Wednesday, August 02, 2006

AG: Fiction's Es, Part 1

I have a note in my office. I come across it from time to time and when I do, I pause to take in its meaning. The note reads like this:

The Essential “Es”
· Fiction is exploration
· Fiction engages
· Fiction exemplifies

In contrast....
· Nonfiction is education
· Nonfiction enlightens
· Nonfiction encourages

As one who not only pens fiction but nonfiction (about 1 book a year now), it became important for me to understand the difference between the approaches.

Why bother with fiction? After all, a novel is just a made-up story, a fabrication that popped up on the writer’s brain one day like a toadstool on the lawn. The characters aren’t real. They might be loosely based on an individual or a composite of several people, but in the end, they won’t be coming for dinner or filing income tax. Their universe is the two dimensional world of the printed page, only becoming three dimensional when a reader comes along and frees them to frolic in his brain for a bit.

Why bother? Some people have mounted their high horses to denounce the merits of the novel. “Fiction isn’t real and therefore it must be a lie.” (Parables, not withstanding.) You think I joke, but those folks are out there, their pharisaic robes tied tightly about them, ready to till at the sturdy fiction windmills created by the likes of me and my breed.

A few years ago, while I sat at a wobbly card table with a stack of my most recent release at my elbow, a woman approached. You should know I have a sixth sense about these things. I can recognize a Baptist minister at twenty paces; find any Starbucks without a map; and the self-righteous. The latter are easy to recognize. They want to be noticed. (The down-the-nose-gaze is a pretty good give away.)

“What kind of books are these?” It was a demand, not a question.

“Wonderful books.” Then out loud I said, “Novels.”

“Are they fiction?”

“No, these are the last of the nonfiction novels.” Then verbally, I replied, “Yes they’re fiction novels.”

“I never read novels. They’re a waste of time. I only read nonfiction.” I bit my lip. I bit real hard.

There I sat, looking up at this…um…woman, listening to her downplay a few hundred hours of my life. Despite the urge to point out the section where she could find the coloring books, I tried to show her the error of her ways.

No good. She had been listening to herself too long to listen to anyone else. She walked away with nose aimed at the fluorescent lights feeling, I’m sure, that she proved her superiority. All I could see was a sad and shallow woman.

Fiction is more than entertainment. It is exploration. It engages. And it exemplifies. It does what nonfiction cannot. Remember, I write some nonfiction, so I speak no evil of it, just that it achieves its different goals in another manner.

Truth be told, most novelist have moments when they wonder about their profession. Does novel writing really have value? Or is it just an exercise in self aggrandizement? Even in my darkest moments, when I sit stewing in a broth of isolation wondering why I left the fire department, left architecture, left the pulpit ministry, to undertake this madness fulltime, I never doubt the power, the influence, the grand history of the humble novel.

It’s here to stay. And we are all the better for it.

More in the next post.

Alton Gansky sips his Starbucks and writes from California . . . and he'll be back tomorrow.


At 11:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said. And you have the distinction of being uniquely creative. The Perry Sachs books are fascinating.
There are at least two things I don't understand relating to this topic: people who stand on their invisible soap boxes and declare with self-made authority "I don't read fiction", and acquistions editors who have done most or all of their work (writing, collarborations, etc.) in non-fiction and are in charge of fiction.
When readers weep, laugh, learn, and/or experience a story that provides them joy, sorrow,excitement, conviction, and/or ministers to their heart needs, it seems shallow and worthless to criticize or ignore the value of a good novel. Although a story, as Solomon said, "There is nothing new under the sun" so if the inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit, how can anyone ignore the merit of the experiences of characters "living" what people have done (or wished they hadn't), thought, desired, planned, or needed?
Looking forward to Part 2, and I commend you for biting your tongue. Honestly, that kind of grace is ordained from the Holy Spirit.

At 10:54 PM, Blogger Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

You're a better man than I...LOL...uh, er, oh well...I mean you were more diplomatic that I :-)


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