Friday, January 25, 2008

The Truth about Non-Fiction

Maybe I’m just an over-sensitive “ink-stained wretch” whose writing usually appears in such ephemeral fish wrap as magazines and newspapers. Or maybe my paranoia has been inflamed now that my own first book of non-fiction will be launched, in less than three months, like a clay pigeon into the gunsights of reviewers. Whatever the case, I’ve noticed every other week or so yet another literary commentator—usually a novelist I’ve never heard of before (there are so many!), most often in the Globe and Mail—making the case for the artistic superiority of fiction over non-fiction.

The latest drive-by shooting comes courtesy of a review of People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks’ latest novel, which tells a fictional history of a historical object, the Sarajevo Haggadah (a bit, I imagine, like Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes or the film The Red Violin). In last weekend’s Globe books section, the reviewer opined in her opening paragraph:
The craze for memoirs and reality shows suggests a contemporary addiction to what really happened—the private made public before our very eyes—and, perhaps, a failure of the imagination. Wrestling with truth in all of its contradictions and complexities demands active imagining, even the creation and transformation of a world: the province of a novelist. Novel, after all, means new.
Let’s leave aside the various logical fallacies in the paragraph’s central syllogism: Truth = new. Novel = “new”. Ergo, novel = truth.

And let’s try to ignore the loaded language with which the author stacks the emotional odds in favour of her preferred genre. Non-fiction = craze, addiction, failure. Fiction = complexities, active imagining, creation and transformation.

And don’t even tempt me to point out that yoking literary memoirs with reality-TV is a stroke as broad as suggesting Alice Munro shares the same creative stage as the writers of, say, Two and a Half Men.

Instead, ask yourselves: why are so many novelists hyperventilating of late about the failings of non-fiction? Of course, they can’t make the case on purely aesthetic grounds, given the range of literary talent among memoirists, biographers, travel writers and other creative non-fiction authors—and the fact that so many of their colleagues seem to be genre-swapping switch-hitters these days. Nor can they appeal to the tastes of readers, who—as any agent, publisher, or bookstore owner will tell you—are increasingly gravitating toward the “literature of fact”.

Instead, critics of non-fiction retreat to that last bastion of fundamentalist illogic—the appeal to “Truth”. And they don’t mean the messy realm of small-T “truths”—what journalists otherwise know as “getting your facts right.” No, they mean big-T subjective Truth, emotional Truth, psychological Truth…which all sounds suspiciously like what Stephen Colbert famously dubbed “truthiness”.

Of course, what fiction really provides is not truth but verisimilitude—the feel of truth. The power of a novelist is the sleight of hand to convince you that characters and situations with little reality beyond black ink on dead trees are alive enough in your mind to care about for the next 300 pages. That's no mean feat.

To insist, however, that fiction by its essential nature provides the clearest window into a person’s soul or into a moral situation is bunkum. Few novels in the past few years have offered up anti-heroes as complex, as contradictory and as tragically fascinating as logger-turned-eco-crusader Grant Hadwin in John Vaillant’s masterful The Golden Spruce or the anguished teenage murder-accomplice Warren Glowatski in Rebecca Godfrey’s meticulously researched Under the Bridge. And knowing that both these individuals once walked among us only deepens the effect of reading these books.

That’s why I get annoyed when reviewers of creative non-fiction seem to wish they were reading a novel instead. Take, for instance, the otherwise positive notice (again in Globe Books, again by a novelist) for Heather Robertson’s recent biography of Joseph Tyrrell, Measuring Mother Earth, which concludes:
Heather Robertson has done a commendable amount of research and produced a significant contribution to our knowledge of an important Canadian figure. It has also resulted in a quotation-heavy book that might discourage the casual reader. Robertson attempts to overcome this difficulty by enlivening the narrative with occasional short imaginings. Unfortunately, these jar with their sudden leaps into the present tense, yet they might point a way through the tangled web that this self-interested man wove around himself. Perhaps one day, Joe Tyrrell will live again -- in a novel.

In the end, I think there’s a bit of special pleading at work here. The novel had a pretty good run as the top gun of western literary culture – give it a 100 years, from 1850 to 1950, what Ursula K. Le Guin has called "the century of the book”. But fiction writers have (reluctantly) had to learn to share the love with screenwriters and movie-makers, as cinema has come to overshadow fiction in the popular consciousness. Even television, that longtime whipping boy of literary taste-makers, can boast collective creations (such as Six Feet Under and The Wire) as narratively complex, as richly characterized and as thematically dense as any novel.

Now it seems that fiction writers have drawn a line in the sand and are reluctant to grant the same pride of place to a genre so similar to their own (like a novel, but without the made-up bits). And it’s not just fiction writers. As Le Guin noted in her recent Harper’s essay, the latest NEA report that lamented the decline of book reading in America didn’t actually count non-fiction as “literature”.

Isn’t it time to see past this prejudice? To judge a book not by the genre advertised on its cover (eg, “A Novel” or “A True Story”) but by the depth of its content and the quality of its prose? To understand that “truth” can arrive in many different forms?

I certainly hope so… at least before my own book is thrown to the literary lions.


a.paper.aaron said...

Great read. I think part of the novelist's anxiety about CNF stems from our modern tradition (especially in CanLit) of militant realism. We seldom accept, unless its imported from South America or Britain (or from the pen of big-name authors), magic realism or satire. Instead, we celebrate novels that give us historical accuracy, "gritty" portrayals of urban or rural life, and almost clinical psychological assessments of marriage and familial relationships. "It's all about place," we tell ourselves, and timidly stick to the well-trodden path. The only difference between fiction and non-fiction? Non-fiction tends to have more action.

Don't get me wrong, my true love lies with the novel, but if there's been a "failure of imagination," I think it lies in the realm of modern fiction. A novel, especially these days, is seldom "new," despite what the Globe's reviewer says.

The modern novel(or short story collection) suffers from not taking advantage of its own medium, using its world of total possibility (unlike CNF's necessary adherence to the facts) to convey the "Truth." Imagine a cartoon show -- like the Simpsons or South Park -- where the animated characters had the same physical limitations as flesh-and-blood actors: what would be the point? Imagine only getting to kill Kenny once.

I'm not arguing for literary fiction to swing into the realms of fantasy or sci-fi in order to save itself. But a little more imagination in terms of form and plot, a little more play into the realms of satire and dream, might revitalize the novel and help avoid the desperate territorial pissings we find in the Globe every weekend.

David L. said...

Thanks! Yeah, I completely agree about your opinions about the state of CanLit, but didn't add them to my blog because 1) I didn't want to start a Sharks vs. Jets / Crips vs. Bloods / Habs vs. Buds street war between novelists and non-fiction writers (okay, maybe I did) and 2) because my twenty-something reading ratio of 90:10 fiction:non-fiction has completely flip-flopped in my thirty-large years, so I could barely fake it as even a blogging expert on fiction.

Still, my fiction pet peeves remain 1) what you describe aptly as the "almost clinical psychological assessments of marriage and familial relationships" and what I like to call the Bourgeois Angst Novel, and 2) even worse, the proliferation of pseudo-historical literary novels, what The Toronto Star's former books columnist, Philip Marchard, lamented as a "narrative that looks back at the past, accompanied by a certain lyricism and a faint whiff of political correctness."