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A Life in Hypertext

Fiction and Nonfiction

i—crossing the line

There’s this uneasy dichotomy in the world of letters, between two camps: fiction and nonfiction. The fiction writer on the radio talk show will invariably admit, with some waffling, to the overlap between his or her "real life" experiences and the storyline and characters of the book. Journalists are scandalized for crossing the line—taking research and running with it, fleshing out interviews and sociological data for realistic effect. Does it come down only to a technical decision to say "I" or "he," to borrow or invent, to keep or change the names?

A fiction writer has nothing if not selectivity. From the swirling realm of forms subjectively experienced by imagination or memory, the task is to manage or facilitate how they might condense into hardpan story: a believable world. Ironically, the fictional container thereby created—so like the earth itself—is called imaginary.

In contrast, the writer of nonfiction, starting from the same wealth of uncommitted possibility, but with different intent, is presumed a dealer in Truth. The created form in this case is no clear polished mirror, but a rendering of images and ideas for some conceptual effect. Essays of narration, description, persuasion all are driven by a subjective purpose. Not allowed simply to be a world unto themselves, they serve a more didactic master, a rhetorical outlook, stance, point of view. This sort of writer speaks from a more or less political position: arguing or offering a particular version of What Happened, How it Is or Should Be—read History, Sociology, Manifesto. Nonfiction has apparently got its reputation for almost-moral preeminence from the Platonic tribe who calls truth ideal form, and the forms we see mere shadows, fictions of the Real.

By the same understanding fiction is given, implicitly, second ranking—both in current sales charts and ideological credit—despite infrequent rewards to its artisans in chandeliered lobbies of the aspiring empire, in control booths of the global brain. But the vast majority of these literary anti-heroes, out of favor with mass marketing trends, need not complain: they have bowed out voluntarily from the hierarchy of favoritism, the politics of truism and the forum of popular ideas. Let them rest content with their disengaged silence, their self-chosen exile and estimable cunning.

The art of fiction teaches, after all, a spiritual, ultimate and therefore unsettling truth about human life, about existence itself: that all form is subject to dissolution, all truths are suspect. The concrete world embodied in fiction is rightly called fiction, because ultimately our perception of what is true and lasting—the so-called "real" version of the concrete world—is untrustworthy. The soldiers of truth, like their generals that achieve fame for earthbound ends, like the cold-eyed consumers of tangible goods, like the captains of industry that sail our ships to rust, rot and ruin—materialists of every stripe—are ripe, we know, for the great compost pile in the Garden.

There is a big picture to paint and be painted into. Let’s go there, then, beyond fiction and nonfiction, cozy categories of truth and falsehood. To be led to believe while knowing what we’re believing is false is, isn’t it, a spiritual exercise on the order of living our lives in the face of eventual death?

ii—the politics of form: hidden and fictional narrators; what really happened

On the one hand it seems a cop-out for the novelist not to take a bow, at least, so that we can see, for instance, if he or she wears a tie or a beard, a dress or makeup. Some compromise by appearing as emcees in their own works; or at least appearing to appear in such a guise; the real masters still skate free somewhere else; perhaps employing a whole staff of d.j.’s to run the show in their absence. I can appreciate their craft, yet still am tempted to inquire as to their means of income, if other than or preceding their financial independence at the hands of the publishing houses and grocery store chains, universities and granting foundations. As a child of the sixties I learned to ask embarassing questions of every such institution, looking for blood in the cracks on the walls, investigating third world marketing policies of all the suppliers and distributors along the whole chain of being.

This politicizing I realize can be over-harsh, driving even Natalie Goldberg the Zen poet from her ketchup bottle at the corner café…so that my beatnik friends and I can stage a sit-in with joints and drums. Alas, this position too is too limited, and so ultimately my hat goes off to those craftspeople of the first rank who, like the moody slugger Albert Belle or my former reclusive neighbor J.D. Salinger, simply refuse to talk to reporters and say, rather, "Go visit my website" or "It’s all in the book."

What did really happen, anyway, and where was that money invested? Can anyone follow it to the end, and does it really matter? Did I really meet J.D. or A.B., and what did they really say? And what happened, or happens, or do we want to happen, next? Do you get a say, too? What color is your hair, by the way?

iii—characterization and selective plotting, in life and art

Philosophical debates about truth and reality aside, we come to the crux of the matter of fiction and nonfiction: in either case there is a reporting to be done, a selection of events and settings and characteristics, a discerning or imagining of cause and effect. Like every other cause taken up by the left brain, this chore is carried to excess all too often. My response as a rebellious third child (and child of the sixties at that) is usually to say, okay then, let's dispense with that, it’s all relative. This cheeky attitude can also become too extreme, "too radical." All the flowers get tossed into the compost. The window goes foggy with fire-water steam, and the dance hall empties out onto the street or forest: and no one keeps dancing because the rhythm dissipates in the night air, the city noise, the croaking and creaking of crickets and frogs.

That's okay, too. It depends on what you want. Payment and professionalism are beside the point—which is more about content real and implied, intent stated and lived and transacted. Art is out-front. Life is behind but supplies the telling spirit for what is shown, shared, shaped. Sometimes it even comes all together. The hip-hop rappers I saw last weekend at the Vancouver Folk Festival opening the mike to the funk-grooving audience, the classically-trained Chinese pianist singing scat and throwing silverware into her Grand while jamming with Norwegian kids breaking sticks and blowing bubbles from horns, the Brazilian drummer who walked the plastic barrel he beat between his feet and then dribbled soccer-wise while his brother beebuzzed and cheekslapped syncopated samba...these and heartfuls of various other world-reputable "serious" and fun-loving performing artists in the final summer of this fond thousand years demonstrated how far away are the boundaries we once kept safe behind.

July 1999

© Nowick Gray

See also: A Literary Odyssey to the Exotic Lands of Postmodern Fiction, Metafiction and Creative Nonfiction

Prefaces and Introductions Without End
- By Nowick Gray

Fiction and Nonfiction
Performance and Freedom
On Autobiography
Keyword Matrix
The Program
Public and Private
Willingness: A Life Aesthetic
Invocation: The Hunt
Yet Another Preface
Wordwebs: Core Topics
Story of My Life

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