Mixing Fact and Fiction

The question at the literary blog hop today is: ‘Is there such a thing as literary non-fiction?’ And given that it’s the sort of stuff I’d like to write, you’d think I might well answer with a resounding ‘yes’. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt the need to play devil’s advocate with the question. After all, putting ‘literary’ and ‘non-fiction’ together might well be seen in some lights to create an oxymoron, a word paradox. What we really have to think about here is how and where to draw the line between what’s real and what’s fictional, and how a complex situation arises the closer we look at the distinction.

Let’s take autobiography and biography, for instance, genres that might well attract the label of ‘literary’ because of the way they are written, and for the sake of argument let’s say that ‘literary’ here denotes an attention to lovely writing and to representing the events concerned as meaningful, provocative, worth our consideration and interpretation. We’re dealing with stories about lives that ask us to pause and think, that seem maybe to be iconic in some way, or exemplary. But the trouble lies already with the word ‘stories’. As soon as we begin organizing the raw matter of life into a tale to be told, we are acting upon it with intent and purpose, serving some unstated inner desire for coherence and clarity. Life tends to be lived viscerally, in chaos, and it is only after the event that we get the chance to put meaning to what occurs. And how many years after the event does meaning become apparent? Often long enough that we are subject to the depredations of memory; and however much we claim to remember things clearly, science has shown how extremely fallible memory is. We not only misremember events, we easily absorb the memories of events that never even happened to us. Most normal, healthy memory is known as ‘narrative’ memory precisely because it is very flexible, and often quite inaccurate. Memory turns out to be a byproduct of comprehension, and so we remember what makes sense, not necessarily what happened. And stories, being one of our most powerful tools of comprehension, simply provide the structure for an understanding that always transcends, organizes, controls and tames brute reality.

If we’re going to call something non-fiction, it shouldn’t have fictional elements in it, right? But as soon as we start telling stories, as soon as we put the framework of fiction around any event, we’re distorting it, shaping it, moulding it, using our imaginations and their internal drives of fear and fantasy to transform it into something often quite different to its original state.

Historical narrative is subject to the same sort of problem. How can we possibly claim to know what Mary Queen of Scots was like? Or Cleopatra? Or the Battle of Waterloo? Supposing you were given the task of writing an account of a big quarrel in the office, the kind that everyone gets sucked into, the sort of local maelstrom that only blows out over the course of several days.  How would you represent it accurately, honestly, realistically? You could write a factual account – this happened and then this happened. But supposing you wanted to make it ‘literary’; what would occur then? You’d have to approach causality – this happened because of this. You might want to include description of feelings or reactions. And, trickiest of all, there would be the vexed question of what it all means. Would you get that right? Would it make sense to the people who lived it, would they be happy with the way you had represented all their different gripes and wounds and the reasons why it all took place? Keith Jenkins, a historian, puts the problem like this:

‘[I]n normal historical practice it is the referential facts which allegedly act as an independent check against the representations of the past by historians. It is on the basis of factuality that such values as accuracy, objectivity, and loyalty to the past as it really was, stand. But where do such facts come from? Nobody is denying, of course, that the actual past occurred. However, the facts that constitute the now absent past and which get into representations have clearly been extracted from the now extant “traces of the past” and combined through inference by historians into synthetic accounts that mere reference back to the facts as such could never entail.’

Historical accounts always have to go beyond the facts, beyond the documents and the archive materials, to reconstruct the past, and in the act of reconstruction, some part of the writer and their fantasies inevitably slips in. And in situations like battles, wars, conflicts of all kinds, who can be sure to identify where the blame and the responsibility lies? Who can be sufficiently objective to write an account that would still be worth reading?

A final thought: what would be the most non-fiction of non-fiction books? In my mind the answer came: car manuals. What would they look like if they became ‘literary’? I rather like the thought of a literary car manual. What fun you would have describing the purring of the engine in neutral like a sleepy contented pussy cat that would roar into vengeful life as the driver accelerated through the gears. You’d have to make the car something it wasn’t, put a metaphorical layer of perspective over the top of little bits of metal welded together, give it an existence and a meaning that its indifferent materiality never possessed.

So my suggestion here is that once you add ‘literary’ to the term ‘non-fiction’, you indicate that you are moving ever further away from the factual basis of the account. That the paradox of storytelling is that it creates something beautiful and rich and precious, but also far removed from the blunt and ordinary reality of what it describes, and that it assigns layers of vital meaning to things and events that illuminate the imagination of the writer as much as the original event.


