For some, fiction and non-fiction are poles apart, for others they seem at times to merge with less than desirable results. In amongst this is the hapless writer of travelogue.
Somebody posted a link on Twitter a few months ago with a list of ‘active verbs for writing fiction’. These lists and reminders are often stimulating so I re-tweeted it. The sender thanked me and must have checked out my bio because she added, “sorry, I don’t have a list for non-fiction writers.” We need a separate language for non-fiction writers?
Active verbs are active verbs whoever is using them for whatever purpose, but it made me realise there is room for some considered thoughts on the relationship between fiction and non-fiction. ‘Non-fiction’ of course covers a vast range of genre, even if we reduce it to literary non-fiction we have a choice of, biographies, histories, memoirs, essays, syntheses of burning issues of the day—and travelogue, which may be written in any of these genres. But they all have in common the responsibility to be accountable: to meet readers’ expectations that the facts contained in them, however superbly crafted the writing, will be reliable—checked and checkable.
The boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are increasingly porous, especially in style. The traditional inverted pyramid beloved of newspaper editors, in which bare facts are crammed into a first paragraph bulging like an overfilled carry-on bag, was partly determined by technical limitations in typesetting and the need to cut quickly ‘from the bottom’; it is rarely seen in quality newspapers since the digital revolution.
Instead, reports open, like the first sentence ‘hook’ in a novel, with a description of 16-year-old Aito scrabbling in the ruins of his home after the Japanese earthquake, or an impassioned quote from shopkeeper Giorgos Papadros, facing bankruptcy in the collapsing Greek economy. Alternately, the reader is baited with a startling fact or a teasing promise: ‘It is one of history’s most enduring mysteries . . . ,’ depending on the paper, subsequent disclosure may prove more, or less, convincing.
It’s not only that printing technology now allows greater flexibility in editing and publishing; there are sound business and psychological reasons for this change in style. As neuroscience uncovers the workings of the human brain and finds we are ‘hard-wired’ to perceive and interpret the world in narrative, literature has attracted the attention of science: universities, particularly in the USA and Canada even have Psychology of Fiction departments.
Their work shows that what we read, affects our attitudes and behaviour, at least in the short-term. Some claim this influence for fiction only, because of its emotional content, but far less research has been carried out on non-fiction. Non-fiction can equally well have emotional content to which readers relate: the question is not whether fiction, or non-fiction, has the greater influence, but what form and style of writing is most affecting.
One recent study in particular demonstrates not only the power of the written word, but the dangers of reading non-fiction that turns out to be untrue. Researchers, Dr Melanie Green and John Donahue, found that subjects changed their beliefs after reading an article presented to them as non-fiction. When later told the article contained errors of fact, the subjects lost respect for the author, but the changes in their beliefs remained unaltered. Not only are the effects of reading fiction and non-fiction powerful, they are hard to reverse; a fact already well known to advertisers and politicians.
Given the results of this kind of research, fudging boundaries between what is presented as fiction, and as non-fiction, becomes an ethical rather than an artistic issue. In an earlier article on Creative Flux, I stressed the importance to creativity of freeing oneself from others’ conceptual boundaries, but we cross the border between fact and fancy at our peril.
When a novel is promoted as a ‘true story’ to pique the curiosity of book browsers, we assume the basic events of the tale took place, but we can accept artistic licence with details because it is offered as a work of fiction – a novel. On the other hand, when an essay or book is published as a non-fiction work, we are entitled to feel betrayed by the author if it is later found to contain falsified information.
This is what angered readers of John D’Agata’s About a Mountain, and his unrepentant response to criticism, in The Lifetime of a Fact. The subject matter of About a Mountain is not of marginal interest: it concerns a major moral controversy – the disposal of nuclear waste. Ironically, as Charles Brock pointed out in his review, it is the ‘moral authority of D’Agata’s voice’ that is damaged in the process. The issue is not only about facts changed to suit D’Agata’s artistic whim, nor even about readers left unaware of what is fabricated (not everyone reads the small print); it is about how we perceive anything else written by this, and other authors, writing in the same genre: it is about trust.
Literature aims to influence: unless we restrict our scribbling to a locked diary stuffed under the mattress, we write to grab a reader’s attention, share a vision, a point of view, and in some way, to persuade. Personal experience, dialogue, vivid metaphor, compelling language, and yes, those active verbs, all enhance the power of words to move the reader. The greatest compliment a reviewer can pay a work of non-fiction is to describe it as ‘ . . . scholarly research that reads like a novel . . . ’
When Lee Gutkind started the journal Creative Nonfiction in 1994, encouraging the crossing of genres to evolve a ‘literature of reality’, it was creativity in form, style and language – writing craft – he had in mind, rather than creativity with the facts. ‘We are attempting, as writers, to show imagination, to demonstrate artistic and intellectual inventiveness and still remain true to the factual integrity of the piece we are writing.’ The creative non-fiction approach is well suited to serious travel writing: portraying place, character and culture, constructing meaning, revealing our role in the landscape and sharing a sense of ‘being there’.
