George Orwell said: ‘In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.’ It is a quote apt for our times on several fronts. Of course, the one place to which we can escape where truth and lies are irrelevant is the world of fiction.
I suspect if we mined into our motives for reading fiction this would be in the bedrock. We want to enter a world where the huff and puff of life is left behind, where we can give ourselves over to a journey that is free of life’s rules. Reading novels is the pinnacle of escapism.
But even this world is becoming increasingly blurred with the growing number of books in the ‘stories based on real life’ genre. It is the grey country between fiction and non-fiction. The ‘based on a true story’ flag of these books suddenly drags the truth-untruth question into the arena. We are left not knowing which are the ‘true bits’ on which the books are based. It is not really escapism if it has a hook in real life.
Historical fiction raises a raft of different questions for the reader. I read the Conn Iggulden five-book Genghis Khan series starting with The Wolf of the Plains. Consequently, I became absolutely fascinated with that era. I found myself lost in the stories as I would be in fiction. They were simply riveting.
But as I emerged it raised questions about where he had drawn the line between truth and fiction. I really wanted to learn about this period of history. Like most, I suspect, I knew little of Genghis Khan beyond the ‘headlines.’ He led the Mongolian hordes in brutally sweeping aside everything in their path.
Of course, like all headlines, it tells you nothing of the real story. After searching around, I settled for John Man’s book, The Mongol Empire and suddenly history opened a story that was as riveting as any fiction.
Among many other attributes, I learned that Genghis was a master tactician, and to such an extent that some of his tactics in the 13th century were used by generals in World War II!
When the Mongolians conquered communities, he ordered his leaders to learn the local skills from the people there – everything from silversmithing to reading and writing. He allowed them to keep their religions. He created a means of communication over the vast distances they covered from Europe to the Far East that would ultimately lead to the emails we use today. And he and his heirs were pivotal to the founding of modern China. Sometimes brutal, he was also a great visionary.
On Twitter recently Devon Book Club (@DevonBook) kicked off an interesting discussion asking followers what non-fiction books they had been reading. The responses were wide and varied. Non-fiction is alive and kicking. And as an aside, there is a Devon Book Club discussion hour on Monday nights #devonbookhour at 8pm. Recent discussion was obviously spinning round horror novels!
The fact is that non-fiction can open worlds in which we can get lost as easily as we do in fiction. And sometimes that opens a thread that leads you along paths you never imagined walking.
Born in North Wales, poet & writer Paul Mortimer has lived in Tiverton for 13 years. His first poetry collection, Fault Line, was published by Lapwing in 2015, followed by Wind Voices from the same publishing house in 2019. He has appeared at several literary festivals and headlined at a number of poetry events in recent years.