eLast Wednesday, I asked readers of this blog the following question:
Robert Esland says:
To answer your question. If someone writes a novel all the while being true to a certain belief or conviction, there could well be more truth in that book, and there could certainly be more sincerity in that book, than in a nonfiction account which was based on unfounded premises, which are known by the author to be unproven, but which was nevertheless presented as scientific truth.
A very good answer to the first question of whether nonfiction is necessarily more true than fiction. The reader is strong in the answer to this question, because it is the reader who perceives truth.
Note, however, that while Genesis purports to be truth, Darwin didn't claim the same sort of truth. In the introduction to The Descent of Man, Darwin notes that he has a strong feeling that a lot of what he writes is in fact true, but he hopes that people find the problems, identify them, and correct any errors. The shift from creationism to a belief in evolutionary origins of man isn't just a switch from one truth to another; it shifts one's idea of given, absolute truth to one based on progressive, discovered knowledge. Of course, you could just argue that this is a change of sources, from the concept of an infallible deity to the idea of fallible man.
Another note: I would be careful about classifying nonfiction books as fiction if you disagree with them. If we do this, then the question I originally asked becomes pointless. Fiction becomes all those things which are wrong, and nonfiction perhaps becomes all those things which are right. It then becomes inappropriate to ask whether truth is to be found in fiction. Just as family and friends can be false, and enemies good-hearted, instances of the nonfiction and fiction genres can convey varying levels of different sorts of truth and falsity.
What sorts? Read on...
Hannah Eagleson says:
When we read fiction, we tend to relax a bit, to enjoy the story. We are not necessarily expecting to meet truths that will change us, and we feel less threatened by the possible implications of what we come to know. We abandon ourselves to the river of story and enjoy the unexpected twists, the surprising sights downstream. We sit down to a feast and lose ourselves in the swirl of tastes and colors.
And when we are truly caught up in story this way, we become heedless of the cost, as we do when we truly love another person. In falling for a story, we can fall in love with truths toward which we had previously been hostile. Story is like a house, and the stories in which we dwell shape us in unexpected ways, like our childhood home. When the story is built honestly from true materials, we are drawn to inhabit it - to take on its patterns and habits until it becomes a part of us and we dwell in it. In this way, we recognize and accept truths we had feared or evaded, often before we even realize it.
In his youth, C. S. Lewis would have completely opposed many of George McDonald's ideas. Yet he read and loved George McDonald's novel Phantastes. Far later, he described the good things which came to him from the story and said:
(note: after digging around online, I found that the C.S. Lewis excerpt quoted by Hannah is to be found in Lewis's book, Surprised by Joy. Not an unsurprising title for a book in which to find that passage, I suppose.)
Good point. This, of course, leads us to ask the question of "what is truth?" I'm not going to go down that road today. Sorry, Pontius.
Rather, I'm going to end with three comments:
- I think that the effect described by Hannah is the effect of narrative in general, whether nonfiction or fiction. This "Pharmakon" is enhanced in narrative, spoken or unspoken. We just live in a time where it's assumed that "story" means "fiction."
- Dylan Kinnett and I once had a conversation about a similar topic. He noted that nonfiction is a far greater organizational challenge, because one is limited to details that can be discovered. One has to find the story within the research. In fiction writing, according to Dylan, one has more freedom to shape the narrative.
- Hannah Eagleson once remarked to me that her best fiction writing occurs when she herself doesn't know the story until it has been fully written. For her, the effect of writing is similar to the reader effect described by C. S. Lewis.
This interests me. I don't think the distinction neatly falls across fiction/nonfiction genre lines, but it's interesting to note that some writers seek their stories within, and others find them in the world around them.