Thoughts on Truth, Beauty, and Nonfiction

I’m teaching a graduate seminar on plot and structure in novels and NF books. Today was Skloot’s Henrietta Lacks. The students had concerns about the ethics of writing (and potentially profiting off of) another person’s story. I had concerns about nonfiction writing and our formal or casual assessment thereof.

Here’s where I was coming from: I can go along with the notion that assessing whether an unpackaged text is fiction or nonfiction is way less interesting or important than assessing whether it’s just good. I’m not sure, though, that we can use the same set of tools. I’m not sure that what makes a work of fiction good—in the writing, that is—is the same as what makes a work of nonfiction good. Ditto bad fiction. When we recognize bad fiction, its relation to good fiction is of a different sort than bad NF’s relation to good NF. Or?

These are ideas I tossed at my students and we had the kind of discussion I got energized by and like happily increased blood pressure from. (Not sure this was the students’ response.) They had all sorts of characterizations for good writing. Beautiful sentences. Varied sentence structures. Thematic richness. Interiority with respect to characterization. I agreed with all these but was less than satisfied. The problem for me: aren’t this fictional techniques? Aren’t these writerly moves we use to make fiction work? Because nonfiction’s prose, do they just naturally apply?

When I write NF—right now, for instance—I do things with my writing—things other than use “I” and talk about my life and the world we live in—that I don’t do when I write fiction. I come to NF with a different toolbox. What, though, is in this toolbox I haven’t yet been able to characterize. Also, what’s in it that I don’t have and cannot use in my fiction toolbox?

It’s probably more backstory than you need. I’m not even at this post’s topic yet. Amid my prompting for ways we know writing is good, one student spoke up and mentioned truth. Fiction and nonfiction have different relationships to truth, but truth is central to what makes both of them great.

It’s almost the answer I spent probably too long looking for.

I mean: I should have known. “Good writing it about telling the truth,” is the opening line of Lamott’s Bird by Bird, is how straight-outta-comp-101 the idea is. But there’s still a problem: how do you tell the truth? It seems like all the techniques we learn in writing fiction (whether realist or otherwise) stem from the need to make truth. Because fiction is made up and fake. Fiction writing is good when it renders the made-up as true.

Nonfiction though begins as true. It has its innate truth before words have been ordered on the page. This leads to what another student said in class: nonfiction can get away with its writing being bad more than fiction can. If good writing is about telling the truth, it doesn’t take much writing-work—right?—to tell the truth when your story is already true.

This implies that good NF writing is transparent and subjugates itself in service of its story. And this itself has to be untrue. It just has to be. But here’s what else the idea does: it pinpoints why bad NF is so bad. Because it’s so false. It creates such artificial writerly falseness about plainly true things. It mystifies (this is not that same as defamiliarizes) and swaggers with “proper” technique.

A good example is here, Jeanette Walls feeling a sense of identification with a buzzard at an opportune moment in her memoir. We could, if we want, expand this notion of “bad NF” to any kind of reconstruction of scenes involving the dead. These scenes’ well intended but all the same false invention.

Which of course makes The Authentic Animal chock full of badness, so maybe these thoughts, like all thoughts, are works in progress.

One thought on “Thoughts on Truth, Beauty, and Nonfiction”

  1. Interesting thought, though I no longer think fiction is necessarily superior in the way this implies. I think of Zeitoun vs. City of Refuge, both great books about Katrina hitting New Orleans, very different, and differently written, but both powerful. My students are split slightly in favor of preferring Eggers’s Zeitoun, I think.

    I think there is an objective reality, or at least an event that can be agreed on—a storm hit or someone was shot—but I believe the truth, which is subjective or with perspective, is arrived at by the writer, in whichever genre.

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