(Re-)defining nonfiction, again

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
Here's a simple definition for nonfiction: Any piece of prose that isn't fiction

Let me propose a simple definition for nonfiction: Any piece of prose that isn’t fiction. What does this mean? That nonfiction is capacious, amorphous, that it contains a multitude of subjects and approaches.

Journalism is one thing, as is history, analysis. Memory-based writing is a very different beast. Literature is a country of the imagination, which means that imagination is an essential component of all writing, whether fiction, poetry or (yes) nonfiction. Or, for that matter, all the hybrid territories in between.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because of both an essay posted at the Millions by Catherine K. Buni, and the announcement that Tim Duggan Books, a new nonfiction imprint of Crown, will be the first book publisher to offer in-house fact-checking.

Publishers, it should be said, have been notoriously lax about fact-checking; when my first book (an investigation of earthquake culture) was published a decade or so ago, I boxed up all my research materials, ready to send them off to my editor — except no one ever asked.

The issue, of course, is money. “What’s interesting about Duggan,” an agent told Boris Kachka on New York Magazine’s Vulture blog this week, “is that it’s Crown, and they have so much money. No regular publisher could do it. FSG couldn’t do this. I think it’s a luxury.”

That’s probably true, although to be honest, I’m less interested in the vagaries of publishing than in those of creativity, what happens when a writer is in the mix. In those moments, I would argue, questions of genre, of definition, are less important than questions of construction, of how (on the most basic terms) to get a scene to coalesce.

When I was younger, I used to argue that everything was fair game. Don’t remember a particular incident with precision? Make it up, even if you’re writing a memoir.

I don’t feel that way anymore, although I still believe that every writer gets to make his or own choices, that rules are for critics and cops. The best literature is that which works outside — or against — the rules, that which pushes back, changing the way we think not only about story but also about storytelling, provoking us to an understanding, or a consternation, we didn’t know was there.

This is where Buni comes in. She opens her essay by citing Janet Malcolm’s New York Review of Books assessment of Thomas Kunkel’s “Man in Profile,” a biography of the New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell, Malcolm wrote, was prone to “radical departures from factuality,” reframing nonfiction as “some kind of hybrid, as yet to be named.”

Buni goes on to discuss, among other writers, George Orwell (who may have embellished various elements in his essays) and Ryszard Kapuscinski, who once insisted to a friend: “You don’t understand a thing! I’m not writing so the details add up — the point is the essence of the matter!”

That’s exactly it, from my perspective: There are facts and there are truth, and they are not always the same.

Buni also cites Annie Dillard, whose “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” opens with a scene she later acknowledged she had borrowed from a student: “I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. … some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.”

Is this lying? Or is it art? Most importantly, I’d argue, it’s a great scene, one that establishes many of the central themes and conflicts of the book. To me, then, it is not so much a lie as a piece of creative extrapolation, an example of how memory and imagination can chafe against each other, creating a friction neither possesses alone.

The problem, in other words, is not the artist’s; the artist is simply trying to do her work. The problem belongs to a culture that still cannot quite imagine nonfiction as a realm of art.

Indeed, I’d suggest, all art is a kind of hybrid, reality reconstructed, redefined. Call it, as Buni does, “the timeless desire for a good story well told.”

What do we make of the fictions of, say, Philip Roth or Kurt Vonnegut, in which the authors occasionally appear as characters, a blurring of the line from the other side?

Do we question their validity as fiction? Not for an instant. Perhaps the time has come for us to acknowledge, finally, that when it comes to certain forms of nonfiction, a similar quality of nuance should apply.

Twitter: @davidulin

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