37 thoughts on “Mixing Fact and Fiction

  1. Well, if you ever write a literary car manual, let me know about it. That’s something I’d have to read! I was thinking along the same lines as you until I recalled that the most recent NF book I read (Thunderstruck by Erik Larson) was very factual AND a very good story with good writing. So I was forced to change my stance. 🙂 Nice post.

  2. The first time I heard the term literary nonfiction it was applied to the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and I thought it meant it was a well-written book. Then I read it. It was well written but I realized that literary meant it was told as a story in a somewhat novelistic way and that perhaps there was some imagination added in to spice things up. It’s sort of a hybrid genre not really fiction but not really nonfiction either which I think makes it very interesting.

    I like your idea of a literary nonfiction car manual. I might actually read one of those!

  3. I really enjoyed the way in which you approached this particular topic. Your development of your points makes a perfect case; I completely agree. I especially appreciated the comment about historical biographies of individuals that, like you said, could never be portrayed accurately, yet are almost always considered nonfiction titles. Your argument is both well-written and easy to comprehend. Thanks for the post!

  4. great, great post. i especially like this part: “If we’re going to call something non-fiction, it shouldn’t have fictional elements in it, right? But as soon as we start telling stories, as soon as we put the framework of fiction around any event, we’re distorting it, shaping it, moulding it, using our imaginations and their internal drives of fear and fantasy to transform it into something often quite different to its original state.”

    That’s one of the things i love about “nonfiction” that straddles the line between fiction & nonfic – that I know what i’m reading is an interpretation, a memory, an imagining, of what really happened, but i don’t really know what parts are objectively “true.”

    I’m sure you know the quote I started thinking of when I read what you wrote about historical narrative – something like that, history depends on who’s writing it. I can’t find that one but I am finding a lot of others that say about the same thing, like Henry Ford’s “History is more or less bunk.”

  5. Litlove, what an interesting post. In the sense that we shape and colour reality with our perceptions, I’d say that anything that we experience is fiction. The brain filters billions of bits of information into a fraction of that every second, before we apply thoughts to the information. The thoughts themselves shape it further. Is a car manual strictly factual? Boring yes. But that in itself is a shape, giving the impression that the manual is unarguably true. But is it? The weird noises a car makes when something is wrong but nobody is sure what. Is that in the manual? Or how about the environmental impact of the car, how spread out cities are, how that affects neighbourliness? I would like your literary manual better; I would think it’s truer.

  6. Interesting reply to the question–I haven’t thought about literary non-fiction that way. I especially like:

    “So my suggestion here is that once you add ‘literary’ to the term ‘non-fiction’, you indicate that you are moving ever further away from the factual basis of the account. That the paradox of storytelling is that it creates something beautiful and rich and precious, but also far removed from the blunt and ordinary reality of what it describes, and that it assigns layers of vital meaning to things and events that illuminate the imagination of the writer as much as the original event.”

    From other people participating in the literary blog hop, I’m seeing that many people believe that there is such a genre as literary non-fiction (as I agree). Thanks for this insightful post.

  7. Some examples would be helpful for me to understand where this is going.

    Gibbon, Boswell, Sir Thomas Browne, Dorothy Wordsworth – literary or not? If not, why on earth not?

    Any decently written history is fiction? The better history is written, the less factual it is? What exactly is the devil advocating here?

  8. Yes. A literary car manual. I like the idea. And, for me, a literary math book. I actually had no idea that such things existed. I’ve run across many literary math picture books. Oh, how these would have helped me as a child to put words with numbers.

    Here’s my post on literary nonfiction. I’d love to hear what you think.

    And if you have read any wonderful literary books
    published in 2010, I urge you to nominate your favorites
    for The Independent Literary Awards. The awards
    include categories of Literary Fiction and Literary Non-Fiction.
    Nominations close December 15.

  9. I think what may underlie the problem we have with the term “literary non-fiction” is a belief (unsupported by fact, I would suggest) that there is any text that is ideologically free. “Non-fiction” is a stance: it has a position and is in many ways as much a selective narrative as any novel. The label (fiction, non-fiction etc.) really acts like a reading guide: “Here,” it says, “this is how to think about what I am going to tell you.” In the case of non-fiction, it is a reminder, “This is a picture of what is.” One of the ways the term “literary” functions when attached to “non-fiction” is to call into question the reader’s role in interpretation and suggest the idea that reality may need as much interpretation as does story or poetry. Hence when I read it, it subtly (sometimes not so much) reminds me that life, even the most mundane moment, is a work of art. A position I like to take, but a position nonetheless.

