Discussion → Fiction v. nonfiction

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    Ann Bogle
    Apr 02, 08:25pm

    Mary Karr in a recent The Paris Review interview: "I've been vigorously encouraged by various editors to fictionalize. [...] And I remember Vivian Gornick said to her students, 'Just make it up and see if it's true.' Bullshit. In fiction, you manufacture events to fit a concept or an idea. With memoir, you have the events and manufacture or hopefully deduce the concept. You don't remember something? Write fiction.

    "It pissed me off when I saw James Frey on Larry King saying, You know, there's a lot of argument about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. You know what? There isn't. If it didn't happen, it's fiction. If it did happen, it's nonfiction. If you see the memoir as constructing a false self to sell to some chump audience, then you'll never know the truth, because the truth is derived from what actually happened. Using novelistic devices, like reconstructed dialogue or telescoping time, isn't the same as ginning up fake episodes." p. 82

    How does Mary Karr's statement compare to your own ideas about fiction and nonfiction?

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    Gary Percesepe
    Apr 02, 08:55pm

    um---i follow mary pretty much anywhere? you know?

    frederick barthelme said pretty much the same thing in an interview i did with him a while back in new ohio review.

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    Apr 02, 09:06pm

    I'm with Mary (and Gary) as well, but feel that the real question lies in what is at stake in making these distinctions. What are the institutional structures at work? Who benefits and how and why? What is the relationship between ideology and memoir? The history of confessional literature is fascinating, I think. Thanks for posting this great question, Ann!

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    James Robison
    Apr 02, 10:25pm

    The distance between fiction, non-fiction and let's add poetry, is the same to me as the distance between citrus
    fruit and shoelaces and football helmets.

    They are profoundly atomically and utterly different.
    They must be--it is an artistic imperative. Teach a class with 25 folks who cannot tell a poem from an essay or either from a short story, and you will agree with me. The ransom note, the emergemcy exit instructions, the poison label have functions as non-fiction and in fiction, and the artistic differences are as critical as the practical ones. The David Shields "Reality Hunger" ethos and Lethem's trailing him in that direction, are dire signs of the collapse of the literary imagination along with even remotely good taste. (To claim Cheever's journals are better than his fiction is to declare yourself a moron.)

    There is, I suppose, some airy and useless sense in which all art deals with truths and all narrative, be it a line of ink or blood or prose, traces some track and begins and ends sentence-like and that represented in the metaphor of language is more real than that which exists on the table before me...but fuck that.

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    Ann Bogle
    Apr 03, 02:02am

    Karr: "In fiction, you manufacture events to fit a concept or an idea." -- I don't know if that feels true to me. I explore concept when I tell a fictional story. She has acknowledged writing fiction without conviction. I feel that I end stories inconclusively. I borrow setting. I use the real place then invent the story and dialogue. I know the difference between what was said and what I'm inventing as said. I recall spoken words and inflection. After a while, my characters' models cannot necessarily recall what was said.

    One night, while his mother was dying, my boyfriend-then-fiance came home drunk in the middle of the night. He had left me there with the home health care aide. When I woke I called him a "L." I rolled and stopped the consonant. My tongue just jammed at the back of my upper teeth. A few years later, long split, he wrote in an email, "You were right. I'm a loser." I wrote, I didn't call you a loser. I called you an "L." He'd used a lot of names, but it was the first (not the last) time I'd (almost) called someone a name. His recall of syntax was also identical to mine, intricate uses of tense. We never disagreed about how something had been said.

    "With memoir, you have the events and manufacture or hopefully deduce the concept." It's closer to memoir that I write even as I invent and call it fiction. I like Carol Novack's word "memfic." I borrow character and setting within a given frame and invent event and dialogue, it's a blend. I get the sense Mary Karr isn't talking about a blend. I think it's a percentage, estimable by the writer if the writer's memory is reliable.

    There is guise. A friend visited my weblog, Ana Verse, a couple years ago and said, "Well, you used to be a brilliant writer. Now all that is shot. I prefer the fiction guise." Guise suggests pretense as attitude in composition. It's a holding of the shoulders. How I hold my shoulders tells me if it's a fiction (I'm asking you happily to believe this did not happen) or a nonfiction (I'm telling you sadly that it did). At the fault line I am wishing you might believe it did happen and also that it did not happen. Leeway.

    In reading fiction we acknowledge that the narrator is not identical to the author. No such courtesy exists in nonfiction.

