Saturday, January 14, 2006

WHY I WRITE FICTION


I què és la veritat?
Originally uploaded by florriebassingbourn.

One of the most disturbing thing about the whole James Frey brouhaha this week is that the book that sold 3.5 million copies was turned down by nearly every major publisher when it was offered as fiction.

Why? Because readers like you and me wouldn't buy it if it didn't have the imprimatur of TRUTH on it. At least, that's how the editors at 17 publishing houses saw it. I'd like to say they were wrong, that A Million Little Pieces would have sold just as well as a novel, but somehow I doubt it.

For the same reason that no one would watch a show about a bunch of college kids sitting around in their underwear whining or twenty-five women competing for a limp rose on THE BACHELOR if they thought (knew?) it was scripted, no one would have been willing to hold Frey's hand through 438 pages of vomit and bathos and teary redemption if they didn't believe it really happened.

As a fiction writer, I'm rather proud that a book with no claims to factual accuracy is held to a higher standard. If it's not "true," then it damn well better be well written--and believable. Kind of ironic, isn't it?

But in another way, I think that this new hunger for an ever more elusive "truth" insults fiction. Surely, many people who are flocking to memoirs and reality TV are missing the essential secret about fiction. It's truer than the truth.

Shakespeare may never have been a king, but he taught us more about power and betrayal than any memoirist ever could have. Why? Because he knew more than the narrow facts of his life allowed. More than most kings or scheming underlings or thwarted lovers who ever lived.

And Shakespeare wasn't the only one. All of us know more than we have experienced. In part, it seems we're born that way. Not blank slates, but small souls from who-knows-where, babies too young for language find a myriad of other ways of expressing what they know and what they want. Just look in their eyes. These people know things.

Other truth we learn just because we're human; and as such, we've tapped into the rich myths and archetypes of our species, that great history of the human heart in stories.

I may not have killed anyone or abandoned my children or spent a bitterly cold night in the street, but I know something about those things anyway, simply because I'm alive and feeling and empathetic. When I write fiction, I push myself further than I've ever gone--or in many cases, hope to go--in real life. I enter strange minds and hearts and learn the lay of the land. I get lost and desperately search for an exit. Then I tell you not just where I've been and what I've seen, but what I know.

Are my stories and novels factually true? Absolutely not. But in proudly calling them fiction, I connect my own humble creations to the stories that have told us who we are for as long as we've had the power of communication.

30 comments:

Lorna said...

I very seldom think about the difference between fiction and non-fiction. It explains why I thought for years that the teleporter was another method of travel, like boats and airplanes. Isn't my life richer for that lack of distinction? I'm just a reader who wants to read something written with passion and wit and although A Million Little Pieces didn't appeal to me, I would fight for Frey's right to write it....

Sharon Hurlbut said...

You make an excellent point, Patry. And I would add that reading is one of the ways we come to know more than the sum of our own experiences. How many worlds exist on a single library shelf? Fiction is not only truer than truth, but every book we read revels more truths, more pieces of the reality of human existence. Why limit ourselves to our own small sphere, when we can embrace the whole of humanity?

Patry Francis said...

Lorna: If more readers had your open mind, then perhaps Frey might never have been convinced to call his book non-fiction. Thanks for sharing a reader's viewpoint.

Sharon: Eloquently said. I wish I could have added your last sentence onto my post!

finnegan said...

Picasso:

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.

An idea is a point of departure and no more. As soon as you elaborate it, it becomes transformed by thought.

Everything you can imagine is real.

I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else.

I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.

Often while reading a book one feels that the author would have preferred to paint rather than write; one can sense the pleasure he derives from describing a landscape or a person, as if he were painting what he is saying, because deep in his heart he would have preferred to use brushes and colors.

Patry Francis said...

Finnegan! What marvelous quotes. I especially love "Everything you can imagine is real."

floots said...

fiction every time
i shy away from that based on a true story label on movies too
metaphor and imagination are more truthful than slanted reality

Diana said...

I have never seen "truth" as anything other than a spectrum because we all have so many filters and prisms through which we experience life.

How many times do we tell a story of our childhood, one that has come to represent and illustrate "who I am," only to be told, "Why, that wasn't how it happened it all!" by our mother or father or sibling? Does that change the meaning of the story or affect the value of it and its contribution to our worldview?

Great post, Patry. Much to think about...

Seeking Clarity

marja-leena said...

Patry, this is a powerful piece of writing, like an artist's statement, and what great comments here. I like finnegan's Picasso quotes too!

Patricia said...

Hi honey, I've been missing you and am glad I stopped by to read this, kudos to you and wave your fiction flag proudly, and I've been meaning to ask you, or to suggest that you come and join us at Zoetrope, we'd love to have you, I thoroughly enjoyed your piece in Smokelong, hope you're having a great year so far, Patricia xoxo

Stephanie said...

Well put, Patry.

Dave said...

The Picasso quotes are fine, but believe it or not, I like your post even better. You put forth an argument I thoroughly agree with, better than I could have.

Popeye said...

Truth and fiction seems more and more perspectival anyway. I like how they cross and separate like a helix.

David said...

great post - we look forward to your fictional debut.

katrina said...

Beautifully said, Patry.

1000 black lines said...

Patry, right on! Nothing better than fiction that tells the truth.

Finnegan, you stole my thunder. I thought of that quote as I was reading this post.