  10. Excellent, thought provoking point. The labels ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ are, in reality, used very loosely. As you point out, reality is not usually very orderly and doesn’t fit nicely into narrative confines. Yet, we still have thousands of ‘non-fiction’ books which tell quite coherent stories and purport to be ‘the truth.’ As several other commenters have pointed out, any ‘truth’ is inevitably filtered through a writer’s cognitive and ideological filters before it’s put on paper and further distorted by the confines of language. In this regard, all non-fiction narrative is, in some sense, fiction. Great post!

  11. Very interesting post. I really like the way you show up the fictional aspects of non-fiction and then combine ‘literary’ with non-fiction. And that literary car manual is also something I’d like to read. ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance’ sort of promises that with its title but it doesn’t achieve it.

  12. I do wish you could meet David Starkey as he’s not so keen on the idea that historians construct history. I did go off on a bit of a tangent about the way pretty reliable factual accounts could be produced (this is how much such and such cost in such a town at this time, this is what people used this item for) in my first attempt at a reply but realised I was talking about the purely factual account of the dispute in the office that you used as an example – laundry lists of facts are possible (as long as we deny the idea that everyone in history was lying about the use of inanimate objects all at the same time, because that’s when your brain crashes) but when we try to form connections between facts things get complicated. There tends to be a bit of snobbishness about narrative history, but you’re right as soon as you start including causality there’s an element of story telling in all kinds of history, because even if we have documents from an array of authors all testifying to one account, or one driving emotion we don’t really have a completly infalliable way of verifying the accounts. It’s all very well to examine texts for reliability based on bias and factual agreement between sources, but how do we know how subconcious elements played into the writing of these documents, or false memory? I think there have even been historical sources where the author ‘distorted the truth’ but because they couldn’t be de-verrified historians took their word, then years later other historians disproved the accounts entire arguments were based on.

  13. I love this post! And I agree. Oddly enough though, my agreement that adding literary elements to a nonfiction account nudges it away from nonfiction is exactly why I believe that there can be literary nonfiction.

  14. Gautami – thank you!

    Melody – judging by the comments, literary car manuals are a niche market that publishers would do well to court. Who knew? I must point out that I’m not saying that you can’t have a well-written book with a strong factual basis, only that there is a tension between those two elements that is interesting to look at.

    Stefanie – I actually love it as a genre – I think creative non-fiction is where all sorts of interesting things are happening, precisely because you have this complex mix of elements. Perhaps the postmodern car manual is not far off! 🙂

    Amy – lol! I admit of all the things I read, car manuals have not been among them.

    Arti – absolutely! I’d say both of them were firmly in the literary non-fiction camp.

    Bookworm – thank you so much! You can come again. 😉

    Ellen – that’s quite funny because I was searching for that history quote without being able to find exactly what I wanted. ‘History is written by the victors’ is along the right lines. But I do know what you mean. Thank you for your lovely comment! An interpretation is exactly the right word.

    Lilian – well if anyone is going to scoop the market with the literary car manual I think it deserves to be you after that comment! You’re right, there is so much they leave unsaid. My feeling is that we love stories and respond to them so readily because we are constantly fictionalising in our minds. They really do feed into our comprehension at every level, so the idea that reading, or storytelling is dying out is a very silly one to my mind. We can’t live without it.

    The Bookeater – oh I do think there is a genre of literary non-fiction, just one that is interesting full of tensions (that some of the most intriguing books, for me anyway, exploit). It’s been a lot of fun reading other people’s responses.

    Amateur Reader. Ah. A postmodern perspective, is what informs this post, and if you are throwing Gibbon and Dorothy Wordsworth at me, you may be naturally resistant to it. But I hope not, as I think postmodernism is often unjustly misunderstood. It doesn’t negate or undermine anything that precedes it, only offers another perspective on the business of telling stories. I’ll direct you to the comments further on by Mary Lupin and Pete Karnas as they admirably nail some of the things I’m getting at. Also, don’t get your knickers in a twist over the historians; this is a debate they’ve been having for some time and writing interestingly and usefully about. If you are in any way curious, do read Keith Jenkins, or some of the historians he refers to: Haydn White and Robert Berkhofer.

