Nonfiction is the nexus of reality and dream, faith in things seen and unseen. Nonfiction is the fact that everything isn't what it is. Nonfiction is the fiction of fact, the interpretation of personal perception, the internalization and processing and digesting of experience and its rippling echoes cast out over time.
In 2005, I booked the writer Lawrence Weschler as keynote speaker for a conference of university magazine writers and editors. Weschler is a very smart guy, a polymath and author of several fine books, including Boggs, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, and Waves Passing in the Night.1 His address did not land well with the audience; it was a bit of an indulgent ramble delivered with little energy. But he said several things that have stuck with me for a good 10 years, including this:
Everything in the world comes about as it is because it had to be that way. The writer’s task is to figure out all the interconnections that made it the only way it could be.
What an ambition for a piece of writing. And what an interesting deterministic view of the universe. (I think he's right about the writer's task, and right about the universe. But I could be wrong.)
Another of Weschler’s points was that all nonfiction writing is fiction:
All narrative voices—but especially the voices in true narratives—are themselves fictions. The world of nonfiction writing is divided between those who know this and those who either don’t or else deny it—a division that is roughly contiguous with that between writing that’s worth reading and writing that’s not. Nonfiction texts are fictions in that they deploy the devices of fiction (pacing, modulation of voice, considered sequence of revelation, irony, metaphor, etc.) but even more so in that they are constructs (they’re composed, they’re in-formed and made up).
I think he's right about that, too.
Oh, and that first quote, about the writer's task? It's a paraphrase. Weschler said, in his keynote address, that in all of his many stories for The New Yorker and his books, he never quoted anyone verbatim; instead, he placed within quotation marks what he believed they meant to say, faithful to the meaning if not the exact utterance. He claimed that in all the time he'd been doing this, no one had ever complained about being misquoted.
Years later, I had the chance to bring this up with a fact-checker from The New Yorker. She was taken aback and visibly uncomfortable. Maybe even sorry she'd heard about it only now.
1 The latter book was written about film editor Walter Murch, and featured in my own story about Murch for Johns Hopkins Magazine. You can read that one here.
Lawrence Weschler maintains a website here.
Bouncing off yesterday's post about Orwell, this from Jane Smiley:
Every piece of writing puts forth some logical argument and some theory of cause and effect for the simple reason that words, especially prose words, are sequential. The author and the reader both know that if the author doesn’t provide the logic, the reader will. But the logic of events and people as they exist in the world isn’t self-evident, and narrators of fiction and narrators of nonfiction have different ways of putting together their logical systems.
The promise of nonfiction is that it is accurate, and therefore, like an archeological site, incomplete—here are the stone walls, here is part of a mosaic, here are two goblets. My theory concerns what these objects might mean, how they might be connected to an earthquake for which there is evidence, but I cannot go too far toward completeness or the reader, who might otherwise enjoy my narrative, will cease to be willing to suspend disbelief in its accuracy.
But the history of literature shows that listeners and readers want to know not only what happened, but also how it looked, sounded, smelled, felt, and also what it meant then and what it means now. They want to know but also to experience, and therefore they seek completeness, and so they willingly suspend disbelief in fiction (The Odyssey, the Book of Genesis, Waverley, Flashman).
I am much taken with Smiley's idea that nonfiction, that is, nonfiction rigorous in its adherence to only what can be documented, measured, accurately recorded, is inherently incomplete and we turn to fiction for theories of the missing parts.