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August 28, 2006

Fiction v. Nonfiction

A while back at one blog or another--I seem to think it was at Patrick's but it may have been at TSO's, or perhaps both, I was disconcerted to read that someone thought nonfiction reading more worthwhile than fiction to the point where they rarely, if ever read fiction. This is not meant to be critical of that attitude, but to present another side of that coin.

Of recent date, I have grown so strongly suspicious of nearly all nonfiction that reading almost any of it is a waste of time for me. When I was reading Mandelbrot's book on the misbehavior of markets, I kept wondering what evidence contradictory to his conclusions was he suppressing. As I read Pat Buchanan, I couldn't help but think that everything was informed by the bias of the observer and I was uncertain that things he cited as historical fact were indeed. I remember commenting to TSO after he had read one or another of John Cornwell's books, "Why did you waste the time, now you have to read three others just to see if anything he stated was, in fact, true."

What I've discovered over time is that nonfiction books very rarely present anything like nonfiction. That is, most postmodern nonfiction. When your view of reality is that reality is shaped by the language you use to describe it and by the oppressions, hidden or overt that define it, it would be difficult to present anything in an objective way, because there cannot be any objectivity.

Fiction, on the other hand, shows me the human condition, and because the author lays his cards on the table on way or the other, I can determine whether what is shown is truly reflective of human experience or is shaped by the bias of the author to lead me to an agenda. If the latter, and if the agenda is one that I do not like, I am likely to throw the book across the room. But when it is an agenda I concur with, such as Flannery O'Connor, I get so much better a snapshot of reality than in any nonfiction I've read in the last ten years.

In addition, I tend to read nonfiction that I know I agree with the standpoint of the author. Problem there is that I continually push my own bias to the point of obliquity.

Fiction presents a picture of life that can be measured by our experience of life. As a result, some of the pictorial representations of life arrive at a time when we are not ready to pursue or truly understand them. I don't think most of Henry James is even remotely accessible to most people under 40. There are always extraordinary exceptions, but even among them, I notice the focus is not so much on what James has to say, but on the way he goes about saying it. We hear much praise of his psychological novelistic technique, and so forth, but little about whether what he says in The Golden Bowl is true, in part, I believe because many of the commenters simply haven't the experience in years to know whether or not James is relating the truth or a truth about human relationships.

Fiction, therefore, might be at once more informative and less informative about the human condition--more informative because you are presented less with facts than with the reality of the created world--something you can't fact check. Less informative because the world is created and you aren't learning anything substantive about the empirical reality of this world.

And that's where fiction soars--it is very rarely about empirical reality in the point of objective fact, it is more about nuance and subtlety and understanding human interactions and relationships. Fiction presents a world and asks you to look and experience and judge and find satisfying or wanting. Nonfiction seems to present a "here are the facts" scenario, when in fact it presents a "here are the facts I want you to know in order to understand my point." How many books are there on the religious views of the Founding Fathers? And how many opinions? And these all purport to be nonfiction and to be telling us the truth about the Founding Fathers. And yet, if you read every one of them are you a nanometer closer to knowing what the founding fathers thought? Or are you, more likely, more entrenched in your own conceptions or those conceptions amenable to your viewpoint.

Philosophical books are somewhat better in this regard. The problem with most of them is that they take certain things for granted as starting points, and if you question one of those things, then the underlying construct becomes shaky. For example, if you should question St. Thomas Aquinas's assertion that the intellect is a positive good, nearly the entire system of thought falls apart. What if you think the intellect is merely neutral? What if you regard the intellect as a potential good or a potential evil depending upon how it is formed? What then? Other philosophical systems have similar sorts of problems. However, you can at least enter the system and sometimes ferret out what the underlying assumptions are and holding in abeyance judgment on their validity, you can assess the merits of an argument.

Well enough. It is my contention that I have learned far more about life and the things that really matter from fiction, or from non-fiction disguised as fiction than I ever did from reading non-fiction. C.S. Lewis's vision of heaven and hell in The Great Divorce has done more to make me think seriously of the last things that any dozen books of straight theology on the last things.

All this said, we are different people, differently constructed. It is through coming to an appreciation of these differences and attempting to view the world from the other side that we grow (in part). I will still consume nonfiction in minuscule and carefully regulated quantities, but I can at least try to do so now, appreciating the sage advice of many in St. Blog's who appreciate it more than I do.

Posted by Steven Riddle at August 28, 2006 9:13 PM

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I don't know who said that but I think Patrick used to feel that way, but then he read the Brothers K and experienced an ephiphany. I've said that I read more nonfiction than fiction, but without saying nonfiction was more worthwhile. (See my blog title for an explanation.)

Definitely your comment about John Cornwell has resonated with me, and there is much truth to it. The best I could expect from Cornwell's bio of John Paul II was to look for anecdotes that meshed with what I already knew of JPII. If they fit, I accepted them, if they didn't, I rejected them. But then that defeats the purpose of reading Cornwell doesn't it? Though there were also what I perceived as "neutral" anecdotes, such as JPII's favorite theologians, that seemed likely truthful. Knowing Cornwell's agenda as I do was actually an aid to being able to read his book. It's when you don't know the bias of the author that it's more problematic.

So with nonfiction I suppose the answer is less to ditch all of it than to choose your author carefully. Easier said than done.

Posted by: TSO at August 28, 2006 10:10 PM

I have known for a long time now that great truths can be expressed through fiction. I especially see this in the novels of Elizabeth Goudge, especially the Elliot trilogy. Fantastic expressions of truth wrapped in mystery!
Thank you for voicing what I've been thinking for years.

Posted by: Tim at August 29, 2006 2:25 AM

When we first started homeschooling, I attended the homeschool book fair here in town, and attended a lecture about teaching reading, etc.

Now, you have to understand that in this area, and at the time I started (oh, so many years ago!), the presenters at the book fair were skewed toward a very fundamentalist Protestant ethos. After discussing phonics vs whole language, etc. the presenter made the following statement: "After we teach our kids to read using primers, we never again allow them to read fiction. The Bible says 'Whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is beautiful, think on these things.' And fiction is, by its very nature, untrue."

I got up and left the lecture.

That's just craziness. I have read more truth in Mauriac, Greene, Hassler, O'Connor, Dickens, and a million others (OK, maybe not a million, but a lot!), than I've ever read in the "nonfiction" books I've read......

Thanks for expressing it so well!

Posted by: MamaT at August 30, 2006 12:15 AM

Dear MamaT,

Yes, these are the minds that abjure the moral lessons of Macbeth because there is mention of and actual characters who are witches.

It's true that you must be careful, perhaps more careful with fiction than with nonfiction, because fiction slips in under the radar--you don't read it with the same skepticism and doubt. However, bad ficiton, bad nonfiction, the end result is the same.

Thanks for commenting.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at August 30, 2006 9:37 AM

Dear Steven,

J.R.R. Tolkien, in his work on Fairy Tales noted that fiction, especially fairy tales, is a work of sub-creation. In true fairy tale, which is related strongly to myth, the purpose of the tale is a "recovery" of "true vision" - in other words, Truth may be seen again and anew due to placing it in a setting where all else is strange and foreign.

In looking at Tolkien's own works, a wonderful statement by Aragorn illustrates this thought -"Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear...nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men"

Of course, as you note, bad fiction may accomplish evil as well as good, but good fiction seeks to accomplish that which Tolkien describes so well.


Posted by: Jonathan Watson at August 30, 2006 11:53 AM

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