Sunday, July 11, 2010

Fiction and Non-Fiction Friction

by Drew Martin

A lot of men I come across, especially the engineering types, often explain to me that they usually do not venture beyond non-fiction when they read. They want to read something that is "true", or so they believe to be. Likewise, many freer spirits would find it difficult to actually read something about history or more specific, biographical. It's a fascinating situation.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (which is a good read for both types) Robert Pirsig cracks this hard nut open:

It was an intrusion on his reality. It just blew a hole right through his whole groovy way of looking at things and he would not face up to it because it seemed to threaten his whole life style. In a way he was experiencing the same sort of anger scientific people have sometimes about abstract art, or at least used to have...

What you've got here, really, are two realities, one of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don't match and they don't fit and they don't really have much of anything to do with one another.

It is interesting when you not only consider the content but the medium as well. To take something as loose and flowing as someone's life or wild and chaotic as an ancient battle and try to reduce it not only to text but into marks of ink on dry sheets of paper is actually quite a bizarre thing to do, which turns the multi-faceted realities of a situation into a one-sided fiction of sorts.

Likewise, to create a story from thin air and produce a book from nothing is a kind of documentation in the spirit of non-fiction. At least the oral tradition left a lot of room for embellishments and was without borders, covers and ISBN numbers.

We all know "truth can be stranger than fiction", which can be quickly discovered in the first few pages of a well written non-fiction book such as The Professor and The Madman. Less convincing (to the factual type) is that the fiction can simply do things and go places that non-fiction simply cannot. It gives us missing information. A good example of this is The Life of Pi, which has a source in the real world but is turned on its head by the creative, compensating mind of the only survivor of a shipwreck.

My advice for either side is varied. For the fictional minds, I would suggest taking a book, which seems incredibly boring such as The Professor and the Madman, which is really about about the creation of the Oxford English Dicitionary, and just read a few pages of it. It's treatment of paranoia, obsession and even self-castration make it almost impossible to put down.

For the fact-oriented person, I would recommend taking a topic he or she knows very well and then reading a fictional book which speaks to that topic and period. You can read as much as you want about puritan New England but nothing would get you as close to certain ways of thinking as embedding yourself in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.