You may contend that anyone who denies the validity of non-fiction also commits acts like denying the Holocaust or questioning the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth; or perhaps you are more in agreement with Pankaj Mishra who suggests there are “porous boundaries of fiction and nonfiction;” then again, you might subscribe to the oft heard conclusion that fiction is lying whereas non-fiction is truth.
I have regularly argued that non-fiction is just a degree of fiction and is no more, and possibly less, the truth than is fiction. Non-fiction and fiction are both imaginative constructs developed in the mind of man based on past events and experiences and seasoned with a healthy dose of the human brain’s ability to bring both order and imagination to the writer’s craft.
This week I was pleased to see a discussion of fiction vs. non-fiction in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. In the section aptly called Bookends, Rivka Galchen and Pankaj Mishra give their views on the subject, “What’s Behind the Notion That Nonfiction Is More ‘Relevant’ Than Fiction?“
Nonfiction generally has the lead over fiction in being true: on having a substantial glitter of one-to-one correspondences to verifiable details of what we fairly and efficiently term the “real world.” This may be the force behind the notion that nonfiction is the more relevant of the two. Sometimes the relevance concerns a trend of babies wearing overalls made out of watermelons, and sometimes it relates to an understanding of civil forfeiture in the American justice system, but either way, nonfiction is, basically, more true and more relevant, more or less.
But of course fiction also claims to be true. …
Fiction, the argument follows, can be true in the same way “If” statements are true. If I collide two hydrogen atoms just so, then . . . there will be an explosion. Or, If a man awakens to discover himself turned into a monstrous insect, then. . . . As Marianne Moore said of poets, a fiction writer aims to make “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” …
ut fiction and nonfiction do tend to deploy different methods for getting to the truth. Fiction, we have been told, tells the truth but tells it slant. It familiarizes the strange and estranges the familiar. Nonfiction aims, if not exclusively and not uncomplicatedly, for Orwell’s model of the clear pane of glass. …
Mostly we read the nonfiction that suits our fancy, and tend to ignore that which does not. Not for aphoristic economy alone did Nietzsche observe that convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies. Because we are less sure of what fiction is “saying,” we are less pre-emptively defended against it or biased in its favor. We are inclined to let it past our fortifications. It’s merely a court jester, there to amuse us. We let in the brazen liar and his hidden, difficult truths.
Hidden in her statements (and you should read the entire article before making your own conclusions) I believe Galchen is suggesting that in today’s less critical world, the truth in fiction may get through the filters, political or otherwise, which would tend to block out any information that was not in agreement with our already preconceived notions of the world.
The idea of a world renowned philosopher using the medium of romance novels to express philosophical views is churning in my little gray cells. I guess it’s not too far-fetched; writers of westerns and science fiction have been working out moral issues in their fiction for years.
On the other side of the argument is Pankaj Mishra and he contends:
Robert Musil pointed out in “The Man Without Qualities,” “most people” seeking “refuge from chaos” long for “narrative order, the simple order that enables one to say: ‘First this happened and then that happened.’ ” … [and] “everything in public life has already ceased to be narrative and no longer follows a thread, but instead spreads out as an infinitely interwoven surface.”
Writers as differently motivated as Wolfgang Koeppen, Milan Kundera and Saul Bellow have ratified Musil’s belief that the discursiveness of the essayistic novel can render more faithfully the contingent nature of modern life. Even writers working within the old verities of stability and coherence — we cannot do without some of them — continue to produce persuasive fictions. And, unnoticed by its avid undertakers in London and New York, the novel has gone through multiple reincarnations in the so-called third world.
In this hell of global insecurity, where reality seems much less mediated and abstract, novelists have rarely been able to shirk what V. S. Naipaul once defined as their “interpretative function.” Writers as dissimilar as Naipaul, Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez have conducted their moral and social inquiry at the porous boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, history and the present. No breakdown of public order and values is likely to disorient them — or those writers who can intuit, as James once wished to, that “reality is a world that was to be capable of this,” and can represent “that horrific capability, historically latent, historically ahead of it.”
This might not be an argument that it’s all fiction, but it does bring some good points to the argument that non-fiction can more closely enumerate accepted facts (despite disagreement on what is in fact a fact and the highly selective nature of man’s mind when selecting facts that agree with a thesis and discarding facts which do not) but is not as robust as fiction when it comes to sussing out the truth.
In conclusion, read the article and never forget the immortal words of that great artist, John Waters:
“And for God’s sake, don’t let me ever hear you say, ‘I can’t read fiction. I only have time for the truth.’ Fiction is the truth, fool! Ever hear of ‘literature’? That means fiction too, stupid.”