    Two novelists I knew in school, different from each other and not friends, told me "fiction is lies." Can the lie be that it is a lie? And call that fiction. Or friction. Story where there is tendency. Call it anything, don't call it nonfiction, creative non ... like fermentation or a stick of old gum.

    Here is my closing memory: my father wanted me to join him in quitting smoking (he had stopped smoking a pipe) and he sent a stick of Hollywood gum with a note that said "Smoke more gum." I kept it on a little altar on my desk. It got old. It dried out. It meant everything. I didn't chew it but kept it long.

    Gary, thanks for the lead to that interview. And Marcelle. And Jim: wow, that's a difference. I agree about Cheever's fiction mattering more, but I am thinking of his settings and context: aren't they also "him"? The realer him too real? Or not.

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    Gary Percesepe
    Apr 03, 05:51am

    for what it's worth department: here is a portion of the interview with frederick barthelme:

    GP: You wrote a novel called Bob the Gambler, about a couple who do a lot of losing at a Gulf Coast casino, which was followed by a book you wrote with your younger brother Steve, Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, recounting how the two of you came to lose more than a quarter million dollars in two years. Passages from your novels contain poignant remembrances of parents that bear a striking resemblance to your own and to passages in Double Down. How do you see the relationship between fiction and memoir? What is truth in fiction? What’s your take on the rise of memoir and the "fall of fiction" in the present moment?

    FB: Memoir is just another kind of fiction, fiction on a really tight leash. I did the gambling book with my brother Steve, and I liked doing it, but it was different from fiction because I didn’t have to make everything up. Instead I could simply remember it, which was a great luxury. Memoir brings into play issues of fairness that do not necessarily come up in writing novels. The tight leash is that the story is true, so you have all these obligations to get it right, to be honest, to depict the “characters” as wholly and accurately as you can. The job gets harder that way, but I like memoir particularly because when done well it is less about the author than some other writing.

    As to the rise of memoir, I think we’re fascinated by our world, and that’s a good thing, maybe even a new thing. It used to be that everybody wanted to be an artist—to make stuff up, imagine, fabricate. Now everybody wants to be a cold case detective. In memoir, as in life, truth is that friend who is never around when you need her.

    I use the autobiographical material about my parents because I remember them with great fondness. They were the source of everything—the ideas, the attitudes, the approaches to problems, the heart. They made the jokes, they did the thinking, viewed the world and passed the view along to all the kids. They showed us how to gauge things, how to read things, how to understand the world around us, how to push aside what needs to be pushed aside, how to embrace what needs to be embraced. Everything comes directly from them. All the children are poor copies of my mother and father.

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    Gary Percesepe
    Apr 03, 06:02am

    ya know, before we move on, on mary karr--can i just say that, much as i loved the liars and cherry, LIT was fine until the last third of the book, or so, when she wandered off into pschobabble and turned rigid--she has this tendency, i know she fights it. compare some of daddy passages in the first memoir with the AA "wisdon" chanted in the last section of LIT and you'll see what i mean. it is really insufferable. i didn't used to think karr could write a bad sentence until i read the last bit of that book. which doesn't prove anything, except perhaps that memoir has its limits too--and that maybe mary got off the tight leash that barthelme mentions, above. (ok, the idea of mary karr on a leash is too weird to think about, i stop now, in horror--)

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    Susan Gibb
    Apr 03, 08:02am

    I find that as open-minded as I'd like to be, I have a real problem with fact versus fiction. While every fiction has the seeds of fact (even fantasy and sci fi have a base point), every fact is fiction in that it is a perception of the writer.

    This is why fiction based on fact bothers the hell out of me. I'm currently reading "The Confession of Nat Turner" and I'm biting back the overwhelming inclination to say that either 1) Nat Turner didn't say that (since there's no evidence that he did) or 2) it's only a story.

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    James Robison
    Apr 03, 08:15am

    The easiest thing to write well is a poem and next is nonfiction of any kind. It's hard to write a short story. Hardest is a novel.

    I'm paraphrasing a well-known and very good poet. This poet is correct.

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    Edward Mullany
    Apr 03, 10:26am

    What James says (paraphrasing a poet) above - "The easiest thing to write well is a poem..." reminds me of Saroyan's one-word poem, centered on a blank page:


    It's like the the writing of this poem, and the flash of inspiration required to write it, are no different. Same can't be said of a novel, no?

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    James Robison
    Apr 03, 11:08am

    Exactly, Edward, and I would add that I think the hardest of all things to write is a great poem,(not just a good one), which may trump a great novel.

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