose to read, why do people keep inventing new ones? Why do people keep reading the new ones as well as the old ones? I think it is because of that ability fiction has to stimulate the imagination, to thrill. The new novel promises, first of all to the writer and then to the reader: This might happen. Non-fiction says: This did happen. Fiction pushes the imagination forward. Non-fiction engages the imagination too, but I believe the ability of fiction to go wherever it wants to go gives it a different kind of power to inform the human mind. I do not say it is better, but different. And necessary. People need to read true stories; they also need to read speculation. It is important to be able to read a story and say: Well, life might be like this - or like this. And to be furnished by the fiction with the possibilities. Non-fiction can say: This is what happened - here is what could happen now as a result. Fiction can pretend something happened and dramatise the outcome. It is the pretence that is so exciting. These things might happen, and the fiction offers a shape and a pattern and a way in which they can or could.
I so enjoyed reading The New Girls because it could take me into the details of the hearts and minds of the characters in a way that the Vanity Fair story about the events at Miss Porter's could not. I knew Beth Gutcheon was in a way guessing about her characters, and I liked that. There was no place for that kind of guessing in the story about the girl who was expelled from Miss Porter's. Yet I took pleasure in both readings.
The pleasures of reading fiction differ from the pleasures of reading non-fiction. I think that fiction, because it has a special ability to engage the reader in its game, somehow conflates the writer and the reader and gives the reader a role in the making of the tale, and takes the reader along as the narrative tests the possibilities.
Non-fiction can engage the emotions of readers who feel rage at injustice and tenderness in the face of beauty, feel despair and joy; it can make you laugh, make you weep. So if true stories can move you to tears, why go to all the trouble of making things up, of reading about made-up things? It's partly because of the magical power of fiction. Real events, real characters, real places inspire fiction, but they do not make it. Historical novels, biographical novels – these books have the ability to partake of that special quality I found as a child in the story of East of the Sun and West of the Moon. The special trigger to thought and feeling and creativity. The magic.
IMAGINATION IS ONE of the most rare, beautiful and important qualities of human beings. I don't mean the ability to fantasise; I mean the ability to envisage what might be, to empathise with the situations of others, to place oneself outside oneself, to see relationships between one thing and another, to – in that strange way that only fiction knows – believe that the characters in the novels of Charles Dickens or of Thea Astley or of Patrick White are alive. The belief is possible when the imagination of the writer is powerful enough, with language and image, to engage the imagination of the reader. When levels of meaning and richness of metaphor take the reader along subtle pathways that deepen and multiply with each reading of the text. The mood and interpretation of the reader have a role in making fiction. And I return, again and again, to the importance of the imagination, not only in individuals, but in cultures.
For a culture to thrive and develop it needs to imagine itself into being, and to continue to imagine. You have to be able to imagine danger, to imagine the enemy, to imagine the good. Before Australia was colonised by Europeans, the Indigenous peoples here had developed vast and beautiful fictions that imagined the meanings of the place. In contemporary English the body of these fictions is described as the Dreamtime. This is an infinite spiritual cycle in which are embedded the values of the peoples and societies. The Dreamtime exists in a place that is different from, but parallel to, everyday reality. I hope it is not too crude to say that as I understand it, everyday reality is like non-fiction and the Dreamtime is more like fiction. The Dreamtime is where the culture is imagined into being, and the Dreamtime is indispensable.
The imagination is central to Indigenous culture. It must be the same for any culture. The imagination must be nourished in order to fashion the identity. The stories you make up about yourself tell you who and what you are, whether you realise it or not, and tell the world who and what you are, and also afford you the chance, the space, to move forward creatively. The fiction written in this country since the arrival of Europeans demonstrates that this is so. In 1831 the forger Henry Savery published what is considered to be Australia's first novel, Quintus Serviton. The subtitle explains that it was ‘A Tale Founded on Incidents of Real Occurrence'. It was a nice beginning, and not so very long ago, and the subtitle is actually a fair description of a lot of fiction.
Imagination is a human quality, and is not simply in the service of the country to which you belong. Yet, just as the landscape, the native plants and animals of a place are specific, so the literature of a country is coloured by its place of origin. And in turn characterises that place. My reflections turn out to be a Möbius loop: feed the imagination with fiction; make some more fiction; feed some more imagination. Fiction, written in some form, and read, is only one marker of a culture, one product, but it is the food for the imagination itself. It is the medium in which human nature is explored and revealed in all its ugliness and beauty, using only the tool of language, in all its miraculous shapes.
Robert Manne (The Monthly, July 2009) concludes a magnificently lucid analysis of the 2009 Victorian bushfires by saying: ‘The answer to the question of why we weren't warned on 7 February requires not only the forensic capacity of a royal commission but also a sociologist with the capacity to illuminate the strange character of our postmodern world.' He is right, yet I would add that the question also requires a fiction writer with the capacity to analyse and dramatise the characters of the people involved, and to enter once more the strange territory of the human spirit, the human heart.
Fiction is not optional. It is necessary.