Fiction v. nonfiction: what you said

Several readers responded to my call for thoughts on the popular notion that nonfiction is ascendant and literary fiction is on the way out. Excerpts are below. I’m still in the throes of a nasty cold, so please pardon (or applaud, as the case may be) the absence of my own thoughts.

Jess Row writes:

To me this argument–that nonfiction has appropriated fictional technique to tell more compelling, because true, stories–is just nonsense. The “nonfiction novel” has existed for forty years, more or less (I’m thinking of In Cold Blood as the first notable example) and has produced only a few books with real staying power. The best nonfiction, in my opinion, does things that fiction can’t do–for example, make a cohesive abstract argument. That isn’t to say that narrative nonfiction isn’t wonderful when it works very well, but even when it does, it’s very seldom–this sounds very very snobby, I’m sorry–great literature.

I think that Birkerts is on to something when he says that this supposed turn towards nonfiction has something to do with a fear of the imagination, although I’m reluctant to say this is more true now than it ever has been. Fiction-makers have always been a misunderstood lot, treated with suspicion–probably for good reason. We have the power to take the raw material of daily life and shape it into something that, when done well, gives the reader both a sting of recognition and a feeling of something transformed, unsettled, made new. Reading fiction is, I think, for most people more emotionally rewarding but also more exhausting than reading nonfiction, because good fiction in a way requires us to rise to the occasion, to the transformation. To my mind that’s what distinguishes it–and again to use the loaded word–as an art form.

From Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club:

To me, the important thing to recognize is not that nonfiction is borrowing fiction techniques to empower itself, but that the line between nonfiction and fiction is being blurred if not eradicated (or, the line itself has always been blurred if not nonexistent). The category names themselves are troubling (true, I tend to dislike all categories used either in bookstores or in the publishing business). Nonfiction is like “not guilty” in our legal system — not guilty doesn’t mean innocent, and nonfiction doesn’t mean true. Trends in narrative nonfiction, so called, have eliminated or obscured sourcing for the sake of “flow” and “storytelling.” It’s not that I object to this necessarily. But shouldn’t we recognize this changes the format? that this integrates guesses and choices between competing narratives without qualifying them as such? I thought the use of the “character” in the Reagan biography a few years ago was refreshing — I say, all biographers put themselves “in” their writing, and that was an honest dramatization. The outrage over it makes me think we don’t really have a good grasp on the current boundaries of nonfiction.

Steve Himmer says:

It seems to me that what fiction offers and nonfiction doesn’t has to do with the difference between information and stories. The claim I often hear is that the daily “real” world has become so strange that the unbelievability of fact has outstripped the believability of fiction. Reading the newspaper requires an ever-greater suspension of disbelief. Nonfiction requires us to believe in the world we live in, that it is capable of offering up new shocks and surprises. Fiction offers the opposite: the potential to look at worlds other than our own in order to make sense of what we experience in our actual lives. Even the most surprising nonfiction needs to be built of recognizable, believable elements–the shock is of the familiar. Fiction–Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, for instance–offers the unfamiliar. As his imagined Glasgow/Unthank mutates into a city we can no longer recognize, we lose the ability to compare what he’s presenting with the “real” world we know, and have no choice but to enter the realm of the imaginary. Nonfiction, to my mind, can’t do that–if nonfiction leaves behind what we can believe to be real, it fails at showing the surprises of our actual lives. When we insist on comparing shocking events to what we know is really possible, I think we limit our imaginations as to what can be envisioned without a care toward implementation. And that, I think, is the best thing about fiction.

Nic Musolino responded at length. Any excerpt will fail to capture all of his points, but here goes:

…. fiction isn’t that old. Not in novel form. So the ‘death of fiction’ might simply be a change of state. I fancy myself a cultural Luddite, and there is enough extant to keep me busy until my number is up (hell, I could spend the rest of my days simply reading and rereading Faulker), so the cries of ‘the death of the novel’ are woefully overstated. It has always been a cultural product geared towards mass consumption (and I know every publishing house is oh, right, on the verge of implosion! but Stephen King seems to be doing just fine to me) and the notion of the artful/highbrow novel has a really short timeline, especially when you hold it up again Euripides. Film may well be the new novel. Give it a thousand years.

The process through which way we (socially) elevated the “highbrow” novel is in
shambles…. the MLA mafia is dying just like the real one, and there is nothing to replace it but literary agents and the army of junior publicists that can’t write their way out of a paper bag and who measure their worth in celebrity sightings and party attendance (and really, except for the talent part — and even that’s questionable — isn’t that dissimilar from whatever Golden Era of the Novel one wants to harken back to).

With the long-term viability of lit programs in doubt, how do we find and value
the good, enough that a measurable quantity of readers will feel compelled to
buy and consume novels but not exercise enough critical judgement to form their
own opinion (in the end, even the Canon was sales driven)? Here in the 21st
century, we are able to watch the arbitrary elevation of taste makers in all
their gross glory (that adjective depending on how you feel about, say, Simon
Cowell or Dave Eggers; NB: I happen to think Eggers is better for publishing
than Andrew Wylie any day), instead of it happening in the back rooms of MFA
programs or cocktail parties. And so it creates frustration and confusion for
the nattering classes, and the mediocre, who are busy trying to figure out whose ass they have to kiss to get something published….

Erik offers these thoughts:

(a) The journalists writing articles making these claims, by and large, write nonfiction on a daily basis (never discount the self-interest of the press, or you will be forced to read more stories about the relatively unimportant–but bad, sure–exploits of Jayson blair and that Glass kid) and it makes them feel good to be one of the popular kids for once. Plus, these stories are really easy to write.

(b) Books seem to be increasingly marketed at niche audiences–be it chick lit, gossip lit or whatever–and there is a market for true stories… As well, it’s hard to find a really good piece of fiction that sounds like it could be an across the board demographic hit. The ones that are, The Lovely Bones, say, are kind of inexplicably popular in a way that probably drives marketing people crazy. And good for that. When in doubt, I blame the marketing dept.

(c) There’s been some fine popular nonfiction in the last few years: Seabiscuit, Black Hawk Down, The Botany of Desire are all pretty wonderful and easy for anyone to get into…but does that mean that fans of these books only read nonfiction or read that much at all? ….

(d) And hey, isn’t this just the same thing as a few years ago when memoirs were the new fiction and everyone feared we were going to be forcefed Kathryn Harrison tomes until we vomited?


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