Deep inside the questions

Do readers care about the authenticity of a non-fiction writer’s stories?

authenticity of non-fiction writer’s stories

authenticity of non-fiction writer’s stories

Do readers even differentiate between fiction and non-fiction?

What are our expectations of the stories we read and their connection to some sort of external, factual, reality?
 
Writers grapple with these questions all the time. Readers, perhaps, less so.
 
The high-profile controversy of James Frey, Oprah, and A Million Little Pieces won’t be further clarified by anything I say about it. Interesting, though, to see that the Wikipedia entry on the book now classifies it as a “semi-fictional memoir.” Whatever that is.

But these days most of my writing (and reading) is what writers call “creative non-fiction.” Another term for the genre is narrative non-fiction. Or literary non-fiction. Or… any term we apply has its challenges. The Creative Non-Fiction Collective, which I belong to, struggles with finding an appropriate, positive and clear name for what we writers are creating.
 
The essence of creative non-fiction is that we bring story structure, and narrative techniques, to factual, reality-based events. That means building drama within a piece, often using dialogue, and sharing internal / subjective perceptions (rather than attempting clinical objectivity).
Distinction Between Fiction and Non-Fiction

Distinction Between Fiction and Non-Fiction

A recent conversation I had with writers Beverly Akerman and Chris Galvin on Twitter got me thinking further about the writing of Jo Ann Beard, and the questions it raises about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction.

 I was introduced to Beard’s work when I took a summer course in Creative Non-Fiction through the University of New Orleans. Our seminar group read and discussed her work titled ‘Werner,’ which was published in Best American Essays 2007, edited by the late David Foster Wallace.
 
In his Introduction, Wallace describes ‘Werner’ as “an unambiguously great piece – exquisitely written and suffused with a sort of merciless compassion. It’s a narrative essay, I think the subgenre’s called, although the truth is that I don’t believe I would have loved the piece any less or differently if it had been classed as a short story, which is to say not an essay at all but fiction.”
 
So what is the difference? Where does essay end and fiction begin?
I am now reading Beard’s collection The Boys of My Youth. This is powerfully imaginative writing, laugh-out-loud funny at times yet full of the pain of wide-eyed life awareness. The writing bristles with thought-provoking observations. In ‘Behind the Screen,’ Beard is watching Fourth of July fireworks, in 1962, with her family. “The sky is full of missiles,” she writes. “All different colors come out this time, falling in slow motion, red and blue turning to orange and green. It’s so beautiful, I have to close my eyes.”
 
The writing is so sharp, I often have to grab a pen to underline, or just close my own eyes and absorb the thought. And the dialogue is telling, and well tuned.
 
Dialogue, like any other part of writing, has to be fresh and unique, surprising,” Beard says in an online interview. “It shouldn’t be there just because someone said it. It should further the story and it should illuminate something that couldn’t be illuminated in any other way. People don’t explain things to each other in real-world conversation—they just talk and expect each other to understand context. For better or worse, that’s what conversation in writing has to be like too.”
 
Yet one wonders about this dialogue. Is this really remembered dialogue, or is it invented? Fact or fiction?
 
A favourite story in the collection is ‘Bulldozing the Baby,’ about Beard’s quirky connection to (and ultimate loss of) a boy doll. In the piece, Beard the writer creates vivid scenes of Beard the infant, engaged in edgy battles with her stressed mother and father.
 
Clearly, when she is recounting a dialogue from a three year-old’s perspective, she is engaged in making-up her people – herself included. “I try to go deep inside and imagine it; the voice and the other qualities and details emerge from that,” she says.
 
She’s not cavalier about this “creative” element of creative non-fiction. The question of whether these are authentic, “real” people would appear to be important to Beard. Asked why she wouldn’t write some of her narratives as fiction, Beard said, “I don’t care about some made-up person.” Clearly, she sees a distinction between her non-fiction people and the “made-up” people of fiction.
 
The three year old Jo Ann Beard of ‘Bulldozing the Baby’ also thinks adult thoughts and is almost omniscient as a narrator, observing the interactions between other characters (like Beard’s mother and father) when she is not present.
 
Again, writers who are honest about their craft will cut Beard a lot of slack on matters such as these. Writers recognize that every time they appear in their own work, they are in fact a persona – a character created to drive the story or influence the reader.
 
And despite what one might presume, writers don’t always make themselves out to be smarter, better looking, and more accomplished than they are in real life. David Foster Wallace, the brilliant writer who edited Best American Essays 2007, created a David Foster Wallace character in his essays who was less brilliant, less accomplished.
 
A competitively ranked tennis player, he mocked his (lack of) skills on the court. He also avoided any reference to the fact that he was clinically depressed. In his essays, DFW is a charming, self-deprecating dude who bumbles and stumbles and doesn’t really have a clue about much of what he describes in the wacky world around him. We know that the David Foster Wallace we see in print is not the whole, the true, David Foster Wallace.
 
The same is no doubt the case for all writers. An astute reader will always presume that the writer-on-page and writer-in-life are different beasts. The question may be one of degrees.
 
So back to the Beard collection: fact or fiction? Does it matter?
 
As a writer and reader, I am willing to read Beard’s work as, simply, great story telling and leave it at that. Yet something bugs me. I look back at the book’s title page: The Boys of My Youth: Autobiographical Essays, it says. On the back cover, the book category (so book stores know where to shelve it) says Memoir / Essays. The promo blurb uses the terms again, talking about “this widely praised collection of autobiographical essays.”
 
Perhaps this is just marketing and publishing gamesmanship. It’s well known that short story collections (aside from Alice Munro) don’t sell in North America. Maybe the category is more about the market than the work.
 
Whether we call it essay or story, non-fiction or fiction, writing like Beard’s goes deep inside the questions about what it feels like to be human. Ultimately, it is the quality of that exploration that matters, not the labels we put on it.
 
Or would you disagree?

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great post, Lorne. Sorry I missed your chat with Chris on Twitter !
    Love Beard’s work. I find myself going back to it often, but interestingly not the pieces from childhood. I prefer the essays (and note I say essay!) in which she tries to make sense of her adult life. Memory and storytelling are all fine and good, but hold less appeal for me than a writer asking questions about memory itself.
    Christin Geall

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