Here's irony: at poetry readings I do not reveal whether a poem is autobiographical or not. Somehow audiences desire the first person voice to be about me. Occasionally someone will ask about the story behind a poem and I tell the truth. I see the disappointment in their eyes when they discover the poetic account was a collage of truths assembled in first person. They expect an authentic account, which it is though not entirely personal experience. For some reason or another many people think all poets write confessional poems. I suspect that's the same dilemma in the folk singer circles. Many people want a Bob Dylan song to be autobiographical and yet a song about a bigger truth is just as authentic.

Kerstin said...

Isn't fiction always based on someone's truth? Even if you haven't experienced it first hand, you "know" it from somewhere. And assemble all those bits and pieces from all the truths in this world into a story that only you can tell the way it is told, a 'true' story by all accounts, but with its very own and unique layer of veracity and reality. I hope this makes sense!

Perfect Virgo said...

I think the beauty of well written fiction reflects its homage to fact. If I can believe in a story then it must be close to the truth. Fiction is hard to write convincingly and only the most skillful make it plausible.

Patry Francis said...

floots: Hopefully, all the controversy will bring new respect for work that honestly bills itself as "fiction."

diana: Interesting point about the frequent discrepancies in childhood memories. Emotional memories are surely subjective.

marja-leena: An artist's statement! I never thought of it that way, but I like the concept.

patricia! I thought I was the one who was missing you! Great to see you here, and thanks for the invitation to Zoetrope. Seems to include several of my favorite bloggers.

Stephanie: Thanks!

Dave: Any day I get compared favorably with Picasso is a damn good day. Thank you! I posted this on Metaxu Cafe where someone left the quote to end all quotes on the subject. It came from Hemingway, and I would attempt to repeat it here, but it's too good to be badly paraphrased.

popeye: I like your image of the helix. Very apt.

David: Thank you and thank you, but what is that orange sphere you're holding in your hand?

Katrina: Nice to hear another fiction writer weigh in. Thank you!

Matt: Another good point. In poetry, perhaps even more than in prose, people expect "confession". But I, too, have often written first person poems that are purely imaginative.

Kerstin: I like your concept of a story as "a unique layering" of fact and imagination. Well said, as always.

p.v.: That is so true. I've had stories rejected because they were "over the top." But nonfiction seems to be held to a lesser standard of
believability. Strange, isn't it?

colleen said...

A myth is a lie that tells the truth, I guess fiction is too.

melissa said...

Fantastic post, Patry!

Wenda said...

I've just stumbled into your blog while following some comments and I think I've discovered an amazing new world. Thanks for being here.

David said...

patry, thanks for asking about the orage sphere. It is my friend the pumpkin, my truest and noblest friend, to whom I can tell anything and never fear betrayal.

Anonymous said...

I'm rather confused by your post. Is this to say that fiction is somehow superior to memoir/creative non fiction? This bothers me a great deal, and perhaps I am misreading your post. For me, there is truth in both - writers take risks no matter what they commit to paper, and should try not to attach too much for what the industry mandates or deems worthy of publishing - and I'm not entirely sure why the genres need to be so delineated and seen as so black and white. Should memoir writers tell the truth? Absolutely! However, we recreate scenes and dialogue trying to be as honest to character, story as possible. But memory is tricky sometimes, and not always reliable.

Many fiction writers fuse non fiction elements (whether they're conscious of it or not) into the work; this doesn't reduce their work in any way. And many memoirists use tools of fiction: story arc, character development, etc, all the while, staying honest to the events and true to story.

I certainly don't condone what James Frey did (I personally didn't like his book on the level of his poor writing, the call-to-attention style which was a touch gimmicky to me), at all, however, there are many brilliant memoirists who are just as profoundly powerful as fiction writers (Paula Fox, Primo Levi, Caroline Knapp, just to name a few). Perhaps I'm just tired of all the memoir bashing as of late (not saying you're bashing, I'm making a general comment) and don't see it as the "black sheep" of non fiction as so many are so quick to call it..

-felicia

Swirly said...

This is wonderfully written and gives great insight into all the various elements that come together to create a work of fiction. I'm emailing this link to a friend of mine who just finished a novel. :)

Patry Francis said...

Felicia: One of the worst fall outs from the Frey case when the writer and his supporters began to say that all memoirs basically took the same liberty with facts that his did. If anyone has degraded memoir, it has been Frey and his backers, who say his factual transgressions are acceptable in that form. Huh?

I immediately thought of some of my favorite memoirs--by Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr to name two, and wondered if they, too, were basically novels with some biographical background thrown in. Somehow that was very disturbing to me, and I was glad to hear both of those writers come out in the Sunday Times and say Frey's definition of memoir was not theirs.

So no, I'm absolutely not trashing memoir, a genre I love and read--and essentially write here on my blog. What I AM doing is defending fiction, which seems to have become the ugly step-child to a reading public that's hungry for "a true story," and who no longer respects or asknowledges that fiction tells its own truth.

It seriously bothers me that Frey could have a runaway bestseller with his memoir--while the SAME BOOK couldn't even be published as a novel.

Meanwhile to Norma: Great to see a new face here, especially a smiling one.

And David: I think I need a pumkin like that.

Colleen: I like your line about a myth being a lie that tells the truth. I could have written that and have it be the end of it.

Melissa: Thanks for being here.

Swirly:Let me know what your friend thinks!

Gina Holmes said...

You worded that so well. Great think piece.

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