Saturday, May 19, 2012

Blurring Lines

I used to think that the lines between non-fiction and fiction were straightforward. Fiction was fantasy, made-up, even the reality based stories. Information sources were unnecessary. Non-fiction was factual, even the narrative essay, which is essentially a story, was based on fact. 

Lately I’ve been studying narrative essays, and I’ve learned they might not be so factual after all. The point of the narrative essay is the moral or lesson to be learned by the reader based on some turning point in someone’s (real) life. Some of these essays, though, have had the facts altered in ways to make the story ‘flow’ better. Unnecessary detail is often eliminated, some participants may have names altered or might be a combination of participants; or the first person viewpoint might not be the author of the essay's personal experience at all. Mix in the relatively new (since the 80s) ‘creative essay’ that borrows fictional elements to enhance the reader’s interest in the narrative, to make it more entertaining, and you end with what? Non-fiction fiction?

On the other hand I’ve recently read historical novels that contain end notes to prove the research the author used to make the novel ‘true to historical fact.’ In one case, the author even listed her research sources. How long before we have novels with footnotes? Yes, I know historical fiction is a specialized case, and readers enjoy the play around what is assumed to be historical realities. (Yet we all know historical fact often gets rewritten, or is initially written with a particular slant, so might not be factual at all.) Is the historical novel really so dependent on the facts that the author needs to cite sources? What might come of this? If a contemporary story or mystery follows someone’s real life experience by sheer coincidence, might the author be charged with plagiarism or invasion of privacy, or some other felony or misdemeanor?

Is it any wonder people also seem to be mixing reality and imagination? For example, I've suspected some digital gamers I know find the game world far more real than their daily life. This blurring goes into many aspects of writing for I often suspect what is given as news is no more than imaginative opinion. Writing creates a confusing world, doesn’t it? 



Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Many questions and a few facts. It is my understanding that you can lie about a historical figure, but cannot misquote him ir her in fiction. Has that changed?

Creative nonfiction, a genre, has been around for at least 20 years. It's legal and more entertaning than just a recounting of the facts.

The danger is when we rewrite history, and then find that it departs so much from the truth, we have to rewrite more history. (You know the examples that might come to mind.)

If that were to happen, we'll be burning books and expunging digital material from places like Amazon.

This must never happen. Creativity enlivens nonfiction and fiction; it should not question reality.

Rhobin said...

Fiction is fiction and I don't know any rule about misquoting a historical figure if done in the right context such as a fantasy or provocative rewrite of history. If your goal is realism in historical fiction you would stick to known quotes, or have dialogue come from private (historically unrecorded) conversations. In fiction there are ways around many of the prohibitions demanded of non-fiction. And yes, creative essays have been around several decades, but narrative essays which can be very entertaining have been around much longer such as Langston Hughes' 'Salvation.' I absolutely agree with your comment on rewriting history in non-fiction.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

If you invent a plausible situation in a historical context, then your are not quoting but characterizing, which we have icense to do.