I needed something to read on the 8 hour flight back home, and even though there was a handy plug on the plane, I did not want to try the ereader. So I picked up the J.M. Coetzee novel “summertime.” It is one of those novels in which a character with the same name as the author writes the novels the author wrote — thus a play on fiction, biography, and autobiography. At one point the Coetzee character gives as a reason for writing (fiction) a version of a famous phrase that Kafka wrote — which I found in more detail on the web. Here is what Kafka wrote in a letter:
“Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it ? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we loved ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.”
Reading that made me rethink the whole fiction-nonfiction question. I had said fiction has its truth within the text, while nonfiction could be checked against something outside the text. But what Kafka is saying is that the fiction’s only reason for being is to shatter something inside the reader, to be a blow that changes something in you. Clearly not all fiction aimed at younger readers tries to do this — but some does, and in any case I’d hesitate to define the mission of our fiction as being totally different from that of adult fiction, since that would play to those critics who see our fiction as tepid, and the real intensity only in their court. More generally, the quotation suggests that fiction offers two truths — one within the frame of the story, and one in which the story is a trap that leads you to a place where all you can do is look in the mirror — that it guides you to some form of internal reckoning, or at least an internal recognition — “oh yes, I am like that, my friends are like that, yes now I see, that is who we are, the author ‘got it’ just right.
And yet I suspect — and all of you please show me where I am wrong — that my framework still works. Because that internal mirror is not subject to an external check. You can’t look up to see if Kafka is right and he really did understand you. That is for you to say. And to extend the parallels, perhaps what nonfiction can do is to be an axe to the frozen sea of our prejudices, our assumptions, our beliefs about the past, present, or future. Nonfiction can show you that how you pictured ancient Rome, or medieval west Africa, or modern Islam was incorrect. It can challenge how you see the world, or how you imagine you can act in the world. While fiction challenges how you see yourself.