authenticity and approaching literature

I’ve been thinking about the question that I brought up in class on Monday, about the impact of fiction versus nonfiction, and how genre shapes our reaction to a given piece of literature.  I have to say I was surprised at the prevailing sentiment that nonfiction delivers more of an emotional “punch,” if you will, than fiction—but then, this is the most common approach to the issue of genre.  So why was I surprised?

At first I wasn’t sure how to approach the question.  After all, I might have just felt outnumbered by the sheer number of responses that ran counter to mine, as I have always felt that all literature, whether fiction or nonfiction, is equally affective.  I have felt just as moved—if not more—by the Buendias in One Hundred Years of Solitude as I have by James Baldwin’s reaction to the Harlem race riots.  Bruce Wayne’s struggle to define justice in The Long Halloween gripped me the same way I was by Alison Bechdel’s memoir of her closeted father and her own sexual identity as a lesbian.  News accounts of genocide and fictional imaginings of what it must be like for victims, child soldiers, and despots all provoke the same reaction from me, the same type of horror.

Perhaps this is because, as a writer, I span both genres and have to believe that fiction is just as powerful as nonfiction, that import is simply a matter of meaning: I want to believe that a novel dealing with issues of sexuality, masculinity, power dynamics, and the extremes we are driven to when faced with loss will affect a reader just as much as a memoir about directly experiencing civil war.

This is, I suppose, the easy answer.

This morning, halfway into my coffee and the process of becoming human, I had a minor epiphany.  Instead of it being a matter of meaning, and therefore contingent on individual subjectivity, perhaps it hinges on the individual’s subconscious recognition of the fact that fiction derives from reality, our imagining of what could be.  That is, quality fiction will give us characters who are no different from the people we encounter in reality, places as vivid as the places we inhabit, flawed circumstances with which we can all identify.  I, personally,don’t discriminate between the two; I wind up treating fiction as a kind of nonfiction itself.

Now I find myself wondering how this approach has shaped me as both reader and writer.  Maybe the only thing that genre tells me is whether or not I can use a text as a reference.  Maybe this is the best approach, maybe it’s the worst approach; is there such a thing as “the best approach” to literature?  If I were to ascribe a value judgment on mine, I’d say that giving the same weight to emotional experience in fiction and nonfiction is probably useful in that it levels the playing field and allows us to evenly compare works across the genre divide.  Maybe there is usefulness and importance also in remembering that, while nonfiction tells us what was, fiction tells us what that past could have been like and/or what the present and future could be.  It asks that we sympathize with the characters and circumstances it presents, reminding us—just as much as nonfiction—that we could be or know these people, if our lives were just a bit different.

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