Benjamin Markovits on the Alchemy of Fiction

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EVENT: Benjamin Markovits, Anakana Schofield and Joanna Kavenna will be in conversation with Theo Tait on Wednesday 31 August, to celebrate the publication of Alchemy (Notting Hill Editions). Book tickets here.

Iain Sinclair's introduction talks about 'how molecular reactions fizz between [the essays in Alchemy] to stitch a single hydra-headed, argumentative entity'. What role does dialogue and conversation - with yourself, with other writers - play in the writing process (either for this essay, or more generally)?

If you show someone something you have made, whether you're a kid or a writer, they'll say, That's nice. Nobody gives honest reactions - and there's no particular reason to trust honesty anyway. People have different tastes. It's much easier to talk about other people's books, and that plays a big role in forming taste. At least, it did for me - my sense of what's good and bad. I've got strangely specific childhood memories of people telling me that they liked a particular line or poem or story . . . (For example, my brother once picked out 'The light that loses, the night that wins' from Atalanta in Calydon.) Somehow these remarks stick, and I would try to work out why they liked them, and if I agreed.

'When one is actively involved in a work it acts like a magnet to metal filings – all sorts of surprising things suddenly enter its orbit,' Gabriel Josipovici writes. What was the most surprising thing to enter the orbit of your essays?

I remembered dragging my mattress down four flights of stairs the night before graduation, and up to somebody else's room -- for a sleepover. Lying there with all these people I'd hardly see for the next twenty years. After a while, after a certain amount of time has passed, it's funny to think that these things actually happened.

'When we start writing fiction there’s this gap we have to bridge between the uneventfulness of our experience and the drama that we think is supposed to take place on the page' (Benjamin Markovits). If one of the reasons that readers read is to find themselves reflected back, why is it that the 'quiet' novel is such a hard sell? Why do we put such a high value on drama and conflict?

Partly it's just what we're used to. On TV and in books, we're used to a certain level of drama. But I also think that for many people that's what they want from this kind of entertainment - to be caught up in a story that seems more dramatic than their own. And why not - you already live your own life, you don't need to read about it, too.

Anakana Schofield's essay engages (amongst many other things) with the question of 'the chronic conflation of fiction & life', something that's been a hot topic in recent years, with Karl Ove Knausgaard widely feted for his own conflations, but (mostly female, mostly online) essayists vilified for 'confessional journalism'. Do you think we've gone too far in our hunger for the autobiographical? As a literary audience, have we lost our basic respect for the majesty of making stuff up?

I like confessions, if they feel convincing, like they cost something. It's the sense of the cost that is hard to convey or reproduce. But you're right, there's also pleasure in the other thing, the fictional world with its own rules, which you have to figure out as you read along.

For more on Alchemy, read our Q&As with Anakana Schofield and Joanna Kavenna.

Book tickets online for Alchemy: Joanna Kavenna, Benjamin Markovits, Anakana Schofield with Theo Tait on Wednesday 31 August.