Congratulations to Helen Macdonald on winning the Costa £30,000 prize (previously known as the Whitbread Prize) for her acclaimed creative non-fiction H is for Hawk. I haven’t yet read it myself: my daughter asked for it for Christmas and I fully intend to steal it from her when we are next on holiday together.
It really is encouraging that the previously little-known little-understood genre of creative non-fiction is at last making its mark. Historical fiction, defined as novels with historical settings and involving historical characters but with invented episodes and dialogue, has been with us for centuries, from James Fenimore Cooper to Hilary Mantel via Thomas Kenneally. Creative non-fiction is something different. It is strictly non-fiction, so must be absolutely accurate, but it is presented in such a way that it could be mistaken for a novel.
One of the best recent examples of this is from my favourite living author, Julian Barnes (sad to find myself writing that, now that Gabo is dead). His Levels of Life, the most poignant discourse on grief I have yet read, completely fooled me: I bought it immediately it was published in 2013 sight-unseen, and just presumed it was fiction like most of his other work. Not until two-thirds of the way through the book did I realise it was non-fiction, a eulogy to his dead wife; nor understand the point of the first two thirds’ descriptions of ballooning pioneers. When I did, it just completely knocked me back.
Creative non-fiction is a very powerful genre and one I hope people will increasingly seek out and enjoy. Of course, the fact that the next book I will publish is creative non-fiction has nothing whatsoever to do with my delight that H is for Hawk has won a prestigious prize and raised the profile of this most exciting genre to work in. Oh, no: not at all. Come on: you don’t think I’m that blatant do you? Oh, alright then …