Dimtri Anastasopoulos asked me to post the following piece on the state of so-called fiction and "non-fiction" in the U.S., and, well, it's all my pleasure.
This is a long diary (part of my ranting of late on non-fiction) which casts an eye at differences in genres and reading in the US and Europe.
Recently I’ve been god-talking with a lot of friends, and we’ve been wondering, why is it a huge swath of Americans seem more intent on propping up God than ever before? The fact that this is happening alongside the dominance of non-fiction in the publishing world is NOT a coincidence, I offered. And then I set to trying to explain what the hell I could possibly mean by this. So I decided to write a diary.
Religion is not really a problem, nor are the religious a problem, nor is God a problem. Instead it's our certitude in the knowledge produced by religion that is a problem. When God is a zombie, when he's been resuscitated and forced to feed on our brains, he’s a problem. As well, I’d venture to say, if religions or religious beliefs didn't exist, we would very likely have groups of people who gravitated toward the kind of “certified” knowledge that religion produces anyway. I'm talking about dogmas of all kinds, ideologies, cold hard facts, man. I'm talking about politicians, gurus, hell even historians.
I'll try to bring together a lot of my reading over the last few months into this one diary to explain a cultural difference regarding how Americans deal with information (or facts) in comparison to others, notably Europeans.
Last summer, the novelists VS Naipaul and Ian McEwan were quoted in the NY Times as saying that fiction is dead, that they no longer read fiction, that they always turn to non-fiction first because in this day and age--post 9/11, Iraqi War--what we need most is to come to grips with facts, with the truth, we need knowledge, and delving into unreal fictional realms is just a waste of time. All counterarguments to these statements in letters-to-the-editor (from some well known American literary types) took the Naipaul/McEwan argument head-on. In other words, they tried to preserve a space for fiction even in these harrowing times. Me, my response was to take VSN/IM at face value, and ask, “OK, just what KIND of information are you interested in? In other words, what do you want to know? And why?”
The basic idea behind the recent assaults on fiction and poetry in America (more on this below) is that, in terms of facts and information, fiction and poetry are valueless. They provide very little of either. Clearly, even famous novelists like VSN/IE were looking for a little certitude, knowledge of the so-called world. So, I asked myself, is there a kind of knowledge that fiction can be responsible for? What kind of information can fiction provide us? Does it fill the gaps that other disciplines can't? Surely, I’ve never read a case study as intriguing as the psychoanalysis of Richard Nixon I found in Robert Coover’s “A Public Burning,” or the look into Hitler’s young adulthood that I discovered in Beryl Bainbridge’s “Young Adolf.” This was a form of knowledge, wasn’t it?
And what of Bruno Latour’s “Aramis, or the Love of Technology”? What was this book? I saw memos cobbled together into a weird narrative about a personalized subway system for Paris. This is science-fiction, no? What kind of information does this “novel” provide me? What about JG Ballard and his use of a medical paper on plastic surgery? Ballard’s plastic surgery chapter in “The Atrocity Exhibition” produced a truly gruesome and horrific fiction that sets the horror genre on its ears.
Mostly I asked myself, what is this so-called category “non-fiction” which has usurped the province of fiction in America?
JM Coetzee was in my town recently and he offered an anecdote about the American literary scene which was very telling. He informed the audience (well, his intention wasn’t to inform, he was just talking) that “non-fiction” is a very unnatural and strange genre indeed. Coetzee said that the trilogy that was being marketed in the US as his autobiography was being sold elsewhere around the world as his novels. Fictions, in other words, or autofictions as some in the literary world have come to know them. His explanation for this was simple. The non-fiction category as a genre doesn’t exist anywhere else.