    Ingrid – thank you and thank you for the question! It was very interesting to try and answer it.

    debnance – clearly there are niche markets here that will keep the publishing industry afloat for years! 🙂 Thank you for visiting.

    Mary – what a great comment that is! Thank you – a really clear summary of what I was trying to get across.

    Pete – that’s another brilliant comment, exactly what I was trying to say. Thank you!

    Pete – you’re so right – if Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had more practical stuff in it, not to mention more Zen, I think I would have appreciated it much better! 🙂

    Jodie – I’ll bet Starkey isn’t. And in all fairness, I think historians do their level best to write about history with as much accuracy and insight as they can possibly manage. But the fact that that IS the task they set themselves leads them quite rightly to consider all perspectives on the challenges that any narrative sets, and the ways that the historical truth they’re seeking might become distorted or altered in the process, despite their best intentions. I agree with all that you’ve written and find the issue really intriguing myself.

    Trisha – Yay! And I also agree that literary non-fiction most certainly does exist – just that it’s got some intriguing tensions at its basis. I’ve done nothing but add wonderful sounding books to my tbr list from this blog hop! 🙂

    My worldly obessions – thank you! That’s so nice of you! This has been a great way to meet new bloggers – I’ll be visiting you shortly.

  15. you may be naturally resistant to it No. I picked examples people would know, so everyone understood what I was asking about.

    Mary Lupin’s comment accepts the reality of the categories fiction and non-fiction, and then investigates how those categories are used. Seems reasonable. The comment of Pete Karnas seems similar, until the end, when he expands the definition of fiction to include everything “in some sense.”

    The postmodern argument – which I’ve heard of – and the Jenkins quotation, applies to all history, whether or not it is literary, whatever that means, and can just as easily be applied to the car manual. Plenty of postmodern pranksters play with found objects of all sorts, treating them as aesthetic objects, and that’s without adding metaphor or whatnot. Except that these postmodernists are merely modernists (see Duchamp, Surrealists, etc).

    Follow your own argument, as you state it at the end of your post. Non-fiction exists, and is “factual,” but the more attentive or lovely the writing is (literary=”an attention to lovely writing”), the less factual it becomes. Less attention, less loveliness = more factual. More loveliness = less factual. That’s a postmodern argument? I’ll admit here that, a typical postmodernist, I don’t care particularly about the non-fiction \ fiction distinction. I thought the issue was the “literary” part. No?

    Why do you think metaphor takes us away – “far removed” – from “blunt and ordinary reality”? A good metaphor can replace a page of mediocre description. When you try to describe something, or give instructions, and say “It’s like…”, are you trying to move your audience away from reality, or closer to it?

    knickers in a twist – is that good seminar language in England? I understand you are more pugnacious than we are.

  16. Haha–I love when people play Devil’s Advocate. Though…the trick to answering this question is first defining “literary” which I don’t think as ONE definition. I don’t see literary as being fictional, but I loved reading your thoughts!

  17. Amateur reader – first of all, ‘knickers in a twist’ is gentle teasing over here. Mothers might say it to children if they get uptight. I don’t do pugnacious and would discourage anyone either on my blog or in my seminars from attempting it. I like to keep things polite.

    Let me answer your question by way of the metaphor angle. Here’s an extract from something I wrote a while back:

    ‘Derrida argues that all language works by tropes and figures, employing them to quietly persuasive and suggestive ends. Metaphors govern the way we think by providing a powerful form of embodiment for the possible meanings that words conjure up; in this way the lexical domain from which words are drawn has a pervasive influence on meaning creation. The post-structuralist Michel Foucault, for instance, has a strong inclination for geographical metaphors in his theories, employing terms such as territory, horizon, implantation, network, and so on. Not only do such metaphors render abstract thought more open to visualization and thus more comprehensible for the reader, they also enlightened Foucault as to the way that knowledge could be seen to travel through and colonize culture. His metaphorical domain revealed something intrinsic in the function of knowledge and its dynamic in relation to power. Equally we can see from this example how metaphor colonizes meaning, how the elastic that holds a certain set of terms together lends coherence to a representation and provides an organizing principle around which any number of partially articulated ideas and images cluster. Metaphor in this light becomes a device that appeals to an underlying fantasy domain within language that has a profound, but hidden, influence on the reader.’

