On the Facts Behind Fiction
Okay, I have an admission. I've always looked down on most fiction writers, just a little. Why? I think it's best captured in a passage that novelist Jenna Blum wrote in the current Poets and Writers Magazine (alas, not online): "After graduation, I immediately dismissed research as the pursuit of the literal-minded, the drones of the world who rejoiced in the ant-like gathering of facts. I didn't need facts. Whatever I didn't know, I could simply make up." To be fair, the piece goes on to describe how she later came to realize how foolish that attitude really was, and how she eventually embarked upon what she called "extreme research." Others with a less theatrical bent might simply call it standard reporting and research, and too few fiction writers (to my way of thinking) ever manage to get around to it, which has played a role in fiction becoming increasingly marginalized.
Eighteen years ago, novelist Tom Wolfe took up this subject in memorable fashion, in an infamous essay in Harper's Magazine--"Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast." At the time, he was still riding the crest of fame from what remains, I think, his singular masterpiece, The Bonfire of the Vanities, the definitive take on the culture of moneyed Manhattan in the '80s. In that essay, he boasted that his ambition was no less than to write the most realistic social novel of New York, faithfully depicting the city in all its sprawling, brawny dynamism, as Dickens had done with London and Zola with Paris. "That task, as I see it, inevitably involves reporting, which I regard as the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions..."
Wolfe, with his conservative politics and his dandified all-white-suit schtick, will no doubt always remain an acquire taste which many readers will gladly decline to acquire. But I think Bonfire guarantees he'll be remembered, and that aforementioned essay will serve as a reminder to anyone who writes about the seminal importance of faithfully gathering the facts, even before sitting down to write fiction.