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kevbo's avatar

W(h)ither fiction?

Asked by kevbo (25634points) March 27th, 2008

Ok, class, I’m hoping for some deep thoughts here.

I’ve noticed that my inclination to read fiction has dropped dramatically in recent years, and that, Chuck Palaniuk novels aside, I find it a fair amount of work to drag myself through a fiction novel. Meanwhile, I am a voracious reader of nonfiction and what I’d consider “partially embellished” nonfiction. I find it easier to read, frequently more gripping, and often no less stimulating for my imagination.

As a starting point, let’s assume the novel is the pinnacle of both fiction and nonfiction and that sitcoms, movies, short stories, columns, essays, true crime dramas, and all other forms of stories and essays are derivatives. (Feel free to disagree with that premise if you do.)

So my questions are: What is the relevance of fiction? What can fiction do better than nonfiction? Has the proliferation of nonfiction or (embellished nonfiction) such as true crime stories partially eclipsed a presumed role of fiction, at least with respect to tragedy? In other words, has the seemingly infinite number and permutation of “true stories” made fiction less relevant or irrelevant? Is fiction merely for entertainment, or does it serve a greater purpose or more useful function (in the sense of feeding a human need)?

In thinking about this I have two answers, which I’ll save for the discussion, since they aren’t all encompassing (i.e. this isn’t a question in trick Bible lesson format but I will be offering an answer to my own question).

This is coming, by the way, from an English lit major and wannabe novelist.

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16 Answers

needleinthehay's avatar

At this point I suppose you could just see either or as more of a writing style or preference, I wouldn’t say theres a need for it but some people would certainly prefer fiction over nonfiction.

in summary, it’s too early for me to attempt to properly answer this question.

Mtl_zack's avatar

fiction is a way for the author to send a message, sometimes irrelevant like “you should eat pancakes in the morning”, and sometimes very philisophical like “in many disputes there is often no proper answer”. sometimes, the reader is waaaaayyyy off in interpriting the meaning behind the words and objects used in the text, but it still is something that is tought to them.

also, fiction is a way of putting major themes into situations, where it can be stretched to the extremes, or be so subtle. this also is something to look at regarding the theme suggested.

one more comment: fiction always makes sense, making it easier for a reader to interprit the themes. non-fiction, at least in the long run, does not.

syz's avatar

So, kevbo, I would have to ask if it’s nothing more than your tastes have changed. As a hugely broad generalization, musical tastes tend to change as people age and develop a greater appreciation for complexity and depth.

I would also posit that fictional writing follows stylistic and topical trends – perhaps the current trends do not appeal to you? (I know I haven’t been able to find a fiction book that I could get excited about in a long time.)

That said, I think that fiction does serve a purpose in our society. It allows a writer (and reader) to explore ideas that would otherwise be constrained by reality (space exploration, alternate realities, unknown life forms, scientific development, social relationships, religion, fantasy, spiritualism, and on and on). Does a fictional television show that features a woman as president make people more open to the idea of a woman as president? Does a fictional movie about race relations create a dialog among people about race? I think fiction allows a sometimes novel idea to become part of the national zeitgeist (not that I consider either of those to be novel ideas – perhaps not the best choice of examples).

I fear that “embellished” non-fiction are a blight on publishing if for no other reason than many people seem unable to separate fact from fiction (look at the proliferation of false information the makes it’s way with lightening speed through the internet – “I read it on the internet, so it must be true”). Many people also seem unable to differentiate opinion from fact. How many people spew Anne Coulter’s hate mongering as if it were God’s truth?

So, I’ll just wait out the current fiction atmosphere and hope that it turns in a direction that I find exciting and new.

Riser's avatar

kevbo,

Fiction is often times a weak interpretation of how the author sees life but when explored deeper levels of the sub conscious of an individual it becomes more non-fiction than the assumptions authors of non-fiction make about their subject’s psyche.

The problem is you are above the fray both in intelligence and education. The writing business caters to a demographic that does not require as layered and in-depth of a novel as you need.

Ironically, non-fiction is a lesser form of the writing arts in that most of it is editing the structure of facts with minor hypothesis interjected got flavor so in that mindset fiction is infinitely more creative.

Fiction’s purpose is its ability to explore mindsets that can border on the extreme without the danger of intimidating the traditional view to the point of opposition without merit, of course there are exceptions to this – I.e. The Da VinciCode

Fiction has power because opinion is powerful.

kevbo's avatar

@riser, or perhaps a legal curtain to hide behind (to continue your line)?

