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.