TT: Fiction or Not?

JANE: So, Alan.  I have a difficult question for you.  I apologize in advance if I end up offending you.

ALAN: Ask away! I promise not to be offended.

Literary Spices: Use With Care

JANE: When I read your short story “Rag Week,” I really enjoyed the story.  When I read your comments, I learned that it was “based on a true story,” and that you’d made a deliberate choice to write it in first person.

If anyone wants the details of why you wrote the story that way, they can check out our discussion from last week.  My question is whether you consider “Rag Week” fiction or non-fiction.

ALAN: It’s definitely fiction. It was deliberately planned and structured as a story. There were several bits of it that I just made up and at least one incident that wasn’t connected to the story at all in real life, but which sounded as though it should have been, and so I shoehorned it in.

If anyone ever comes to write the definitive history of The Campus City Jazzmen, I really hope that they don’t use my story – there are far too many “errors” in it.

JANE: Whew!  I’m relieved.  The reason I asked is that more and more these days I’m hearing writers claim that what they’re writing isn’t fiction but “creative non-fiction” or “narrative non-fiction.”  These people get really upset if you call their work “fiction.”

Have you ever heard of creative non-fiction?

ALAN: No, I haven’t. Hang about – I’ll go and look it up…

I’m back. It seems that creative non-fiction uses literary techniques to communicate facts. So the piece reads like a story but provides information like a piece of journalism.

JANE: That’s the stuff.  I first encountered the term at a writer’s meeting.  One of our members asked if anyone knew much about it, saying that an agent had suggested to her that she re-draft her non-fiction historical project as “creative non-fiction.”  She then explained what this was and immediately heads around the table began to shake in the negative.

“That’s fiction,” said the award-winning historian.

“That’s fiction,” said the reporter-turned-mystery-writer.

“That’s fiction,” said former academic me.  “If you’re making up dialogue, not quoting from letters or other documents, imagining scenes, that’s fiction.”

But, there are people who think otherwise.  What’s your reaction to the concept of creative or narrative non-fiction?

ALAN: I have mixed feelings. Generally I’d agree with all the people you quoted who said that it was fiction. As I said before, I’d categorise my “Rag Week” story as fiction. But if all the information in the piece is factually accurate, then I suppose that creative non-fiction could be a valid concept. The literary techniques that are brought to bear can be thought of as being a bit like the herbs and spices that you use when cooking. They can add some zing to something that might otherwise be a bit bland.

But just as you shouldn’t over-spice your food, so too you shouldn’t over-fictionalise your non-fiction.

JANE: I agree.  By the way, I really like your spice analogy.

As we saw back when we compared the historical events upon which Shakespeare based his “History Plays” to the actual historical people and events, the problem with putting words into people’s mouths is that, after enough time has passed, the fictional presentation can be mistaken for or even –  as in the case of King Richard III – come to replace fact.

ALAN: And as a result, the debate has never gone away. Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, but his body was not found until 2012, buried beneath a Council car park in the city of Leicester. This caused great excitement, and the whole story was re-examined again and again in the weeks following the discovery.

We discussed Shakespeare’s history plays over several weeks. If anyone missed them, the first piece in the series is here.

JANE: Maybe I’m too deeply ingrained in my academic background, but the difference between a direct quote, a paraphrase (still fact, because it’s rewording a quotation without altering the essentials), a summary (which is condensing, but not changing, the material), and making something up is the line between non-fiction and fiction.

This applies especially to making up conversations.  Even if, for example, the author had a copy of a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington that said, “Thank you for talking with me about my difficulties with your vice president,” and even if the author knew as a historical fact that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were opposed both politically and personally at this time, I think making up the discussion between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington about John Adams moves into the realm of fiction.

But maybe I’m being too stodgy.  Can you give me an example of what you’d consider good creative non-fiction?   Or, if you can’t, how about when what has been presented as non-fiction crosses the line into fiction?

ALAN: Yes, I can – how about we go into the specifics next time?  As a teaser, I’ll promise you examples of both. And what’s more, I’ll take them from the works of the same writer!

JANE: This sounds intriguing.  I can hardly wait!

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6 Responses to “TT: Fiction or Not?”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    You realise, I’m sure, that you’ve just described the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Bede and, very likely, Gibbon. Just to name the first ones to come to mind.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      IOW, historians are simply reverting to type 🙂

    • janelindskold Says:

      Interesting thought. Still… Well, I plan to keep poking at this next week. Help me out. How would you feel if you found out all those history texts you’ve been reading were partially, uh, extrapolated?

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        interestingly, that’s actually a point that the authors of several of them have made when discussing sources. Which of the ancient or medieval writers they are using were actually present at the events, and therefore may be more-or-less accurately reporting speeches or discussions? Which of them are doing the best they can from reports they received? Which are making things up out of whole cloth, and for what reason? And who was there, and is _not_ being fully accurate because it would be inconvenient [or even actively dangerous] to do so?

        I’ve long been aware that ‘eyewitness’ testimony is less than trustworthy, despite the weight it’s always given. Documents are always prepared to serve a purpose, and unless that purpose is completely clear reading them can be fraught. So even the mythical ‘objective historian’ has to interpolate and extrapolate. She just doesn’t do it to make the result more enjoyable reading. Real historians have a point to make, or they wouldn’t be writing in the first place, and can be relied on to chose and read their evidence so as to best make it [Kuhn makes an interesting example. It was quite entertaining to see a pair of academic historians of science dismantle the entire notion of ‘scientific revolutions’, using exactly the same evidence he created the ‘paradigm shift’ from.] And they often are concerned with readability – they have to be, if they don’t want to sink without a trace. I guess the thing with ‘creative non-fiction’ is how transparent the creativity is: depending on that, it could be highly amusing or extremely annoying.

  2. Paul Says:

    As a former newspaper reporter, I would never have put quote marks around anything that I didn’t have verbatim. If I didn’t have it exactly, I’d summarize without quoting. So, my definition of creative non-fiction may be a little less flexible than most.

  3. Alex Says:

    This sounds like ‘Gonzo’ Journalism as popularized by Hunter S. Thompson just with a more palatable label. When I was young there was a TV series called, I think, “You were there”. Which did its best to recreate historical events with actors. That would also have been creative non-fiction, but they called it a reenactment of an event making it very clear that there was a fictional element.

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