Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads in Them

14 Nov

Obviously this is a quote from Marianne Moore’s poem called ‘Poetry’ in which she called for poets who ‘can present for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them’.

This is probably a good image for poetry, but I don’t think it applies as well to prose fiction.

I think that the opposite is true for a successful novelist, and they should be trying to present us with imaginary toads in real gardens.

What this means in practice is that prose writers should ground their fiction in real places and/or events, but that there should also be at least some degree of imagination involved.

I think the adage about writing what you know has been overplayed for some time now.

You can blame Flaubert, if you want to. His idea of writing a novel set in a draper’s shop was to take infinite pains to ensure that the reader was left in absolutely no doubt whatever that he had researched every last detail relating to owning, managing, working in or even shopping in a draper’s shop.

Doris Lessing responded to this trend in literature through Anna Wulf,the central character in The Golden Notebook, who comments that her interest in reading most of the new novels that she comes across is ‘journalistic’. In other words, she’s interested in the factual information contained in the novel but what she really wants from her fiction is something else. Otherwise, you might as well read non-fiction.

Sometimes the use of factual information can be used in order to ground the more imaginative aspects of your fiction. eg Stephen King’s detailed descriptions of small town New England or his frequent references to popular culture.

Or the use of factual details can be used to help build character. eg Ian Fleming often illustrates the dominant traits of his characters through the things they own or wear (see his description of Goldfinger’s golfing costume, or the detailed description of Grant’s possessions when he first appears in From Russia with Love.

Having said all this, narrative fiction should have a bit of fiction in it somewhere. This is the bit that makes it fiction and it’s also the author’s chance to actually say something.

This is always assuming that they do actually have something to say, and if they don’t, why are they writing?

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One Response to “Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads in Them”

  1. chrisamies 12/06/2015 at 3:39 pm #

    Yes, I had remembered the quote the other way about – imaginary toads in real gardens – the idea being that you make things up but ground them in the real world.

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