Monday, November 05, 2007

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.


At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Kristen Hampshire said...

A thoughtful riff on writing in different genres.

As a non-fiction writer, I collect the facts, report, scrutinize, write, offer, share. I interpret and communicate what my sources say. (Hopefully adding some style on top of all that.) I search the day for nuggets that could be a story. ...But those talented essay writers -- those are the real brave hearts. Because that's the type of reporting I like to keep between my journal and me.

At 9:10 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Wonderfully said, Kris. And I agree that essay writing is among the toughest forms of them all. I never really felt comfortable tackling them seriously until I had about 20 years of writing experience. And I think it's safe to say that you add style to everything your pen touches. Thanks for visiting, and especially for leaving a comment.

At 7:28 PM, Blogger Darby M. Dixon III said...

"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."

To say that too few fiction writers do good research is, perhaps, to show a certain lack of research into the methodologies of fiction writing. ;)

Michael Chabon said it well when he said (and I paraphrase) that research only gets you so far before it becomes a distraction or a procrastination technique. You can only do so much of the stuff before, yes, you have to sit down and start making stuff up.

For a fiction writer of any type, anything he or she does is a form of research. We're informed by every conversation, illuminated by any event, charged by each book we read, etc etc etc. Some writers (such as William Vollmann) do take the research to an extreme (he's slept with prostitutes and run guns in Afghanistan), taking it to that "reporting" level, while others (such as Stephen Dixon) use a far more simple (and tried and true) method of research, namely, looking around at stuff.

Just thinkin' out loud. I'm sure you knew I'd have to take the bait!

At 10:22 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Darby, I was hoping you'd sound off, because I knew you'd add a unique insight on this topic. And hell, you convinced me completely. I take it all back! I do admire that detail about sleeping with prostitutes and running guns for research purposes. I'd love to try that myself, if I could get away with it.


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