Nonfiction faces challenges in writing from another’s point of view; but do the genre’s constraints limit its claims to art?
A version of the post below first appeared January 20, 2009. I was thinking about it because I re-read Tim O’Brien’s revered short story “The Things They Carried,” and read for the first time Ron Hansen’s immortal short story “Wickedness,” both of them very essayistic. And O’Brien’s, anyway, is often claimed by practitioners of creative nonfiction because it seems autobiographical. It is based on his experience as a soldier in Vietnam, though the central arc about a young officer leading his platoon is surely fictionalized heavily if not completely; Hansen’s story is based on a mythic blizzard that (apparently) hit Nebraska round about 1888.
There is no reason whatsoever—in theory—that nonfiction cannot do the same thing these stories do, with their deeply subjective third-person omniscient points of view. Tracy Kidder has approached it and some others; for Among Schoolchildren he spent a year in a third-grade classroom, watching, and then interviewed the teacher every day about what she’d been thinking when, say, little Johnny acted out just before recess.
But this approach requires such intimate and exhaustive interviewing and cooperation that, in practice, one can see why God created fiction . . . It’s simply too much work and too hard for most writers, and they cannot shape the key characters the same way a fiction writer can to serve her ends.
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I’ve touched often on the issue of truth in nonfiction, but the latest scandal, involving a fictionalized Holocaust memoir, impels me to return. (Oprah keeps falling for these stories that are too good to be true. Truth often is stranger than fiction but it’s seldom as shapely.)
I tell students these are three reasons for honesty:
• Practical: A nonfiction writer will destroy his credibility and career by lying. This is an embarrassing reason, as it’s so utilitarian, but perhaps compelling to sociopaths.
• Moral: You made an implicit promise that details, scenes, characters, and dialogue wouldn’t be invented or embellished. Recreated, yes, and clearly selected and filtered through a particular consciousness, but not conveniently made up.
• Aesthetic: Nonfiction’s art often flows out of the rough places where writers don’t have what they need. They must explore that on the page or conduct more research. Immerse. Writer and writing theorist Robert Root made an interesting point about this in his essay “This is What the Spaces Say”:
The issue of truth, which seldom surfaces in other literary genres, perplexes nonfictionists. We begin in reality, in the hope of achieving some better understanding of the actual through writing. The inventions and manipulations of character and plot that are the hallmark of the novelist’s creativity are the barriers of the nonfictionist’s psychology; the willingness to settle for the fictionist’s ‘higher truth through fabrication’ negates the nonfictionist’s chances of even visiting the vicinity of the kind of earthbound and actual truth that is nonfiction’s special province. The truth is hard to know, and it’s hard, ultimately, to explain, perhaps especially about our own lives, what we experience as participants, what we observe as spectators.
My three rules are simple statements about this slippery issue. Do such rules—any rules—diminish nonfiction’s claim to art?
I know a painter, a man who’s spent his long life blessedly staring at southern Ohio’s hills, who told me he doesn’t invent details. No flowers by the gate if there weren’t. And that picturesque old wooden gate was truly that, not a shiny modern metal one. I should have asked him why, though I thought I knew: a representational painter who invents might insert iris blooming when the rest of the painting says High Summer. Sure, a crafty dauber could add daylilies. But soon there’d be no end to it and he’d lose the essence of what he was trying to capture. Inauthenticity would creep in.
My friend’s aesthetic, based in honoring objective details subjectively seen, gropes toward and honors a larger truth or feeling—something he’s sensed and which he’d violate at some unknown peril to his art. We understand more than we know. His creative acts include choosing the scene and deciding where he stands—the point of view. And the painting itself is literally and metaphorically impressionistic, what he sees.
Nonfiction’s (few) rules similarly do not interfere with artistry—there’s more to art than that; consider the edicts that result in sonnets. Although my visual friend has made himself a strict rule akin to nonfiction’s imperatives, his landscapes are glowing art.