Filed under: meme, Nonfiction, Ways of Reading | Tags: book, books, boswell, capote, gabriel garcia marquez, in cold blood, life of johnson, literary nonfiction, literature, marquez, martinus scriblerus, meme, nabokov, nonfiction, one hundred years of solitude, speak memory, the things they carried, tim o'brien, truman capote, vladimir nabokov
Is it really fair that just two weeks after forcing me to define what “literary writing” is (I did not really define it, for those of you keeping track) the folks at the Blue Bookcase are asking for a definition of “literary nonfiction”? I mean, more accurately, they’re asking if I believe there is literary non-fiction. Of course I do! Of course there is plenty of literary non-fiction!
That said, I am not really sure how I would define it other than to say that, as with literary fiction, I know it when I see it. But like Connie at the Blue Bookcase says, I’d generally consider literary nonfiction to be any non-fiction book that places some emphasis on the aesthetic aspects of writing. And it’s a work of nonfiction that is maybe trying to do something new, in the sometimes confused world of fiction and nonfiction, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
If someone says there is not such a thing as literary nonfiction, I will probably have no choice but to roll over and die. How about Boswell’s Life of Johnson? (Entering the dangerous realm of books I haven’t read but maybe one day will. Maybe.) How about Nabokov’s Speak, Memory? Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale?
How about works that claim to be nonfiction but are really fiction, like the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus? (Thanks GRE! On a side note, this is one of those books that you can’t find a decent image for – which somehow increases my interest in reading it, incomplete or no.) Or those works that have a distinct grounding in events that, you know, actually happened, but are themselves fiction, like The Book Thief, or some of Hemingway’s novels, or Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried, which itself explores at length the question of what is “true” and “not true”?
Not all of these works I’m throwing out are nonfiction, strictly speaking, but in my mind they all land pretty close. As with In Cold Blood, it’s sometimes hard to draw a distinct line between fiction and nonfiction, and as O’Brien explores in his stories, sometimes what is true factually is not the most true thing we can find.
It’s typical of me that I turn a pretty simple question into a debate about truthiness, but I can’t help it because I’m sitting here at school waiting for classes to start for the afternoon and making plans for my adult English class I have tonight and trying to figure out my nightmare schedule for the next two and a half weeks (picture 10 spelling bees, mostly in villages about thirty minutes from my town), and am seeking desperately to think about something a little deeper than, I don’t know, how many “English stars” my students have to accumulate in order to win a Beanie Baby. And so often the books that seem the most true to me are not true in any strict sense. Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the most true books I can think of, although it is definitely not literary nonfiction. It is literary fiction that captures something essential and real about the world, that maybe couldn’t be captured just by the facts, although some facts do make their way in, as with the banana massacre. (And hey, can’t we add Marquez to our “is it fiction or not?” list, with his The General in His Labyrinth? We can! We can!)
I have veered woefully off course. But to answer the original question, yes, I think there is such a thing as literary nonfiction, and I define it in about the same way I define literary fiction. But I also believes there’s some ever-shifting gray area between literary fiction and literary nonfiction, that some of the best works manage to shift across. I like those books that make me question something about my world or that send me to google in an effort to figure out whether an event is “true” or not. Like those dreams referencing earlier dreams that will always frustrate me as I try to figure out whether I really am footnoting my own dreams in later dreams, or if I am creating “past” dreams, I like the works that shake my world up just enough that I am left unsure of where I stand.