Thursday, August 03, 2006

AG: More Fiction E's, Part 2

In my last post, I shared my “Essential “Es.” Here they are again.

The Essential “Es”
· Fiction is exploration
· Fiction engages
· Fiction exemplifies
In contrast....
· Nonfiction is education
· Nonfiction enlightens
· Nonfiction encourages

These are from a note that I refer to from time to time to remind me of what I do. It’s a shorthand way of emphasizing the key goals of fiction and nonfiction. Of course, I should add another E to the fiction section because, at least from the reader’s motivation, fiction is entertainment. I doubt many people picked up Stephen King’s CELL saying, I wonder what new and fresh things I’ll learn from this novel. The book CELL sells (sorry, couldn’t resist), because people are looking for a good and in this case scary, read. There’s a reason novels are not found in the footnotes of academic papers (except those in thesis work for an MFA).

Does this mean that fiction can never be educational? Of course, not. I’ve learned many things from well researched novels. If you want to know how many rivets there are in an F-22 fighter jet, a Tom Clancy novel might just have the answer for you.

Education is not what the novel does best. It’s not meant to. Novels are more visceral and consequently may have greater impact on individuals than nonfiction. For example, sometime ago I read BLIND MAN’S BLUFF by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew with Annette Lawrence Drew. It’s a finely written work on submarine espionage during the Cold War. I learned a lot. I consider it one of the best books I’ve read. I received an education. But what if someone took the same material (most likely, one segment of the material) and made a novel of it? Through a novel, the reader could explore what it is like to ply the oceans beneath waves, spying on communist countries. The reader is engaged with the information. And if the novel has an admirable hero (not perfect but possessing something to respect), then the work exemplifies a noble behavior. (I suppose the antagonist exemplifies misbehavior and ignominious motivation.)

This idea of exploration, engagement, and exemplification, is what makes a great novel, well, great.

Another memorable nonfiction on my shelf is the superb DAY ONE, BEFORE HIROSHIMA AND AFTER, by Peter Wyden. I read the 1984 book years ago but a particular passage has stuck with me. Wyden writes about the moments after the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima—and he did it from the point of view of someone on the ground. It was the first time I got weepy in a nonfiction work. Wyden did what novelists aim to do, engage not just the mind, but the emotion as well. A novelist working in that subject could go several steps further, allowing the writer to see through the eyes of a mother, a father, maybe a soldier, or even one of the countless children whose skin was cooked from their bones, still alive and just waiting for an overworked Death to get around to them.

These nonfiction books, and those like them, reach a level that explodes the presuppositions that so confine the genre. Nonfiction educates, enlightens and encourages to action. Fiction explores, engages, and exemplifies.

Now this: Can these terms cross the borders I’ve established. Yup. And that is my little game. In my list above, can we properly substitute “fiction” for “nonfiction.” Can fiction also educate, enlighten and encourage? Can nonfiction explore, engage and exemplify? Of course.

At the heart of things is this: The accomplished writer knows how to be both spotlight and laser beam. In the end, writing, all writing is creative communication. If done correctly, concepts and characters; facts and fallacies; points and plots, do the same thing: They tattoo the brain of the reader. Hopefully, with something worthwhile.

Alton Gansky minds his e's, p's, and q's from his home in California. Visit him at his web page:


At 11:02 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Thanks for a great post. You said, "Can fiction also educate, enlighten and encourage? Can nonfiction explore, engage and exemplify? Of course."

I, too, feel fiction often "educates." It can "educate" its readers as to what the authors think/feel/believe in/want to wave a banner for/take your choice.

And sometimes those things are things I don't necessary want to "learn."

For example, I happened upon an old Phillipa Carr novel (aka Victoria Holt) and started reading it last night. In the first three pages, the 1800ish-heroine is sleeping with 20-year-older, ladies-man Beau, and at one point he drew her a bath and anointed her with rose lotion which he made himself, and then they...(use your imagination).

In those pages, I "learned" that this heroine has left/doesn't have moral moorings, and I "learned" (surmised) that the author supports this belief.

Oh, sheesh, maybe I'm thinking too deeply this morning.

It's been said that Flannery O'Connor got the biggest laugh out of teachers teaching their students to dissect her stories and find out what they "really mean." She said they didn't "mean" anything, that she "just felt like" writing them!


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