Bissell on the fictions of nonfiction

Tom Bissell, a great essayist whose fiction I haven’t warmed to, embraces Lawrence Weschler’s proposition that “there are two kinds of nonfiction writers: Those who basically accept the idea that some type of fictionalizing almost always occurs in narrative nonfiction and those who cannot accept this idea.”

Bissell locates himself in the first camp (although he believes Frey’s approach “is clearly beyond the pale”).

I despair, sometimes, to visit writers’ gatherings such as Bennington or Bread Loaf and see prose writers parceled off into fiction and nonfiction like passengers going to coach and business class. I very nearly punched in the mouth one young writer who told me, at Bread Loaf last summer, that he automatically assumed most practitioners of nonfiction were bad writers. (That said, a lot of well-regarded nonfiction writers move across the page with sprained ankles, and one quietly grieves whenever they try to get “literary.” Fancier New York Times writers do this sort of thing all the time; describing the surf in Mexico or a peasant in Zimbabwe, they come literarily apart. It is never pretty. Or maybe the problem is that it is always pretty.) And I recently wanted to strangle a fiction-writing friend of mine, tapped to write an essay for an anthology, who kept calling me to ask how to write nonfiction. “Tell a story!” I kept telling her. “But it’s nonfiction!” she replied. My wish is that more fiction writers would write nonfiction and vice versa.

(Thanks, Lauren. And thanks to Jenny Davidson for politely pointing out that I mixed up my camp numbers. For a different take on Bissell’s fiction, see this and this. And WNYC has an excerpt from his short story collection.)


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