Writing Fiction as a Sociologist: an Interview with Ann Oakley

Image: Cliff Johnson

Saturday 13th January, 2018

Ann Oakley

When did you begin writing fiction?

I have always written fiction, beginning as a small child. I wrote little stories and poems as soon as I could write. Small children, of course, don't understand the difference between writing fiction and writing nonfiction, which makes their narratives particularly charming. As a teenager I published a few short stories and poems. I always wanted to be a writer; I didn't define what sort of writer, but I think all the early ambitions were about writing novels. I didn't do a literature degree at university because various people said that people who wanted to write should study something else. After university this story is told in my book Taking it Like a Woman. I wrote a couple of novels but couldn't get them published, so I decided to do sociology/social research for a few years instead.

How does your approach to writing fiction differ from your approach to non-fiction?

During the course of these few years (now more than 50) I have come to understand a great deal more about this abiding dichotomy: fact v fiction. Essentially, all we have in the way of knowledge is stories created by different people and different kinds of people, based on their observation, understanding and analysis of being in the world. This isn't to say that some sorts of stories aren't created more equal than others: accounts of the world offered by physical scientists, for example, adhere to certain principles about structures of knowledge which are missing from other accounts. But even novelists, arch story-makers, must consider the principle of authenticity in what they write. If a story doesn't have the ring of authenticity, it won't get much of a readership.

I could say that the main difference for me between writing fiction and nonfiction is that the former doesn't have footnotes. Having just finished a nonfiction book with 1,081 of them, it is easy to say that fiction-writing can be an immense relief. But I have been interested to discover that writing fiction doesn't offer the complete freedom of the imagination that one would suppose. The characters that are created have a tendency to lead independent lives, and to dictate to their authors what they say and do and what can happen in a novel. For example, I spent a long time in my novel The Men's Room trying to get the main male character to leave his wife, but he simply wouldn't do it until it was the right time for him.

My fiction and my nonfiction do, however, share some of the same themes: notably issues to do with the social construction of gender, other forms of inequality, power and the sociology of everyday life. There are places in my fiction, especially the novel I wrote about universities, Overheads, which contain quotations from real academic documents: minutes of meetings, transcripts of research interviews and so forth. These had struck me as stranger than fiction when I first read them, and they were certainly strange enough to be fitted into a fictional format. In terms of getting messages across, fiction is perhaps a more persuasive vehicle. But this may be partly because academics have been notoriously bad at considering how and where their work should have most impact. Some of the most-quoted sociological texts, for example books by the Institute of Community Studies in Bethnal Green, are actually composed of stories created out of social research data.

I write nonfiction directly onto a PC, but fiction demands a notebook and a pen and a view out of a window. I don't understand why. It does have something to do with the inability, with a pen and paper, to constantly go back and rewrite, which one does all the time on a PC, and which impedes the flow of the imagination. Is the sociological imagination then something a bit different from the creative imagination?

Has your fictional work improved your non-fiction and/or vice versa?

A writer's craft must always be enhanced by practice, and I think that trying different genres helps this process. In writing fiction, one must always think about readers' reactions: is one conveying the picture/character/plot clearly, credibly and memorably enough? The writing of academic nonfiction all too often pays too little attention to reader response. That's one reason why some academic output is unreadable. On the other side, the qualities of 'the sociological imagination' demanded and developed in good academic work provide a context/perspective to be drawn on in fictional writing, especially when it comes to understanding how people are shaped by their social environments.

Is fiction a resource for sociological research?

Definitely. Consider writers such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen: without their descriptions of the manners and mores of their times, our knowledge of social history would be impoverished. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was a tradition among women social researchers particularly to write fiction as well as sociology. Their fiction explores the same themes they pursued in their social research, but in more depth, and its personalization of social experiences adds to impact. I'm thinking here of writers such as Clementina Black, Margaret Harkness, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Harkness was/is known for her 'quasi-documentary' novels.

Our current firm distinction between factual and fictional texts evolved over time; in the late nineteenth century it was more fluid. And writers had more freedom to produce both without being criticized!

What advice would you offer for sociologists who are interested in writing fiction?

I would say:

  1. Don't assume that because you can write sociology you can write fiction. It's a craft that has to be learnt. You might even find a creative writing class would help. I did do one, back in the 1960s!
  2. Be clear why you want to write fiction. You are unlikely to make any money or win any prizes. If you just want to see if you can do it, you don't have to publish it. I am not trying to be negative. There's only one good reason for as a sociologist turning to fiction: you just have to do it - it's a necessary way of making the connections between the public and the private that sociology and fiction are all about.

Ann Oakley is a writer and a sociologist. She has written both novels and many non-fiction books. Most of her life has been spent working in university research. She is best known for her work on sex and gender, housework, childbirth and feminist social science.

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