Friday, March 16, 2007

History as Fiction, Fiction as History

It's called "creative non-fiction" by its devotees, “CNF” in many university catalogs, and even "the Fourth Genre" by those who evangelize on its behalf. A sort of “true lies” approach to writing maybe, but leavened with literary flare and craft. The rules of the game are that you can't make up composite characters, as in fiction. "All you can invent are new ways of seeing and remembering, and new ways of saying what's true." When it’s done well, and Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD is an outstanding example, it’s brilliant. (Capote is credited with inventing his own genre.)

The difference between CNF and ‘crap’, like the memoirs of UFO abductees or of syndicated psychics, is that in CNF there is greater emphasis on the convictions of the author whose quality of language and mode of stylistic expression is on display; there is less interest in convincing readers of the literal truth of the life or historic events being depicted. Many practitioners care far more that you understand their emotional response to history, than they worry about explaining past lives honestly or completely. Where do such attitudes spring from? I would argue that it is a predictable product of the moral relativism which has seized hold of our society. Most people are simply not truthful as they go about their daily lives. They are even less reliable when they turn their hand to writing.

Six years ago I clipped a Robert Fulford column called PANTS ON FIRE, which discussed lying as a commonplace. I share the clipping often with students. Fulford’s main point was that because people care little about the effects of their lies, they “pollute” the social atmosphere. We expend more energy on making our lies persuasive, than we do attempting to make the truth work for us. Doesn’t that sound like “CNF”? His handy cinema reference was to Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon, in which the camera examines the consequences of a rape and murder in 12th Century Japan. Four participants in the events testify before a magistrate (we the audience behind the lens), and of course each has a different story. Lies are being told, but we marvel at the sheer majesty of their subjective interpretations of recent events. I don’t know if the Japanese tell fewer lies, but they can certainly be more frank in their culture, and I respect them for it. Last month I watched Shohei Imamura’s 1967 film, A MAN VANISHES. It compliments the theme of Kurosawa’s film, probing with gentle tenacity mounting evidence of widespread self-deception and deceit in a modern Japanese context.

I think about this state of affairs constantly. I was thinking about it the other day when I was teaching an essay called “History as Fiction, Fiction as History”. It’s the product of a militant black lesbian who has made her mark in the field of CNF. [Her sexual preference is revealed on her Wiki page, and it seems to have made her militant before she immigrated to the U.S.] I found her writing offensive and blatantly dishonest, and that’s the rub, because her goal was a denunciation of the dishonesty of others – specifically white people who had denied black history. Her use of irony is appallingly ham-fisted, but the point is that her whole approach is wrong headed. She chose as her source material a black heroine who left behind a heavily embroidered autobiography, which three generations of historians have yet to unravel. I learned from further research that the writer had taken that questionable material and written a novel in which she created a parallel figure (based on her own life and values) and inserted that character into a highly subjective interpretation of what happened at a pivotal moment in American history – John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. I have a strong interest in Brown and I do care when somebody messes with the history, for questionable literary gain, or no gain at all.

You probably know CNF from assigned readings in high school. Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD, did you no harm. Every generation is looking for a new role model or a guru. Jack’s "novel" was actually autobiography but he wasn’t famous enough to sell a memoir, so he gave his friends fictional names. The novel begins: “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.” You can compare text with the photo of his manuscript (below). No matter. Neal Cassady and Kerouac’s other pals are easily identified. And as first lines go, it’s not so hot. My favorite work of creative non-fiction is Negley Farson’s THE WAY OF THE TRANSGRESSOR, which opens with “My Grandfather kept his three Negro servants by the simple expedient of not paying them.” Farson is a far more interesting “life” to read, but he pretended to write ‘fact’, while the Kerouac’s of this world pretend to write ‘fiction’. The marketplace decides their fate.

I long ago read that Kerouac had written ON THE ROAD in a twenty day burst of drug fueled energy, typing it onto a 119 foot long roll of “teletype paper”. The intended implication was that the existence of said artifact meant that the novel sprang from Kerouac's mind in one sustained gush of creativity, almost as if he was taking dictation for a supercharged alter ego – ie. his genius. Since I had never been a fan of the novel (no sin there) I was a bit relieved to learn that it is not true. The artifact (sold at auction for $2.4 million) is actually taped together from a dozen lengths of tracing paper. It is not a first draft, in spite of the presence of corrections. Asked later if all the stories in the novel were true, Kerouac said, “All the stories I write were true because I believed in what I saw.” If translated into the classical Nipponese idiom, that might sound convincing coming from the mouth of a Kurosawa character in Rashomon.

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