Over the years I’ve had more than one person announce “I don’t read fiction” upon hearing that I’m a writer of stories and novels. When asked why, these people told me that it was because fiction is not true. These same people, when asked whether they went to the movies or just took in the latest “very serious” documentary on war or obesity or the disappearing naked tribes of the Amazon (who are very lean, by the way), replied that of course they went to the movies. Perhaps they even identified with a character, shed a tear, or decided to leave their families and find themselves in Alaska or the Andes or Timbuktu. Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law convinced me that life could not go on if I didn’t take a swamp boat through Louisiana’s Bayou. Perhaps a guide to alligator hunting would have had the same result, or the latest spate of reality shows like Cajun Justice and Swamp People, but probably not.
When I teach creative writing, I dedicate one class to a discussion on the difference between fiction and non-fiction. The different expectations a reader has when approaching an autobiography vs a novel comes up, and inevitably we end up talking about A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, who was publicly spanked by Oprah for giving into the impulse to make his memoir more exciting by fudging the facts a bit. No one batted an eye when Truman Capote embellished In Cold Blood in what he called his “non-fiction novel,” but those were other times, and I guess he didn’t embarrass the queen of daytime t.v. It was when his fiction read too much like non-fiction that the ladies who lunch hung him out to dry. Uncomfortable bedfellows, fiction and non-fiction, although they have much in common.
Anything you read includes certain things and excludes others. All writers have a point of view and a story they want to get across. I once gave a talk at a college where my first book was being studied, and a young woman raised her hand and asked me why I was so unfair to Greeks in one story, why I didn’t also talk about all the good things about them. I replied that I was a writer of fiction, not a sociologist, and thus was not responsible for a fair portrayal, but for telling the story I needed to tell completely. (I take this opportunity to share my favorite Marguerite Yourcenar quote: “Everything that any one of us can do to help or hinder his fellow-man has been done, at least once, by a Greek.”)
When I teach essay-writing and rhetoric, I also point out that although it gives you credibility to tip your hat towards your opposition, your argument should focus on the points that will persuade your reader of your superiority. So it is with most works of non-fiction. You don’t get the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but a slice of it. In that sense, fiction can actually give you a more expansive view of a world, a time, or the dynamics between people, between past and present. Unlike history, it is not necessarily written by the victors.
That said, I’ve been wanting to cross over from literary fiction into non-fiction for a while now. This is not simply because non-fiction writers seem to get large advances even before the whole damn book is written: we are living through troubled times where literal truth is valued more than figurative truth, and people need information that will help them make sense of things. I must confess that many of my favorite books in recent years have been works of non-fiction: travel writing, biographies, psychological studies and spiritual explorations which have touched me as much as a good novel with their voice, their depth, their strangeness and their honesty. Also, some ideas lend themselves to fiction, others to poetry or drama, and others to essays or the newfangled name for Capote’s non-fiction novel: creative non-fiction. I’ve had a few ideas bouncing around in my head for a while that are clearly not meant to be novels or short stories. They need a more direct form, a more direct voice–my voice perhaps, whatever that may be.
Truth may indeed be stranger than fiction, or as I like to say, there is shit you can’t make up, but I am stopped by an ironic dilemma. I am actually more honest in my fiction than in my non-fiction. My voice is more genuinely my own, and I feel free to tell things like they are (or were), to share my most perverse and dastardly thoughts, to expose my very soul from behind fiction’s veil. You get more of me through my characters than you would ever get if I chose to write a memoir. I am far too private to hang out all my dirty laundry, and would really only be able to give you my side of the story, and a sanitized one at that. (Here I recall Lauren Bacall‘s autobiography, each chapter ending with this chirpy capper: “Oh, we had such fun!”) It is safer to speak through a narrator and through all my characters than as myself. I feel less implicated, less accountable.
I am speaking as myself here, but it is a compromised version because I am loath to confess my prejudices, weaknesses, fears and insecurities, and I am sticking to the subject, as much as I can anyway. I completely understand how James Frey blundered over the lines and got into so much trouble. He let his imagination go in order to create the essence of the experience of drug addiction for the reader, to produce a visceral feeling rather than simply providing information. The fallback position of some of my creative writing students, when they are told that their story is cliche or plodding or one-dimensional, is “but that’s how it happened.” So what? Frey’s book was touted for its honest portrayal of an addict’s life, for its ability to shed light on addiction and recovery. Maybe he should have called it a non-fiction novel, but it apparently helped a lot of people nonetheless.
How is that not the truth?