Thursday, July 08, 2010

in which i talk about what I don't know about nonfiction (part 4)

Aaaand we're back--to nonfiction.

Our neighbors--with whom Raych and I are great friends--read "nonfiction" books almost exclusively.  For them this mostly means auto/biographies and memoirs.  I've discussed their preference of nonfiction over fiction with them a few times, and the general answer is always something along the lines of "most of these stories are just as interesting and exciting as those that happen in novels, but they happen to real people"--and somehow, that makes it better, although I've never quite been able to understand why.

Admittedly, I do agree with them to an extent.  There is a certain something about reading someone's story and knowing that it actually happened.  Nonfiction stories such as Gifted Hands and And There Was Light come to mind for me.  There's just a certain quality . . . I'm tempted to say its magical, but my gut tells me thats not the right word.  I mean, its more the opposite of magical, right?  Not the opposite of magical in that it is dull or boring of course, but the opposite of magical in that it is real.

And yet I can't help but think that by focusing on the "reality" of a story--meaning the factuality, the historicity of it--you lose something along the way.

Take Jesus's parables, for example, from the New Testament.  They're parables for crying out loud, not histories.  Of course there very likely existed in reality a samaritan who was mugged, and a sower who . . . sowed . . . at some point in time, and someone who sold all they had for a pearl, or someone who found his one sheep after leaving the other ninety-nine.  Whether Jesus had these specific people in mind is unclear, but what is clear is that the parables themselves are overwhelmingly considered fictive.  Whether they have any base in fact doesn't really matter--they're fiction, and their power doesn't lie in their real-ness.  They've been some of the most instructive stories (or short-shorts [or microfiction if you will--now thats an interesting concept]) that have ever been told.

And yet, if Jesus had told a story--
"And this really happened, guys," He said unto them, "And behold one of my best friends Henry had two sons, and the younger one said to the father . . ."
. . . and so forth (that's the [modified] beginning of the parable of the Prodigal Son, in case I've lost you--for the full parable you can look here or here), I don't think the parables would be as morally educational as they are.  "Poor Henry," we would say, and feel depressed at how much he suffered because of his wayward son Hubert, or how much Hubert himself suffered, or the neglected older son Haggus, or whatever.  But in many ways the lessons wouldn't quite hit home.  We would still see the same story, of course, and I think many of us would get the point.  But I don't think it would be as personal.  What I'm getting at is that nonfiction is inherently personal--but only for that one person whose story it is.  Whereas fiction is impersonal at first, when we understand that it has never happened to anyone really, but then as we get into it we start thinking "well, maybe this has never happened to anyone, but it actually could happen to anyone."

Are you following me on this?  Here's another example, although its a little biased on my part.

I'm Mormon (or, more properly, LDS).  As you may or may not know, the reason we have been labeled "Mormons" is because of the existence of the Book of Mormon.  I won't go into a full explanation of the book right now (although if you're interested, why don't you start here), but basically:  we believe that its similar to the Bible--a record of God's dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the American continents, inspired by God and written by prophets.  They key word in that description, as far as my current discourse goes, is "record."  We do believe that the Book of Mormon is an actual historical record of people who really existed two-to-three-thousand years ago.  In fact, I would say that a lot of Mormons's faith is somewhat reliant upon the idea that the Book of Mormon is "historical fact."

I had an interesting conversation with my father in-law the other day about the possibility of the Book of Mormon not being fact at all, but being more of a parable--still inspired by God, but not a historical document.

Honestly, I think a revelation like that (if it were to happen, which it has not) would shock a lot of Mormons, perhaps even snuff out their faith entirely.  If that's true, it's kind of both saddening and disappointing, as it means that a lot of people have placed far too much emphasis on the history of the document rather than its content. They've gotten so excited about the idea that it could have happened to real people that they forget that it is still meant to apply to us.

Now, I'm certainly not saying that nonfiction has no educational/moral/instructive value, because I truly believe it does.  And I'm not saying that fiction is inherently educational/moral/instructive either--because I don't think it always is, nor that it should be.  But I am saying that sometimes we get so excited about nonfiction being nonfiction that we forget what the actual story is, and/or what we could learn from it.  Whereas with fiction, although we have to get over that first barrier of realizing that it has never technically occurred and that it is not fact per se, we can realize its potential application to anyone.

My point is this:  sometimes fact, even if its just the pretense of fact, gets in the way of the inherent value of a piece of literature*.  We find it so interesting that this thing actually happened, or someone actually said this or thought these thoughts or felt these feelings, that we forget that the piece in and of itself is beautiful, inspiring, terrifying, or whatever.  What at first seems like a positive point of nonfiction, I think, becomes a negative if you look at it more closely.

Thats all for now, folks.  I'll finish up my thoughts about nonfiction shortly.

*  Of course, the same can be said of the suspension of disbelief found in varying degrees in fiction.  But thats a discussion for another day.

No comments:

Post a Comment