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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Fiction and the Frozen Sea

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.

Make sense?


  1. Yes absolutely. “The internal mirror is not subject to an external check”–another definition for subjectiveness perhaps?

    I agree that fiction challenges how you see yourself, but I think nonfiction can also do that (beyond challenging how you see the world, of course). I can’t recall whether it was in high school or college, but I remember reading nonfiction pieces related to psychology and how people did or did not help others in times of crisis. That was certainly one instance where nonfiction held a mirror that challenged how I saw myself. It wondered how I would have reacted. Was I like the person that would keep shocking another individual just because someone in authority commanded me too? Etc.

    I guess my point is that good NF can challenge the internal mirror just like good fiction can also challenge how you see the world (which is what I think good historical fiction does…). Sorry to go on. You got me thinking!

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Of course NF can challenge how you see yourself — read a biography of a person who did something brave, or humane, or forthright and you may very well reflect on what you yourself could do — or would do. Or, in reverse, read about how people slide into group think and go on to discriminate, lynch, assault others — until they finally put “subhumans” on to cattle cars to go to their deaths and you cannot help thinking about what you have gone along with, what you nodded agreement to while having your own doubts. Or, read about an alert, analytical thinker who separates out common (mistaken) beliefs from sharp insight and you cannot help thinking that you need to be more careful. Read about a brilliant inventor who tinkers until s/he changes the world and you surely wonder what you could do. Or on a totally different level, read an autobiography of a person who struggled to deal with some personal tragedy — the inner conflicts that person experienced , the landing places of idea, belief, thought that helped– and you are likely to see the tracks of your own thoughts, and to weigh out new ways of addressing yourself.
    Now maybe autobiography is a special caes, but I still suspect that there is a difference between all of these versions of inner meditation inspired by nonfiction and the axe to the frozen sea Kafka insisted was the mandate for fiction. Maybe it is this — NF relates to a world (people, events) that would exist even if that book had never been written. Fiction creates a world that only exists because of those words on those pages. That can make NF more immediately relevent, but it can also challenge fiction writers to choose their words more carefully. The reason for being for NF relates to the outer world, the reason for being for fiction is itself.

    At least that is what I think so far.