I’m not exactly firing on all cylinders lately, but I was thinking about this topic and then started writing it down, as I normally do, to sort out what I think about it, and decided I’d just blog it.
It bothers me when anything is referred to as a negative of something else, such as nonfiction is NOT fiction. Its only identity is about what it is NOT. Like Man and non-man. Like white and non-white. Like yellow and non-yellow. I find it so pejorative, with this word in particular, and I wish there was another way to say “nonfiction” that was about what it IS, not what it is NOT.
Fiction is also referred to as literature or fictional prose, but it is a positive–it is fictional. Its not even non-nonfiction, perhaps only because that would be cumbersome. Never mind the flirtation with Evidence of Absence- evidence of any kind that suggests something is missing. And besides, you can’t prove a negative, and that also suggests that nonfiction isn’t even real, when fiction is the thing that’s invented, and nonfiction is the thing that’s TRUE.
But we can’t very well rearrange our bookshelves into two major categories, Fiction and Truth. Although that idea rather pleases me. I might very well be attracted to going a step further and rearranging those shelves into Truth and Lies.
After receiving a review about one of my books wherein the reviewer said that something could not have happened, I had to roll my eyes, and even pen a rebuttal, since the impossible thing actually DID happen. TO ME. I wrote about this type of fiction vs. nonfiction vs. truth paradox-cum-misnomer several other times such as in Stranger Fiction, Reviews & Truthiness where I said,
First, an opinion isn’t always a fact.
Second, you can’t please everyone.
And third, and most importantly, (and with the most paradoxical irony), this concept: I may have failed to do the best job on a book, if I didn’t make the fiction seem like truth, even if the truth seemed like fiction.
Truth is, as the quote goes, stranger than fiction, and thus, when it appears, it is perceived as lacking credibility, even though FICTION is, by definition, NOT TRUE. So there will always be readers who lament the lack of credibility in some aspect of fiction, when many times the depiction is accurate, it just doesn’t SEEM accurate. So therefore, we, as fiction writers have to be careful to be credible and realistic, while lying our collective asses off. Are you following this?
Author Sally Koslow echoed my angst in a New York Times article:
A novel, on the other hand, must be true primarily on a gut level. Facts can become an impediment. In my case, the editor of my first book shared that she liked everything about its story line except that the protagonist, the editor of a women’s magazine, was a Jewish girl from North Dakota. “No reader will buy this!” As I assured her that this detail was ripped from my résumé, I learned that even in fiction — especially in fiction — you have to persuade readers that the truth is real. (link)
Writers understand this type of esoterica, at least the ones who are paying attention. Mark Twain said, “The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to be believable.” He also said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
Stephen King wrote, “Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.”
Tom Wolfe, in Advice to Writers, wrote, “The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.”
In The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, we find, “Fiction that adds up, that suggests a ‘logical consistency,’ or an explanation of some kind, is surely second-rate fiction; for the truth of life is its mystery.”
According to Anthony Ashley Cooper, “Truth is the most powerful thing in the world, since even fiction itself must be governed by it, and can only please by its resemblance.”
Recently, the genre of creative nonfiction has muddied up the subject a bit more, such as memoirs that are mostly truth, but have been embellished in some fiction-styled way, perhaps for its value in keeping the reader interested, or to adjust pacing or clarity. I’m aware of this, personally, as my first memoir was almost completely a publishing of journal entries, and while it was true, it suffered from a lack of universality in places, and perhaps the story I wanted to tell lacked the pacing that would maintain reader interest. I suspect that it is of little interest to most people. I am working on a new memoir, (Which I hope will be of interest to lots of people) and hopefully have managed to avoid those mistakes, but I do employ some other devices that are decidedly fictional this time. Even though it is also taken from journal entries. It’s still true, and I haven’t made anything up, per se. Only when it was impossible to get the facts down verbatim, such as with dialogue.
The fact is, anything that relies on memory–even the memory span it takes from the time of a conversation and sitting down and retelling it word for word a few minutes later–will always only capture the essence (if the writer is being honest) but can never be viewed as a factual, verbatim report of the conversation. This is where the reader must be able to trust the writer in her integrity to relay dialogue as accurately as possible, and to create bits of it only in order to capture the appropriate impression of the people involved, the events as they unfolded, and the gist of what needs to be shared to tell that story successfully.
In reference to writing nonfiction, and the differences between it and fiction, it was succinctly explained by Salmon Rushdie, in an interview at Emory University
“The bit that’s not like writing a novel is…it seems to me when you write a novel, you have to answer a number of important questions….you have to answer a WHAT question: What story am I telling? Then you have to answer a WHO question: Whose story is it? Then you have to answer a WHY question: Why am I telling the story? What is the point of telling the story? And then finally you have to answer a HOW question, which is How do I tell the story? And the how question is the biggest…the most important question of all. When you’re writing a memoir or an autobiography, you only have the HOW question. You already know what the story is and whose story it is, and why you’re telling it. Or you do, if you’re any good, you know, when you do. The question that remains is the question of HOW…put it like this, it’s a little easier…
You’ve already taken the precaution of leading the life…”
Fiction isn’t exclusively about escapism and fantasy anymore that nonfiction is solely about dry facts or academia. They both play their role in educating us, in making us search for answers, examine our lives, our motivations, and all the other big questions that vex humankind.
This implies, to me, that nonfiction shares an equal value with fiction, and for many of the same reasons. Why, then, is it relegated to an identity that only acknowledges what it is not? For me, the question remains, niggling and precocious, “What, if anything, is there to be done about the moniker, nonfiction?”