The Essence of Nonfiction (with a big help from Augustine)
Today Betty Carter and I are running our preconference on nonfiction at TLA. The session is titled "I Want a True Book, Too" and yet as we prepared for it, we both found ourselves at odds with that claim. Nonfiction we both insist is not about Clean, Pure, 100 % Certifiable Truth. It is about process, approach — how you think about, test for, experiment, search, question, evaluate and re-evaluate. The results of that constant process must necessarily change — planets will disappear off of lists, pathways of the first Americans will be altered to include boats as well as the land bridge from Asia, new hominid ancestors will be found, we will constantly re-evaluate our past to find new heroes, new villains, new causes, new interpretations. What can we present young people? We can offer them ways to think about all of this ferment.
Betty and I each stress this switch from truth to process, with examples from life, from books, from work-in-progress. It is a good program. But was I was coming to the end of my second presentation, I still worried that the audience would feel puzzled, hesitant, wanting a more clear cut face to truth. And then as I wrote I realized what we were trying to say all along: non-fiction is alive. It is the process through human beings engage with the universe. That must necessarily involve change — because we are alive, because the universe is alive — non-fiction is change on change. Now there must be clarity, rigor, scientific method — and that involves trying to isolate and freeze causes and effects. But that effort to separate into parts is not deadly — it is a tool to understand, to bring more life, more light, into darkness.
People who like fiction think it has a vitality non-fiction often lacks. I am saying that the sign of true non-fiction is that it has life — it too feels vital, feels alive, is the track of live human beings engaging with the living universe. Just as I was writing this up I ran across a quotation from Saint Augustine that expressed this perfectly, "we who preach and write books…write while we make progress. We learn something new every day. We dictate at the same time as we explore. We speak as we are still knocking for understanding>’
That is what non-fiction is, dictation as we explore, reports from the field as we knock for understanding.