There’s a very good reason for this. The category of “non-fiction” writing is an academic category born in the MFA creative writing programs in American universities in the 1960s. When fiction writers and poets moved into the academy after the GI Bill, they were immediately accosted with the demand that they had to have at least one “toe” in the real world. The Harvard critic, Roman Jakobson, upon hearing that Harvard was hiring a writer to teach writing, remarked, “What’s next? Are we going to hire elephants to run the zoo?” Writers quickly discovered that the newborn genre “non-fiction” would satisfy the academic powers that be. In my opinion, this move vouchsafed our reason for being at all. You can’t employ people who are only good at making “shit” up. In fact, the very designation derives from Truman Capote’s pronouncement that “In Cold Blood,” his recounting of the horrific slaughter of a Kansas family by two drifters, was a Non-Fiction Novel. The writing programs in the US took this idea and ran with it. 40 years later, the publishing industry in the US is dominated by so-called non-fiction works. The term has become naturalized in the US. No one remembers the time before non-fiction, no one remembers its roots. Non-fiction is a kind of new religion here. No one even questions its very awkward designation. Non-what? Just come out with it man, what is your genre all about? Don’t pussyfoot around by telling me what you are NOT. Tell me who you are. You see, behind this Non, there’s a very subtle deceit which has come to dominate American culture, and that deceit is that someone has a certitude of knowledge which--while it can’t be called the “truth,”--we can just the same pretend that it’s very close to the God-awful truth, simply because--at the very least--it’s NOT a lie. That’s what this category of non-fiction reading has become in the US. A sly way of saying, this is not a lie. Initially, it was only supposed to designate a form of writing that presented real events through the use of literary writing techniques which were until then limited to the genre of fiction. If you look at American writing pre-Capote and post-Capote, there’s a sea change in style. There is no history, essay, or news reporting that incorporated fictional techniques the way that Capote’s form of non-fiction did. Here and there we might find such narrative techniques being used in literatures around the world, but elsewhere such writing is never categorized as “history” or “news.” Genet’s “Miracle of the Rose” or Von Rezzori’s “Memoirs of an Anti-Semite” or even Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” are treated as works of literature. Not “real events.” This, in a nutshell, is the categorical mistake the publishing world is making in the US.
This must be significant, no? That Coetzee is publishing his trilogy in Europe as a novelist but in the US he’s writing about himself, supposedly? Two continents of people are reading the same text differently, apparently, or so I’m told by the marketing/publishing industries on either continent. I imagine this is true of a lot of books. For instance, an American who reads Peter Handke’s “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams” (a fiction about Handke’s mother’s real-life suicide) may have a very different understanding from it than a reader who is not repeatedly asking the question--in knee-jerk fashion as an American probably would--“did this really happen?” Instead, the latter reader would probably be more interested in the question, “how does a sensitive writer like Handke perceive his mother’s suicide?” Another example: in the late 1940s, a small novel was published in Italy titled “Kaputt.” It was written by Curzio Malaparte, pseudonym of one Kurt Erich Suckert, the Italian Ambassador to Croatia during the Ustashe period. In the novel, several gruesome events were described, events which would resound in the Balkans as historical facts for the next 50 years. Suckert used the real names of leaders and generals he encountered in Croatia, and thus, the events in this novel--as it is labeled--bore the weight of a form of evidence to atrocity. Clearly, given the experiences of Yugoslavians under the Nazis, no one was really in a mood to ask about genre differences, whether the events described were fictional or not. Instead, “Kaputt” became a form of testimony to all the brutalities that had actually occurred, a general record of the era, rather than a record of specific events.
