Life in Hypertext
There’s this uneasy
dichotomy in the world of letters, between two camps: fiction and nonfiction.
The fiction writer on the radio talk show will invariably admit, with
some waffling, to the overlap between his or her "real life"
experiences and the storyline and characters of the book. Journalists
are scandalized for crossing the line—taking research and running with
it, fleshing out interviews and sociological data for realistic effect.
Does it come down only to a technical decision to say "I"
or "he," to borrow or invent, to keep or change the names?
A fiction writer
has nothing if not selectivity. From the swirling realm of forms subjectively
experienced by imagination or memory, the task is to manage or facilitate
how they might condense into hardpan story: a believable world. Ironically,
the fictional container thereby created—so like the earth itself—is
In contrast, the
writer of nonfiction, starting from the same wealth of uncommitted possibility,
but with different intent, is presumed a dealer in Truth. The created
form in this case is no clear polished mirror, but a rendering of images
and ideas for some conceptual effect. Essays of narration, description,
persuasion all are driven by a subjective purpose. Not allowed simply
to be a world unto themselves, they serve a more didactic master, a
rhetorical outlook, stance, point of view. This sort of writer speaks
from a more or less political position: arguing or offering a particular
version of What Happened, How it Is or Should Be—read History, Sociology,
Manifesto. Nonfiction has apparently
got its reputation for almost-moral preeminence from the Platonic tribe
who calls truth ideal form, and the forms we see mere shadows, fictions
of the Real.
By the same understanding
fiction is given, implicitly, second ranking—both in current sales charts
and ideological credit—despite infrequent rewards to its artisans in
chandeliered lobbies of the aspiring empire, in control booths of the
brain. But the vast majority of these literary anti-heroes, out
of favor with mass marketing trends, need not complain: they have bowed
out voluntarily from the hierarchy of favoritism, the politics of truism
and the forum of popular ideas. Let them rest content with their disengaged
silence, their self-chosen exile and estimable cunning.
The art of fiction
teaches, after all, a spiritual, ultimate and therefore unsettling truth
about human life, about existence itself: that all form is subject to
dissolution, all truths are suspect. The concrete world embodied in
fiction is rightly called fiction, because ultimately our perception
of what is true and lasting—the so-called "real" version of
the concrete world—is untrustworthy. The soldiers of truth, like their
generals that achieve fame for earthbound ends, like the cold-eyed consumers
of tangible goods, like the captains of industry that sail our ships
to rust, rot and ruin—materialists of every stripe—are ripe, we know,
for the great compost pile in the Garden.
There is a big picture
to paint and be painted into. Let’s go there, then, beyond fiction and
nonfiction, cozy categories of truth and falsehood. To be led to believe
while knowing what we’re believing is false is, isn’t it, a spiritual
exercise on the order of living our lives in the face of eventual death?
of form: hidden and fictional narrators; what really happened
On the one hand
it seems a cop-out for the novelist not to take a bow, at least, so
that we can see, for instance, if he or she wears a tie or a beard,
a dress or makeup. Some compromise by appearing as emcees in their own
works; or at least appearing to appear in such a guise; the real masters
still skate free somewhere else; perhaps employing a whole staff of
d.j.’s to run the show in their absence. I can appreciate their craft,
yet still am tempted to inquire as to their means of income, if other
than or preceding their financial independence at the hands of the publishing
houses and grocery store chains, universities and granting foundations.
As a child of the sixties I learned
to ask embarassing questions of every such institution, looking for
blood in the cracks on the walls, investigating third world marketing
policies of all the suppliers and distributors along the whole chain
I realize can be over-harsh, driving even Natalie Goldberg the Zen poet
from her ketchup bottle at the corner café…so that my beatnik
friends and I can stage a sit-in with joints and drums. Alas, this position
too is too limited, and so ultimately my hat goes off to those craftspeople
of the first rank who, like the moody slugger Albert Belle or my former
reclusive neighbor J.D. Salinger, simply refuse to talk to reporters
and say, rather, "Go
visit my website" or "It’s all in the book."
What did really
happen, anyway, and where was that money invested? Can anyone follow
it to the end, and does it really matter? Did I really meet J.D. or
A.B., and what did they really say? And what happened, or happens, or
do we want to happen, next? Do you get a say, too? What color is your
hair, by the way?
and selective plotting, in life and art
about truth and reality aside, we come to the crux of the matter of
fiction and nonfiction: in either case there is a reporting to be done,
a selection of events and settings and characteristics, a discerning
or imagining of cause and effect. Like every other cause taken up by
the left brain, this chore is carried to excess all too often. My response
as a rebellious third child
(and child of the sixties at that) is usually to say, okay then, let's
dispense with that, it’s all relative. This cheeky attitude can also
become too extreme, "too radical." All the flowers get tossed
into the compost. The window goes foggy with fire-water steam, and the
dance hall empties out onto the street or forest: and no one keeps dancing
because the rhythm
dissipates in the night air, the city noise, the croaking and creaking
of crickets and frogs.
okay, too. It depends on what you want. Payment and professionalism
are beside the point—which is more about content real and implied,
intent stated and lived and transacted. Art is out-front. Life is behind
but supplies the telling spirit for what is shown, shared, shaped. Sometimes
it even comes all together. The hip-hop rappers I saw last weekend at
the Vancouver Folk
Festival opening the mike to the funk-grooving audience, the classically-trained
Chinese pianist singing scat and throwing silverware into her Grand
while jamming with Norwegian kids breaking sticks and blowing bubbles
from horns, the Brazilian drummer who walked the plastic barrel he beat
between his feet and then dribbled soccer-wise while his brother beebuzzed
and cheekslapped syncopated samba...these and heartfuls of various other
world-reputable "serious" and fun-loving performing artists
in the final summer of this fond thousand years demonstrated how far
away are the boundaries we once kept safe behind.
See also: A Literary Odyssey to the Exotic Lands of Postmodern Fiction, Metafiction and Creative Nonfiction
Visit author website: nowickgray.com
Follow Nowick Gray on Facebook