Monthly Archives: January 2015

Fiction or Non Fiction?

My friend, Carol, asked if her soon-to-be published account of her families history was fiction or non fiction or what. She reminded me that one of my characters wondered about this. The following is excerpt from Between the Shadows and the Soul.

papabookfrontdraft01 twitterDuring my second year in graduate school, I met Caryn. Both weary of casual dating, we made plans together, resulting ultimately in an engagement. I progressed with my coursework, an unexceptional student, except my ongoing interest in fantasy and reality sometimes led to perverse questions. Near the middle of the semester in Advanced Creative Writing Workshop with Professor Harlan Engels, for example, I asked, “What’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction?” This was at the very end of a Friday afternoon class, and I was responding to the professor’s invitation to ask me anything, anything at all. Celia, the young woman sitting behind me, sighed dramatically, like an aging hooker settling into yet another blowjob, chain-restaurant chef making up his thousandth order of Chicken Kiev, airline passenger informed there would be a delay while the airline finds a gate. My bothersome question was what stood between her and early release from Engel’s bromidic babbling.

“Fiction is shelved alphabetically by author, non-fiction by subject under Melvil Dewey’s classification scheme,” Harlan EnglesEngels responded gleefully. Striking his most professorial pose, he bore a remarkable resemblance to T.S. Eliot, something he advanced by wearing round, dark-rimmed glasses and three-piece suits.

I clenched my hands with exasperation. “I know that, but what’s the difference in the writing?”

“Do you mean to ask what characteristics distinguish fiction from non-fiction?”

I nodded.

“You must learn to word your questions carefully. Careless word choice betrays thoughts unclear.” This adage was Engels favorite, repeated routinely in class. “But, to answer your malformed inquiry, fiction must make sense; non-fiction rarely does.”

I scratched my head. The class grew restless.

“Perhaps you thought I’d say non-fiction is about what’s outside your head and fiction about what’s inside?”

I nodded, wary.

“Dimwit! It’s all inside your head!” Engels strutted across the front of the classroom, heading towards the door to make a dramatic exit. Some students began to get out of their chairs, but Engels surprised them, stopped in his tracks, returned to his center-stage position. “The idea there is an outside your head and an inside your head, the idea you have a head – it’s all in your head!” He waited for the import of this to sink into my head.

I wrote down EVERYTHING and drew a head around it.

“So, the real answer is fiction must exhibit direction and purpose; the real world has neither.”

I wrote down DIRECTION and PURPOSE and drew a tiny globe next to them, with a thick bar separating.

“That theatre, your mind, stages some dramas based on interpreted information coming from out there, we presume,” – Engels waved his arms to point to out there – “and some dramas drawn from whatever self-inflicted electrical/chemical nonsense happens to be churning in there.” He strode fervently from the front of the class to my desk and pointed into my ear. “A ham struts out from stage right and announces, I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled, and another clown from stage left shouts, The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas. Who is Prufrock? I ask you. Who is J. Alfred? Indeed there’s no way to know.” Engels drew his open hand across his chest as he spoke, head tilted back, bald spot gleaming under the fluorescent light like a searchlight, Iowa moon, silver plate. “Reality or Fantasy? Fiction or non-fiction? It’s a farce either way.” Here he held his arm out, finger pointed up, the way no one does since Clarence Darrow. “The distinction is of interest mainly to persons employed re-shelving library books.”

Left to my own devices, I decided the question was open. Fantasy on stage might claim to be real fantastically, or might claim to be fantasy realistically, and if it did, would that be the truth, truthfully told, really? There was a difference, no doubt. There was a fictional account of the difference, and a nonfictional one, and I couldn’t tell which was which. Accordingly, I determined to commit the question to my journal, where it languished, sometimes considered, but never resolved.

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The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

The Land AcrossLately I don’t read much science fiction, though it was once a passion. I received this book as a gift, though, and found the cover information intriguing. “Wolfe is our Melville,” proclaims Ursula Le Guin on the inside jacket. She’s an author I admire, so started in, not looking for Moby Dick, exactly, but maybe Billy Budd.

Gene Wolfe is a well-known science fiction and fantasy writer who won the Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy awards many times. My idea of science fiction is Herbert’s Dune, and my idea of fantasy is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, so I may be a bit out of touch with readers who peruse those genres more extensively. But, if I had to assign a genre to The Land Across, it would be Mystery. In my view, science fiction stories are based on impact of actual or imagined science, usually set in the future or on other planets, and I think fantasy stories should have otherworldly settings or characters and invite suspension of reality. Mysteries, on the other hand, deal with the solution of a crime or the unraveling of secrets. Of course, there’s no reason an author who mainly writes science fiction and fantasy can’t walk down the mystery lane if he likes.

The Land Across is set in a small, obscure, Eastern European country in modern (post-USSR) times. The protagonist is an American writer who goes there to write a travel guide, there being none already, in any language. Lufthansa has service to the capital, but the flights are cancelled, so he takes the Orient Express from Vienna, heading toward Slovakia. He’s removed from the train by border guards and so the adventure begins.

Some of the elements of the mystery genre I find in this novel, besides the main one – the plot follows the unraveling of something mysterious – include: (1) The narration is first person, protagonist. His name is Grafton and his voice is street-wise, levelheaded, the sort of hardboiled personality you expect in a detective novel, somebody with a gun in his pocket. Grafton soon has a gun in his pocket. He’s loyal to his friends, attractive to and attracted by attractive women, thinks about his mother and father occasionally, does well in fist fighting. (2) The narrative includes piles of facts only peripherally important to the story, the sort of information that keeps the reader attentive, remembering, sorting, and speculating.

The third border guard took the front seat beside the driver. This third border guard was older than the other two. He had a black mustache, and in a lot of ways he looked like my father.

(3) The characters spend a great deal of time questioning each other and thinking through possibilities as they strive to find answers to their questions. (4) The story concludes happily with bad guys dealt with and good guys rewarded. (5) The narrator occasionally addresses the reader directly.

Everybody interested enough to read this book knows about the High Tatras and the Transylvanian Alps.

(6) The writing of the book is part of the narrative in the book.

So I have sublet my old apartment in New York again, and we have leased this one in Massachusetts. She goes to class most of the day, and I mostly stay right here in our apartment and write this book.

The novel also has a few fantastic elements, including a ghost, a mystic, a severed hand still living, supernatural agencies, and so on, some of them clever and interesting.

I read The Land Across cover to cover with pleasure although it’s not the sort of novel I normally pick up. The protagonist is likable, the story engaging, the writing competently done – a good, though not great, novel.

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