Again, compare this manner of reading to recent scandals and controversies in the USA. The Oprah-Frey scandal in which an autobiographer on the Oprah show, James Frey (author/victim of “A Million Tiny Pieces”) was found to have lied about a great many events in his book. JT Ellroy, the author of an autobiography of his life as an abused young boy, was discovered to be a female author in her latter years. Oprah’s initial response to the scandal, “So what, it’s still a great story,” was, in my opinion, the proper one. She quickly backtracked, however, as the scandal caught fire. America would have none of it. You do not LIE to Americans when you are telling your personal story, apparently. You see, despite our cognitive dissonance when it comes to WMDs, we don’t want evidence that we are being lied to exposed so baldly. At least with WMD, there’s still a chance Saddam hid them somewhere near the earth’s core. But with Frey, he lied to us. So, we have incident after incident in which Americans are hung up on the question, “Is it real?” “Is it real?” “Is it real?” That’s all we care about. That events happen is an uncontested fact (or, as Pynchon recently put it, “Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur.”) But the retelling of these events proves problematic again and again, and the constant refrain of “Is it real?” quickly becomes an obstruction to our critical capabilities, one that prevents us from examining the literary work for its information content. In fact, the question prevents us from examining any set of information at all. We are quickly satisfied with the certitude of the real. And we forget to ask, Is this logical? Does it educate? Is it probable? Who is the source? Or, even, what are the counterarguments to this theory?
No, I’m an American, I can’t ask these questions until I get to the bottom of the one and only God: “is it real?” I’m guessing that Naipaul and McEwan can’t get over that question. “Is it real?” I argue that this quest for certitude prevents us from examining information for what is. It prevents us from putting the information before us to the test of logic and functionality, and it exposes us to certain propagandistic beliefs which become dogma all too quickly.
The NYTimes Sunday Book Review recently announced that it will no longer review works of literary fiction. Instead, the new editor has been tasked with reviewing works of “non-fiction” only. Autobiography, Biography, History, News Reporting, etc. The new editor, in fact, was asked what he had against fiction. His reply, “Fiction is shit.” The new editor is Steven Erlanger. Erlanger, a veteran reporter in the Balkans during the 90s (I remember, as someone who read daily about Balkan events, Erlanger’s reports as being excellently balanced, with plenty of anecdotes, he had a real energy toward getting the full story, he and Kinzer, both were really good reporters). Obviously, his statement opened up a firestorm since the NYT is the biggest paper for fiction reviewing in the USA. Many writers bombarded his rather sensational statement without realizing the game was over. When the editor says, “You are Shit,” that pretty much says it all, no? Me, I was happy as hell because the New York Times was suddenly putting an emphasis on reporting, on getting to know more about other countries, in the culling of balanced information, and it was my hope that this trend begun by the Arts Editor would quickly catch fire to the rest of the paper. The hope was that ethics in journalism would return to the home of Judy Miller, David Brooks, Jason Blair, and the like. Maybe the NYT would become the paper of record again, instead of behaving like a propaganda organ.
You see what I’m getting at? The lowest level of reportage seems to be generalizing and propaganda. If this important newspaper wants to improve its reporting by getting rid of the review of a literary genre I love, then I’m all for it. Improve thyself.
But the fact is, Erlanger’s insistence that the non-fictive is more valued than the fictive can only lead to trouble. It propagates the same categorical mistake which inevitably makes American readers highly susceptible to propaganda. It emphasizes the “this happened” over the specific significance of the actual event itself, the power of an event to chasten us and realize our place in the world. As William H. Gass puts it (I’m paraphrasing), it’s not good enough to write about things because they actually happened. “People stand in lines at the bank and they cut cabbage.” But Gass doesn’t want to read about it. It happened. So what?
I have to clarify: I’m not at all arguing against news reporting, histories, etc., I’m merely criticizing the mania for them. The mania for certified knowledge, the mania for the real.
Most of all, I’m concerned that the USA is trashing a genre of writing which I find immensely valuable for building critical thinking skills. I’m worried that we’re replacing it with a genre that will easily become a vessel for propaganda, and the public will have disarmed itself of critical capabilities to know the difference. Genres are good things, I love them. They tell me how to read, they tell me which reading skills I need to bring to any particular text, they save me time even when I’m reading the Now What Blog! But when genres become dictatorial habits, the reader is in trouble. Why must we make a tyranny of our knowledge? Why must the category always wag the tail of the specific? God is not dead. He’s the lazy being in my head that says, you don’t have to read that shit. Read this instead.