There have been many arguments and debates within literary circles about the bragging rights when it comes to fiction and nonfiction writing. If you are expecting an end to that debate, then you need to wise up and realize one simple truth – these arguments do not end. The closest one could possibly get to the ‘absolute truth’ is accepting that it does not exist. In the literary sense, fiction and nonfiction are obviously opposing genres but modern literature has also shown that the lines separating them have often been blurred. Apparent oxymoron terms such as ‘creative nonfiction’ and ‘nonfiction novel’ are liberally used in the writing and publishing world.
Both can be appreciated – The main reason I will steer clear of a debate pitying fiction and nonfiction against each other is that, as a reader, I have come to enjoy both styles in their own ways. Growing up, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens was of equal intrigue as Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’. The reason could be that I am a fan of history. While the former was a fictional story of love and sacrifice with the backdrop of the actual French Revolution, the latter was a monumental piece in zoology and genetics written at a historical period when writing something such as this was not only full of risk but also potentially life threatening. Parallel to history based material, contemporary readers who are into, say, science might enjoy the essays of Richard Dawkins, or Stephen Hawking with as much zeal as they would while reading works like ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K Dick or the ‘Cthulhu’ series by H P Lovecraft.
The creative lee-ways – The point I am really trying to enforce is that instead of beating the dead horse of a debate between fiction and nonfiction, it would be far more interesting, enriching and exciting to discuss the relevance of both genres in an avid reader’s bookshelf. The thing is, it eventually boils down to a combination of personal choice and the quality of writing. The content needs to be good and this is the only thing that should actually count. This however does not mean that a well written lie that claims to be the truth qualifies as good nonfiction. Renowned author, Salman Rushdie, while giving a talk at Emory University, said that it is okay to fill up the forgotten bits in a factual narrative with the creative as long as it is done so to support the truth. For example, if someone were to write his own memoir where he wants to talk about his relationship with his father, it would be impossible for him to always accurately quote words from his childhood. To convey what he wants to tell his readers, he might take some creative liberties to fill up the quotes, but he should do so only to explain what the relationship is like, which would be the truth. Readers today are intelligent enough to understand this. When a writer admits to using such methods without claiming absolute facts, gradually a trust builds up between him and his readers.
Conversely, intelligent readers can also see through the deception when nonfiction material is decked up with too many inaccuracies just because the writer wants to create an ‘exciting piece’. They aren’t fooling anyone, except maybe the ones who want to get fooled.
Influence of New Journalism – Leaving the debate aside, one could also try to better understand fiction and nonfiction writing from a relatively academic perspective. If you are trying to be a good fiction writer, you would need to ask yourself a lot of questions – what story are I writing? Whose story is it? Why am I writing this? And finally, how will I write it? In fiction, these questions need to be answered before putting pen to paper. But, in nonfiction, the story or the incident has already happened. This rules out the ‘what’ and the ‘who’. The ‘why’ can also be sidelined because it is generally an accepted notion that the purpose of nonfiction is largely a journalistic urge to tell people something that has already taken place. So, all that remains is the ‘how’. In the sixties, the journalist Hunter S Thompson wrote his nonfiction novel ‘Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs’. The title is pretty much self-explanatory. However, unlike most nonfiction works before it, his account of the lives of the motorcycle riders took a novelistic approach and yet all he wrote was pure fact. This new journalism, also carried on by writers like Tom Wolfe, Cameron Crowe and even Arundhati Roy, clearly blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction without giving up an inch of authenticity. That is good writing.
To conclude this, all that needs to be said is that we, as readers and writers, should be capable of accepting both styles as equally important in their own rights and also understand that at times, it is okay to mix them up for the sake of good reading or storytelling. Just remember – it does not matter if the character you are writing about actually exists or not; if you do not make it come alive on paper, you are doing it wrong.