After a decade or so of self-defence, creative non-fiction as a sub-genre has gained recognition, but the term itself remains troublesome to many because of its inherent ambiguity; an ambiguity resulting from a limited definition of ‘creativity’ as a rare talent for making things up. The situation is not helped by authors who publish non-fiction that turns out to be untrue.
Of course, ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ are even more problematic. On the right to report on contemporary events truthfully, George Orwell cautioned, ‘or as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers.’ Irrefutable, objective facts are few: most are the product of interpretation from one standpoint or another, individual perceptions refracted through personal lenses of varying opacity; and that applies to readers as well as writers. However meticulous a writer may be in expressing his or her exact meaning, whether in fact or fiction, a look through the reviews may have you wondering if they all read the same work.
The dilemma of inevitable subjectivity is especially acute for travel writers, for whom the personal lens is further distorted by their own culture. A generation ago, anthropologists finally recognised the hazards involved in representing ‘otherness’, whether of environment or of a people and their culture. Modern anthropologists are far more conscious of the cultural prism through which they observe others, as well as how their presence and observation affects the subjects of their study; it is an essential lesson for travel writers also.
An anthropologist as well as a writer of travelogue, I am keenly aware of my own potential for bias, not only in what I sense, but in what I select to write about – all creativity is a process of selection – while at the same time producing a work of carefully researched non-fiction. In this respect, it is useful for all travel accounts to contain enough about the author and their presence in the landscape, for the reader to understand at least something of the author’s point of view. It is even more important for authors to understand their own perspectives.
My own mentor on creativity said little and wrote even less, but Gaudi understood the fundamental nature of the creative process, summed up in his statement, ‘Creation works ceaselessly through man. But man does not create, he discovers . . . originality consists in returning to the origin.’ The origin, the irrefutable facts on which Gaudi based his creativity were those of nature—landforms, natural processes, physical forces. He could not ignore these facts or his buildings would have fallen down; instead he collaborated with them, using his vivid imagination to create works of art that are also functional buildings—and in their time, innovative in functionality as well as artistry.
As a travel writer, my ‘origins’ are the events, landscapes, and peoples I encounter and record as faithfully as the limitations of being human will allow; my ‘discovery’ is the language and form my imagination employs to interpret these origins and share them with the reader. However imperfect, these are my attempts at collaboration with the facts, and creativity in their expression.
A reader’s pleasure in sharing a journey, an environment, the exposure to another culture, is enriched by the form, style and language of creative writing. But in my view, a travel writer has a responsibility to be truthful (unless a travel book is presented as a novel), which precludes, for example, the invention of events, locations and local characters to make the place, or the author, appear more exotic, or in a misguided attempt to provide a deeper cultural experience for the reader.
A travel writer is necessarily an outsider and there is validity in that point of view, even though it will never achieve the same cultural authenticity as an interpretation of place by a writer who is also an insider. Outsiders notice things insiders may take for granted; outsiders can act as intermediaries between a place and readers who may never see it, or sharpen the perceptions of those who do. Whether carrying luggage, or sitting in armchairs, travellers who want a better understanding of place, should, ideally, read local authors of fiction as well as reliable non-fiction travelogue.
Fiction contains a different kind of ‘truth’: inner perceptions and imagined realities that can shine a bright light on the most mundane object and give it meaning in its cultural context, and sometimes, in any context. To share just a few of my favourites: Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai, Han Suyin, Paulo Coelho, Khaled Hosseini, Chinua Achebe, and Nadine Gordimer.
I enjoy my readings of places and cultures best when both non-fiction and fiction share the creativity of the storyteller to provide meaning, but where non-fiction weaves the truths of fact, and fiction weaves the truths of fancy. Some boundaries are useful.
P.S. To keep the record straight: at no time was I swallowed by a crocodile. *smiles*
A few useful websites for those who wish to follow these topics further:
Narrative: at http://richardgilbert.me
Creative nonfiction: http://www.creativenonfiction.org
Trish Nicholson is a non-fiction author, writer of some award winning short stories and a keen photographer. All of these passions she shares in her weekly blogs which include book reviews, stories, writing tips, travel tales and photo-essays, as well as updates on her current non-fiction works.
Her background is in social anthropology and regional management, which led to travel in a score of countries to carry out research, and to work on aid and development projects, before she settled on a hillside in New Zealand where she now writes full time.
Last year, Trish signed up with Collca to write for their new ebook series, illustrated BiteSize Travel. Masks of the Moryons: Easter Week in Mogpog, on the spectacular celebration of Holy Week in a traditional community in the Philippines, was released in December 2011. Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, shares the experience of trekking and discovering the history and culture of this extraordinary Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom, and was released on 20 April 2012. It is available from Amazon UK and from Amazon US.
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