A river of facts, stronger than at any other time in this century, courses through serious fiction in the 1990s. A few decades ago, detailed descriptions of reality were considered suitable mainly in books aimed directly at the bestseller list.
It was okay for Arthur Hailey to take a course in hotel management in the 1960s so that he could stuff Hotel with the lore of the trade, but authors seeking literary reputations avoided excessive detail. Consciously or not, they endorsed Virginia Woolf's reluctance to let the actuality of life and work intrude on a character's consciousness. She admitted to "distrusting reality -- its cheapness."
But today it's commonplace for serious novelists to use carefully researched data. They write what we might call faction, and write more of it all the time. Robertson Davies was a pioneer faction writer: His novels always taught us about something, like Jungian psychoanalysis (The Manticore) or stage magic (World of Wonders). The 1970s called him old-fashioned, but Davies was ahead of his time.
In the last 20 years, serious novelists have also developed a tendency to borrow characters and events explicitly from real life. Schindler's Ark, a novel but also a mainly factual account of Oskar Schindler's life, won the Booker Prize for Thomas Keneally. Michael Ondaatje, in The English Patient, reimagined the life of a real Hungarian adventurer. Recently John Banville, in The Untouchable, built his story on actual British traitors and gave one of them, Anthony Blunt, the real childhood of a famous poet (and non-spy), Louis MacNiece. Margaret Atwood wrapped Alias Grace around an Ontario murder of the 1840s.
Novelists in this mode like to deliver, as Davies did, meticulously assembled facts. The last words of Dutch Schultz in E. L. Doctorow's Billy Bathgate are precisely what a police stenographer wrote down when that gangster lay dying. Last year, in American Pastoral, Philip Roth moved toward faction with an intimate description of his hero's business, glove-making.
Don DeLillo's Underworld is perhaps the most striking recent work of faction. He begins with Bobby Thomson's pennant-winning home run for the New York Giants in 1951, an event so remarkable that many people remember where they were when it happened; he combines that with the announcement, the same day, that the Soviets had exploded another atomic bomb. This allows DeLillo to depict the game as the end of something, a bright moment soon eclipsed by the Cold War. After describing the game and those who were there (including Frank Sinatra and J. Edgar Hoover), DeLillo keeps going for 800 more data-filled pages. His central character is a waste-management executive, so DeLillo pours on the information about garbage, much of it heavily symbolic.
A resourceful writer, he draws energy from reality and pumps it into his narrative. We keep encountering famous events (Truman Capote's Black and White Ball) or historical figures (Lenny Bruce). This method of borrowing "an aura from pre-existing reality," in DeLillo's phrase, enriches the book's texture. But faction also presents a major difficulty: Can DeLillo make his invented characters as powerful as those he imports from the real world? Sometimes, he can't.
There are those who find faction illegitimate. Maggie Gee in the Times Literary Supplement, for instance, admired The Untouchable but nevertheless accused Banville of "fictional asset-stripping of real life." In a later piece she asked, "Why are so many novels . . . leaning heavily on actual events for their authority?"
It may indicate the desperation of writers pushed to the cultural margins, but I prefer to see it as a return to the novel's roots. Certainly that's what Mary McCarthy would say. She missed these developments (she died in 1989), but nearly 40 years ago she wrote: "The passion for fact in a raw state is a peculiarity of the novelist." Moral force in the novel is powerful, and so is the majesty of individual human character, but many readers retain, above all, some absorbing aspect of reality that the novelist has chosen to convey to them -- the material on tuberculosis in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, the chapter on papermaking in Balzac's novel on publishing, Lost Illusions, or the sense of Dublin's city plan in Ulysses . My favourite is that never-excelled account of warfare in Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma, where we see the Battle of Waterloo through the confusion of a private soldier. At the end, he doesn't know which side won.
These realistic and highly specific elements, now newly re-emphasized, were for a long time central to everyone's idea of the novel. As Mary McCarthy pointed out, "You can learn how to make strawberry jam from Anna Karenina