    So metaphor does try to put the reader closer in touch with a vivid pictorial image of reality that seeks to expose a ‘truth’ about it, but as it does so, it excludes other ways of understanding. Whilst much metaphor seems completely harmless and designed to entertain, some theorists draw our attention to the political dimension inherent in representation, and the possibility for language to be used for the mastery and oppression of perception, determining how things are by means of how things might be expressed. The metaphors a government uses in power, for instance, are always trying to persuade and manipulate its citizens. They would wish us to believe that their rhetoric is reality, but it is unlikely to be the case.

    You’re quite right that the point about a poststructuralist approach is that it deals with language per se, and the words used in a car manual are subject to the same problems of signification as the words in the bible or Mansfield Park or Gravity’s Rainbow. But if metaphor, for instance, is a linguistic device that is particularly susceptible to adding extra, potentially spurious meaning to a passage of writing, then the more literary a piece is, ie the more it uses devices like metaphor and simile, the more open it may be to co-option by an author’s own arguments and concerns. We are closer to the author’s perception of reality, but not necessarily to the material world it’s based upon. I hope that’s clearer and apologise for it being rather long-winded.

    Trish – I do agree there’s no such thing as a perfect definition of the word ‘literary’. But I presume you mean that fiction CAN be literary, just that literature doesn’t begin and end with fiction writing? I’d agree with that, too.

  18. What an eloquent and beautifully written explanation of why I almost always loathe nonfiction. In a nutshell (and I did read your beautiful post above this) it is like a car manual! Boring and devoid of the emotional meaning I value so much in my works of classic literature. Well done!

  19. I like the argument you made, though I think that following it to it’s logical conclusion that means that there is no such this as non-fiction, at least not as far as the course of human events is concerned. Of course, even if an author is able to capture an event or experience in its exact truth, because reading is a transactional process it would still mean something different to each reader. I guess that’s why reading is also a social act-ans why my book club should probably spend more time actually discussing our books and less time gossiping about work 🙂

  20. I feel as though I’ve just attended one of your seminars. Everything is shimmering: what is the meaning of ‘literary’? how do we define ‘fact’? Can we define ‘true’? Facts are not necessarily ‘true’; fiction is not necessarily a lie. Yet to be considered acceptable reading, both must be believable. I keep thinking of the man who wrote the completely false “memoir” (James Frey?) a few years ago, and how angry people were–most notably Oprah Winfrey–because they had expected facts and been given non-facts. The book was not marketed as fiction; I do not know if it could be considered ‘literary’, but it was certainly creative. In (actual)fact, it spawned the term “creative nonfiction,” which I gather from this discussion may not necessarily be considered ‘literary’. Where do we draw the line? And what happened to the blessedly simple term “essay”?
    Virginia Woolf thought of her more fanciful non-novelistic prose– “The Moment,” “On Being Ill”– as essays. Book reviews she considered “journalism” because she had to screw her mind to the facts. Perhaps that is all the division that is needed.
    So, yes, I agree that “literary nonfiction” does exist; just how literary is a matter of personal taste.
    (it is late here; my head hurts; I doubt I make sense)
    If you write that car manual I will definitely read it!

  21. Very enjoyable and well-argued. Coincidentally, I gave a paper on the exact same topic today! And yes, I argued that once one turns facts into events and makes them become part of a narrative, fictionalisation is a necessary consequence.

  22. I think it must be more difficult to write non-fiction that is both factual and “literary” (or novelistic) than to simply write a novel and invent everything. I can imagine a car repair manual that might be a pleasure to read because it is written with clarity, but a “literary” repair manual might not be utilitarian.

  23. I agree with Lisa – a literary repair manual could be interesting, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the best way of getting at the facts. Plus, you know literary nonfiction has to have a narrative to be interesting, doesn’t it? At least something that pulls a series of anecdotes together?

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  29. I enjoyed the original text and the following comments. Why try to stay away from the dilemma? In my own writing I submerge myself in mixing it all. Facts (non-fiction elements) are the skeleton on which I put flesh and blood and life as it is. The non-fiction elements help in creating the illusion of reality in the fiction part of my writing. To lure the reader into believing in all the magic that transpires. Could it be real? Yes, the feeling is when I succeed. I have come up with my own term for this, since it containts FACTS, ACTION and FICTION, I have decided to call it FACTION. Why? Well, why not?

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