12 May 2006

I Can't Read

I can't read books fashioned by writers and editors who insist there's such a thing as non-fiction.

In fact, I can't read because I am against non-fiction. I am of the anti-non-fiction faction. I am a non non-fiction believer. Contra non-fiction, I have a point of view. Nonsense and non-fiction have little in common, as any false positive test will prove.

The value and virtue of non-fiction lies in its ability to define itself as that which it is not. Non-fiction says nothing to me. It only designates that space inside of which writing is not false and also not not false. Non-fiction, by defining itself as the non-that, recedes into an imagined past when reality was defined as that which was, not that which was not non-existent.

Oh non-fiction, tell us who you are. Do you exist?


PS. By the way, I do like reading essays.


jdeshell said...

Oh Dimitri, I so agree. My problem is not so much with the prefix, but with the hubris, AS IF (their) language could tell us the "truth" about anything.

Not to mention the so-called ethics, of making sure the subject approves of the representation. Gimme a break.

And should we even speak of memoir? Again, as if their lives were necessarily interesting. To others.
"The greatest piece of good luck Jesus has was that he died young. Had he lived to be sixty, he would have given us memoirs instead of the cross." Cioran

The only book of non-fiction I ever liked was Genet's Prisoner of Love.

Dimitri Anastasopoulos said...

This is it precisely, Jeffrey: "the hubris, AS IF (their) language could tell us the "truth" about anything."

Still, I'm bothered by the prefix. Honestly, I would prefer a new genre called, "Truth."

Henry Miller called his travelogues "Scribbling." Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon" was nothing but ritualized testosterone filled violence. Would he have called it, Non-Fiction? I doubt it.

Lance Olsen said...

Someone somewhere (let us assume it was John Barth) once made or should have made the illuminating distinction between Boring Writing, on the one hand, and Boring Writing, on the other. The first adjective refers to compositions that are unselfconscious, predictable, tiresome, dull, formulaic; the second to compositions that bore: excavate, perturb, trouble. Much memoir falls within the first class, believing or wanting to appear to believe that the genre is something other than it is—namely, truthful, accurate, insightful, self-aware. But memoir, a form of consoling narcissistic historical writing, finds its being, as do all forms of historical writing, as a subcategory of fiction—a special-case subcategory, yet a subcategory nonetheless.

Although there are remarkable exceptions (David Shields, Shelley Jackson, W. G. Sebald), the memoir usually seems to want to demand for itself a privileged status with regard to evidence, personhood, and past. That is to say, it tends to behave as if it were oblivious of the theoretical implications and complications extant in its own genetic construction—how, for example, as Hayden White hypothesized in his examination of nineteenth-century historiography, the version of the past one chooses depends as much if not more so on moral and aesthetic values (and, I should add, the accidents called memory and sociopolitical circumstance) as it does on such notions as “fact” and “truth.”

That’s why the memoirist often reminds me of the television journalist leaning into blustery rain on a gray beach, hair whipping, jacket a giant mad blue bat flapping around him, Hurricane Katrina bearing down, shouting at the top of his lungs into his microphone: Boy, it sure is windy out here.

Chuck Rosenthal said...

Dimitri: I am there. Worse yet, creative nonfiction. Who invented that, Herodotus? Check out my synchronicity on the Unpoetics of Creative Nonpoetry -- The Anti-How-to Write Book.

Carol Novack said...

This is all so familiar. I wrote about memoir delirium in an interview posted at Portal Del Sol in April, recently completed a short, satirical, metafictional "mini-memoir," and I've been having such discussions with writers lately, bemoaning (as usual) the absurd American craze for "truth," (well absurd when it comes to fiction and so-called non-fiction -- it would be nice to demand "truth" from the regime, but i digress) and oh yes, "authenticity" and "integrity." In fact, last night, I was talking with a short story writer who'd emigrated from a former Communist country many years ago. She's experiencing great frustrations writing the book, mainly (it seems) because she believes she HAS to tell the absolute truth, otherwise why write a memoir? She's very smart, non-doctrinaire and has much to say that's important to hear, but she appears to be hung up on the concept of truth, the fiction, non-fiction duelism [sic]. She spoke about her parents' lives before she was born. How could she convey what they'd experienced without making it up? I said, yeah it would be flat and boring starting out: "My parents came from the little town of X, where they tilled the fields, etc." Why not give them their own words, based on what you recall their telling you about their lives in the little town? She's considering the suggestion, but it would entail fictionalizing the past. She's aware of the issue and has dug a black hole for herself during the writing process. It's sad because she may never finish the book and the writing process is depressing her.

What IS this American fixation about? It seems to reside in the heart of the prevelant bias against surrealism and magic realism, the distain for the fable and fairy tale, the formulaic approach to both fiction and "non-fiction" writing. It seems to be part and parcel of American naivite.

Well, this is a big discussion. It might be a good idea to organize a panel at the next AWP convention.

If anyone wants to see what I wrote on my blog about Federman and "fiction," here's the link:

on federman

Dimitri Anastasopoulos said...

It looks like I have some more reading to do. Thanks for the references.

My concern with genre theory really stopped when Jonathan Culler wrote, sometime in the 1960s, that genre is defined on the front jacket of the book. Once you turn the page, all bets are off.

Ralph Berry's talk at Lake Forest (together with Steve Tomasula and Brian Evenson) triggered some new thinking on the subject. Ralph intervened smartly in a discourse between Michael Berube and George Levine, and it really put the whole genre discussion to rest. What we're really dealing with is a question of aesthetics, a concern with formulation, ideas, propositions, concepts. We spend so much time looking at genres which encompass our rhetorical styles that we forget the basics: namely, how language produces meaning and ultimately knowledge. It seems to me that the way to cut through the genre question (when dealing with people who insist on the importance of facticity) is to turn the discussion around by emphasizing the production of information in any book.

In other parts of the world, genre distinctions are dead precisely because educated people realize that information and knowledge comes in many forms. If you read the Romantic Nationalist tracts of the 19th century, many of them are marvelous and mischievous as they present remarkably logical arguments that are quite frankly very believable bullshit. In 20 years, we may very well forget there was ever such a thing as Preemptive War simply because all our wars will be preemptive. Now that's a fiction for you. But what's the point of making such a distinction?


Something I read on a Greek blog, an excerpt from an article by Dimitri Kourtovik:

Literature [...] must have a deep awareness of the fact that it itself is a product of human alienation, of the detachment from the natural state of things. If it could it become "authentic" again, it would have no raison d'etre. Art, like man, is interesting precisely because it represents the tension between a mask and the real face. Or, to put it differently, because it expresses the authenticity of what is not authentic.

This is a quick translation, but we could, I believe, substitute "authentic" with "true".

Dimitri Anastasopoulos said...

Isn't that Kant's Sublime as well? I haven't read or thought about it in ages, but I seem to recall that was his definition.