Tonight’s Cage Match: Fiction

not based on a true story

So I read more fiction than non-fiction. It’s a moral failing, I know: I prefer the make-believe. Too, though, I mean I write fiction. Makes sense to read it, yeah? Where else am I going to learn technique, cue into little narrative shuffles this or that writer pulled off, all that? To take it a little further, if I want to be part of the ‘dialogue’ of fiction, then I need to be listening to what the other writers are saying. But this starts to feel like rationalization just real fast. Really, with me, I think it’s just that contemporary non-fiction doesn’t deal much in werewolves or aliens or zombies, all elements I think pretty vital to a good story (here’s the recipe: alien werewolf beams down to earth, dies, then comes back as a zombie. sprinkle liberally with laser guns and cool music). Which is itself probably just a leftover from the fifth grade, when stories were or at least had the poetential to be cool, whereas essays were inherently boring, as they felt just a suspiciously lot like learning. Nevermind that, if there was a girl on the cover, the chances of her wearing a chain mail bikini were exceedingly low.

There’s a bit more to it, though, I admit.

Pretty regularly, somebody, in suggesting a book to me, will preface it with how they ‘know how I feel about non-fiction,’ but still, I should maybe give this one a try. And I bring this on myself, of course; when using mouth-words (as opposed the much more elegant written variety), I’ll often overstate things, so that it comes off that I hate non-fiction and think it should go away forever or at least take up some sport with a high mortality rate. Not the case. Really, I’m just scared. Non-fiction scares me — I’m both intimidated by the fact that, if you switch the ‘polarity’ of its facts, what you’re left with are all the same conventions and devices and language involved in fiction, and I’m pretty worried that, as attractive as non-fiction is — when it works, man, it works — I might just try it myself one day, promising myself it’ll be ‘just this once.’ And then I’ll never come back to the land of lies, where I’m now so comfortable.

As to why I’m on this subject: I just got back from an excellent panel, something like “Truth in Nonfiction,” maybe, with Dennis Covington, Brenda Wineapple, Gregory Wolfe, and Mark Bowden. Smart people all, and strong writers. I just wish, of course, that they would have done the probably-stupid thing of establishing for me some kind of definitive ‘wall’ between fiction and non-fiction, so that there’s no chance of them ever polluting each other. Not just talking JT Leroy and James Frey here either; they kind of make it all fun, really. And yeah, ‘polluting’ is of course the revealing word, there. I could have — maybe should have — gone with the more generative or at least not as pessimistic ‘hybrid.’ I know. The non-fiction novel, the fake memoir, all that, none of which I’m against.

What I am against, though, just a hundred and twenty percent, are lots of the (short) stories I see that, in form, are non-fiction, but are nevertheless made-up, so, because they can’t hang out on the ‘true’ shelf, they by default get kicked over with the liars. Is an essay written by a fictional character necessarily fiction? Nine out of ten dentists’ll nod and smile to that, I suspect. But not me. That kind of bleeding over, it makes me very very nervous, especially as the one hallmark of all of what I would call ‘permanent’ fiction is that it feels real. So I guess what I’m getting at is that, by using some of the conventions of the essay or of literary journalism, some writers are achieving what the rest have to try to do with the conventions of fiction. Those stories feel like cheating, yeah.

But earlier I was saying that if you just change the polarity of the facts, make everything ‘false’ that was ‘true,’ then the non-fiction becomes fiction, I know. Maybe what I should have said is that the essay can and does use all the conventions of fiction — character, scene, pacing tricks, structure, etc — but that they organize them in a way that, instead of following a line of causality (‘plot’), they instead swirl around some central . . . something. I don’t know. As I was saying, I don’t write non-fiction, and won’t pretend to be able to dissect it. But, just reading an essay, you can usually pick out at least the sense of a thesis, right? With a story, though, unless it’s just really poorly done — ie, has been organized around some ‘message’ or ‘concept’ — you shouldn’t really be able to. At least not in the kind of story I tend to think of as good, or honest —

And, is that the problem? ‘Honesty?’ I mean, if you draw the line at truth and lies, then of course non-fiction is going to be the good guy here, fiction the black hat. Which is the beginning motions of some romantic pose, yeah. But I don’t think we can deny that the audience right now — and this isn’t just limited to books, either — is drawn to stories which are supposedly authentic, not ‘made-up.’ For some reason, lies have lost their currency these last few years (um, well, yeah, I could go into the ‘why’ here, but there’s not that kind of room). Which is too bad, I think. Not because television is killing Bart Simpson’s imagination muscle, and we’re all Bart Simpson, but because the wonder of stories is an essential part of their draw, and, I would argue, and essential part of just being human: that feeling that you’re connecting with something bigger.

But you can get that sense of wonder from non-fiction, of course. However, I’m not going to let this all fall back onto something so simple as taste, either — that some of us get the wonder from fiction, some from non-fiction. That’s accurate, yeah, but useless as well.

And maybe I’m looking at this all from the wrong angle: instead of asking game-questions of non-fiction — ‘if you write your autobigraphy in third person, does it become fiction?’ (ie, can God make a rock so heavy he can’t lift it, etc) — I should maybe look into a more essential difference: in order to experience fiction, you have to be able to suspend your disbelief, yes? Pretend that this is all real. Provided the writer’s done his job, of course, and made it easy, even desirable for you to suspend that disbelief. Does non-fiction require this, though? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. Really, it could even be that if in the non-fiction experience you ever do have to suspend your disbelief, then the book’s failed.


But what does it ‘fail’ to, yeah: fiction? I kind of have the predictable problem with that, just because it seems to inhere a hierarchy where the closer a work is to ‘truth,’ the higher up or better it is.

Which is what that panel I attended was about, I guess: “Truth in Non-fiction.” Nevermind of course that, finally, the most user-friendly definition of truth is maybe the negative one: ‘that which isn’t false.’

I don’t know.

Talking ‘truth,’ anyway — and maybe I should just be capitalizing it — though I failed out of math just multiple times, at all levels of my educating, I did come away with this, anyway: a teacher once telling me — asking me to believe this, really, as it just makes no sense whatsoever — that a negative times a negative is a positive. This is right, yeah? An article of faith? I mean, we can call it ‘true’ because that’s the way our calculators punch it up, but we programmed those calculators too, so who knows.

Anyway, if a negative times a negative is a positive, then it seems to me that, if we pretend for a moment that stories and essays are equations (not that distant a proposition, I don’t think), and we imagine two simple equations that are exactly the same except that in the first, all the numbers are positive, while in the second they’re all negative, then, once you do the multiplying, won’t the number on the right side of each of their equal signs be positive? That is, True?

I think so. And, rather than scaring me, this enthuses me: all these lies fiction is made of, when you multiply them out, then they can finally be ‘true.’ That you can get to the same place non-fiction does by what would maybe seem to non-fiction to be cheating: making the facts all up.

And that’s all I’ve really been wanting to appropriate back, I think — that sense of getting away with something.

Trick is, of course, I had to write a piece of not-fiction to do it.

Who knows. Maybe this is the beginning of the end, my first little finger wave bye to the werewolves I know and love.

But I kind of doubt it.

Not that the werewolves care.

©Stephen Graham Jones, 2006