What fiction is that nonfiction isn’t

Rebecca Caldwell believes nonfiction is “finally triumphing over its traditionally sexier cousin, fiction.” That’s her spin on the results of Ontario’s Trillium Book Awards, anyway.

The idea that nonfiction is ascendant (and fiction outmoded) is popular now. In March, Sam Tanenhaus, the new editor of the New York Times Book Review, argued:

We’re living in really an exemplary age of nonfiction narrative, and to some extent nonfiction has taken over some of the earlier attributes of the novel, which is story-telling,” he said. “Nonfiction writers have inherited the classic technique of fiction. That’s what I tried to do in my biography, I tried to write it as if it were a novel.”

Okay, so nonfiction writers have borrowed techniques from modern novelists. And there’s some good creative nonfiction being written these days. There’s also plenty of crap. Perhaps more importantly, truth — even near-truth — limits possibilities. As Sven Birkets argued in AGNI last month, a turn from fiction toward nonfiction means further narrowing of the public imagination:

I’m talking about the profound and consequential turn away from imagination–the repudiation of what is, in the sphere of the arts (and, by extension, the sphere of private soul-making), the very life-force. By Imagination–let me dignify it with a capital letter–I don’t mean the twists and turns of cleverness that pass muster in the entertainment world, and that are really exercises of “fancy” in the Coleridgean sense: easy and essentially passive reflex responses that require no deeper engagement with the world. No, Imagination–artistic Imagination–is of its very nature an act of independent volition, the initiative of an individual. It is private, not public. It repudiates political coercion. And it is not to be assimilated to networks, mass systems, or demographic pie charts. Without it there is no art.

Imagination seems to me to be in short supply these days. All but nonexistent in the social and political order, it appears to be ebbing from the cultural realm as well. Contemporary literatur–fiction and poetry–is sadly impoverished. There are books aplenty, but very few of what Harold Bloom would call “strong” works. A strong artist, in this conception, is the one who seeks to shoulder aside, to defeat his predecessor in what can be seen as a male-inflected Oedipal contest between generations. If the conceit has any merit at all, then one can work it through to conclusion: that the fathers have cowed the sons (and daughters), put down any stirrings of insurrection.

I keep wanting to write a long post about all of this, noting the smart remarks of a few other bloggers and tying in the seemingly related trend of novels based on the lives of dead authors or on characters from canonized works. But I’ve got that manuscript due next week, work is crazy, and I’m coming down with a cold, so my brain is weary and my eyes are bleary and my glasses are smeary.

Anyway. Why don’t you guys send in your thoughts? I’ll post some.

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