Wednesday, June 16, 2010

in which I talk about what I don't know about nonfiction (part 1?)

I've always enjoyed fiction.  Grew up with it, loved it.  And when it came to reading assignments for school, my least-hated of all of them were always novels and short stories, fiction of any kind.  And I've enjoyed writing fiction since I was a kid.

But nonfiction is something very different for me.  When I think of nonfiction I think of, first of all, memoirs.  I then think about autobiographies (and a few biographies).  My eyelids then start to droop.  I get sleepy.  Or bored, or frustrated, or depressed.  Don't take this the wrong way.  I've read some phenomenal memoirs and autobiographies (most of them, now that I'm thinking about it, come from the WWII era): Primo Levi's Se questo e un uomo (known in english as Survival In Auschwitz) and  Jacques Lusseyran's And There Was Light are predominant among others.  I think both of those works, and many others I've read, are wonderful, well-written, honest, and even (in Levi's case) horrifying or (in Lusseyran's case) inspiring.  I don't want to downplay the auto/biography.  I'm not as well read in the genre as I would like to be, but most of what I've read I have enjoyed, or at least found worth reading.

But generally, I just don't enjoy the genre as much as a good old-fashioned fiction.

Essays are next in my stream of nonfiction-thought.  And when I think of essays, I think first of 5 paragraphs and then of AP tests and then of college research papers.  And then I break into a cold sweat because, as much as I love writing, one of the most important things my undergraduate career taught me was that I didn't want to write academic papers for a living.  I've written some papers, essays, and theses I'm proud of.  I've even enjoyed the process a few times.  But, for whatever reason (and this is a topic for another post entirely), I don't find it as rewarding as the fiction-writing process.

Essays, of course, have other meanings, too.  In fact, in my experience almost any form of nonfiction that isn't strictly an autobiography or a memoir falls under the ambiguous form of essay, and they can be much more organic and unfettered than my original thoughts of the form.  In fact, they're what have come to monopolize most of my opinions of nonfiction.  I'm currently reading The Next American Essay, a collection of essays from America's past 30 years or so, and as boring and useless as some of them seem to me, there are a surprising number that make me feel good things and think interesting thoughts.  I'm a fan of that sort of thing when I read, and to have it happen while I read "nonfiction" was like eating broccoli and finding out it tastes like european chocolate.  It was delicious, but slightly disturbing.

And I must return briefly to the memoir.  The autobiography without context.  The scene from the life of fill-in-the-blank.  The significant moment, or the insignificant one.  Can't take the memoir out of the equation.

And what about all the other forms of nonfiction?  I'm sure there are some I'm not even considering, of which I've never heard.  Travelogs?  Journals?  Histories?

And then the lines just start to blur in my head--not only between auto/biography, essay, memoir, and other, but also between nonfiction and fiction in general.  I mean, really.  What is the difference?  Where does fact come into play, and fiction?  Is there really much of a difference between the two?  "Don't be an idiot, Chris," you say, "its easy--the difference between nonfiction and fiction is that one is FACT and the other is FICTION."  Uh-huh.  But I'm not so sure in some cases.  In The Next American Essay I've come across a number of essays that I can't help but assume are fictional, and the realization has jarred my view of nonfiction as a genre.

Of course I'm not talking extremes, here.  I think there's a fact-fiction difference between a science fiction novel and an essay discussing the mating habits of butterflies (although there are even similarities on that extreme a dichotomy that I'm tempted to argue).  But what about the short story based solidly in personal experience (write what you know, right?)?  Or what of an essay written about the mating habits of hippogriffs?

And, in my opinion my most daunting question:  does one tell the "truth" more than the other?  Is one form more honest than the other?  Does the distinction really matter at all?

Hmmm.  These are some questions that have been on my mind lately.  What do you think, loyal readers*?  What defines nonfiction?  How does it compare to fiction?  Is one more enjoyable than the other?  More truthful?

I'll discuss this more in a later post, but I also want to talk about some books that I've read, my opinions on the iPad as a tool for a writer, MFA programs, and a bunch of other stuff in the meantime.  But I'll get to it soon.  This was more of a warm-up of sorts.

Until then, I'll keep reading this nonfiction stuff, hoping I get a grasp on it.

*  This is, for the most part, a rhetorical question.  I realize that I could probably count the number of people who have read anything on this blog on one hand, and I'm not sure if any of those people are even interested in nonfiction.  But I could have a readership large enough to say things like that one day, right?  Might as well start those habits now.  And of course, if you are reading this and DO happen to have a comment or answer to any of my questions, spit it out!

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