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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Great Debate

Last night my men’s reading group met to talk about Daniel Okrent’s Last Call new book on Prohibition. We all felt pretty much the same way — the book brings many new inights (in particular how the move for Prohibition was closely tied to two other key reforms of the era: women’s suffrage and income tax), and line by line it was well written, but it was also disappointing. That was because the author marches ahead profilling key players (always very nicely and with compelling anecdotes), explaining what happened next. But all of those moments, those points of description, rarely lift up into a bigger picture — a sense of the nation, the time, what it all meant. One of the readers felt that the book was lacking what only fiction can, he believes, bring: that artistic mastery, that deeper insight into humanity, that goes beyond yet another profile, yet another interesting actor, yet another step in the relentless march of chronology. I completely disagreed. To me the problem is not one of genre — fiction vs. nonfiction — but of ambition.

The book announces on the cover that it is one of the key sources for a new Ken Burns documentary, and that is exactly how it reads. As I read each profile I could already hear the music (and as one of the guys said last night, the tinkle of ice in glasses and the sounds of women’s laughter) that Burns will use as he fades in an out on a photo of that person, leading into the next quarter hour episode. As it happens, HBO is also doing a big Prohibition era series this fall, Boardwalk Empire: and doubtless it will avoid the leaden progress from profile to profile to go inside characters. But I still feel that it is quite possible to write nonfiction that is fully as rich, deep, artistic, experimental — in short, ambitious, as any novel. The problem is too many nonfiction authors and their editors settle. They find an interesting, engaging, timely topic. The author makes sure to write nice, clean, well-crafted sentences, and to begin each chapter with captivating incidents. But there is no bookmaking — essentially you get research poured into the form of chapter-opener plus details. Topic replaces depth.

That is the heart of my objection to this book — and to the argument for fiction. Depth is not the result of genre, it is the result of approach. You can go as deep in nonfiction as fiction — if that is your aim. If you set out to explore character, motivation, time period, you can do that in nonfiction. But if you set out to write many entertaining bits about a cool topic, then you won’t slow down to go deeper. That is a difference in approach, not a difference in genre. I notice that in my own writing I am drawn to write about magnificent and magnificently flawed people: Sir Walter Ralegh; Oliver Cromwell; Robert Clive; RFK; Bill Gates; J. Edgar Hoover — I like digging around inside their psyches, trying to make sense of their darkness and their soaring accomplishments. That is all pure nonfiction, but the challenge is quite as great as in writing any novel about a towering, complex, person. And the bonus extra is that in trying to make sense of such a person I also get to understand something more about us, our world, our time, how we got to where we are.

That was last night’s Great Debate — what do you think?


  1. Hank Cochrane says:

    Thank you, Marc, for being kind enough to draw first blood in this debate. If I understand your position correctly, you feel no personal need to read fiction. Correct? From our conversation and based on your blog post, I infer that you believe nonfiction can do all the same things that fiction can do, with added benefit that the reader learns something ‘true’ about his world, and about how we got to where we are.
    To be sure, our cultural default setting favors your position. From my perspective, the merits of fiction—even great fiction—are everywhere disparaged as having little more than entertainment value, in favor of outlook that is distilled by the phrase: “news you use.”

    As it happens, you and I were disappointed in Okrent’s excellent, if flawed, book LAST CALL, for many of the same reasons. I too would have preferred had Okrent’s ambitions included a willingness to address more directly the underlying motivations of character for history’s actors, and the complex psychology of our nation as a whole during the early part of the 20th century. And I think that Okrent could have done these things without changing his genre from nonfiction to fiction.

    Having said that, my immediate point about LAST CALL, which touched off the fiction vs. nonfiction debate, was that I think it is unfair to fault Okrent for not writing a book he didn’t set out to write. I only meant to say that if we are interested, as a group, in plumbing the depths of intangible realities, we ought to read some fiction. One of the primary functions of fiction is to explore and communicate intangible realities; and perhaps, even directly to present reality itself to the reader. Writers of nonfiction can do this as well, but it is not a requirement for nonfiction.

    To be sure, I love nonfiction. I count among my favorite books of all time: the brilliant intellectual narratives of writers, like Robert Wright, Louis Menand, and Ernest Becker, and the novel-like financial histories of Michael Lewis, as well as such masterpieces as the biographies of Ron Chernow, not to mention the pitch-perfect autobiographies of Tobias Wolff and Richard Wright. Then, there are the soaring philosophical writings of Kierkegaard or Martin Buber whose mind-bending expositions are awe inspiring. The array of what is nonfiction is vast.

    So I don’t take issue with the value of nonfiction as a medium of culture or as an art form. But the idea that nonfiction can achieve everything that great fiction can achieve is almost self-evidently untrue — The Greek Mythologies? Huckleberry Finn? Shakespeare? The Book of Genesis? The Book of Job? William Faulkner? Really? Come on.

    There are some realities that can only be understood by way of analogy and allusion. And given the messiness of the human condition, sometimes the only sufficient analogy or allusion is one that doesn’t yet exist. An author needs to invent it; and fiction is engendered with imaginative powers that nonfiction is not. Fiction is not bound by the same laws of logic and reason. The language of fiction is free to go beyond the competency of reason to the pure wonder of being.

    It’s a place that I think we should check out from time to time. Especially over some beers.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Of course, on the abstract level, there are things fiction can do. And sometimes when fiction does those things, I treasure it. As an example, I’ve just finished One Crazy Summer but Rita Williams-Garcia — a terrific middle grade/YA novel set in Panther Oakland in 1968 — a period I’ve written about and in fact am writing about just now in nonfiction. Her book is delicious in its portraits of characters and human interactions while profoundly true in capturing the larger racial and social crosscurrents of the time. Neither is character sacrificed to setting nor context to character. My point here and at our meeting, though, was simply that there is not a qualitative difference — nonfiction can, indeed at its best must, go as deep into character as does fiction. So the differences are of approach perhaps, style, angle of entry — not in depth achieved. My sense is that you were saying NF is, of nature, aiming at a lower, shallower, target. And that is what I disagree with — the high targets are available to all, but too many in NF settle for what the MBAs call “low hanging fruit.”