Cardinal's avatar

I read nonfiction only for years, someone gave me a Clive Cussler book and had so much fun reading it (vs Under the Banner of Heaven or Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, even though I enjoyed them both), now it’s mix and match. What sounds good, or has an appealing cover or a good review. So I think it’s a phase you go through. Everyone gets their fill of the same diet and something different is exciting.

What can fiction do better: If it is engrossing, the time will pass by more quickly (as in an airport waiting room). Anything can happen in fiction. The avenues are limited to the imaginationation of the author. Currently reading Flight of the Intruder by Coonts.I am a pilot, so enjoying the factual portions of the aircraft make-up and handling characteristics Some facts, lots of fiction, very good. Also reading Frankl’s: Man’s Search for Meaning. All true, tough read, but all nonfiction.

So I agree with @syz: Your tastes have changed a bit, but so what, man cannot live on bread and water, he must have peanut butter occasionally!

I also agree with Riser: Smart guys are hard to entertain. I read a book by the great physicist Richard Feynman who worked with Teller on the Manhatten project. He stated that Teller was so smart it wasn’t worth the trouble to go to, to pull a joke on him because the period of time was so short before he caught on, it wasn’t worth it

Cardinal's avatar

Doesn’t embellished non-fiction then become fiction, by the letter of the definition? I know about as much about English lit as the mating habits of my ex-wife.

Riser's avatar

I am growing sick of the iPhone’s limitations. I apologize folks.

Kevbo: As a “fiction” writer I would have to say I reach more people with truths about life than they would ever get from most non-fiction because the majority isn’t interested in non-fiction.

Fiction is the subtle answer for the masses. It is a loophole to the truth but it can often be just as truthful. My* #1 rule to writing is:

“write what you know.”

*for the record I am not saying the above quote was authored by me.

Cardinal's avatar

“Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time”.
Howard Nemerov

So it really wasn’t a suggestion, more of a dig!

Riser's avatar

That’s why screewriters shouldnt be handed a Bible, we’ll rewrite everything. :)

kevbo's avatar

syz, I liked what you had to say about introducing novel ideas into our collective consciousness, which I think dovetails, Riser, with your comment about exploring seemingly extreme mindsets without provoking kneejerk opposition. By saying that fiction can be a legal curtain to hide behind, I mean perhaps it allows an inflammatory story to be told without drawing incrimination.

I’m also gathering from the comments above that the business of fiction these days serves as an “opiate for the masses” or at least more palatable fare. But it also sounds like nonfiction can be equally, if not more, lazy (e.g. Ann Coulter or whomever).

So, I’ll go ahead and throw in my two or three cents, but I’d very much like to hear more from whomever is interested in this question.

I think fiction can do a better job of illustrating the utility and rhythm of human emotions. An example, I guess, would be the build up to a catharsis (such as in the movie “Magnolia”).

I also think fiction can do a better job of drawing out the beauty in the mundane. I’m thinking of Hemingway’s descriptions of fishing, for example, or moment’s in film where the scene is entirely focused on a simple act (here I’m thinking of the floating shopping bag video in “American Beauty” or any other moment where a character is mindfully, deliberately doing some kind of task.) Fiction can evoke a meditative or awareness state in the reader this way.

Cardinal, judging from your response to another question, it sounds like your life would make for a great book sitcom. ;-)

Other thoughts?

cwilbur's avatar

@mtl_zack: an author who wants to send a message should use Western Union like the rest of us do.

@kevbo: I find that a lot of modern literary fiction is written with other literary fiction authors as its primary audience. Some of it is really good, but I find “genre” fiction (police procedurals, murder mysteries, science fiction, thrillers) a lot more satisfying.

skfinkel's avatar

In the light of your question, I was intrigued by the woman who just published pure fiction as non-fiction (a “memoir” she thought would sell better)—and got caught. I wondered why she didn’t just call it the fiction that it was and have a potential best-seller on her hands, rather than now be a disgraced liar.

Riser's avatar

the Coen Bros did the same thing with Fargo and they got an Oscar for their lie.

wabarr's avatar

I think really good fiction can be more potent than non-fiction because it is not constrained by the facts. A friend of mine is a brilliant short fiction writer. He teaches introductory creative writing, and occasionally when he gives a harsh critique to a student writer…said writer will say “Gotcha…this (crazy plot device) actually happened!”. His response to this is that “the truth is no excuse” for emotionally uninteresting writing. Great fiction has nothing to do with whether the events described are real, and everything to do with whether the feelings evoked in the reader are real.

pattyb's avatar

“the truth is stranger than fiction” and “you can’t make this stuff up” are 2 quotes that come to mind when choosing what to read.

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