Friday, May 27, 2011

I Told You Yesterday That I've Been Thinking About Nonfiction

Last night, for the first time in many weeks, I managed to write in my workbook (my workbook because the word journal is too loaded with expectations for me). I wrote about Caroline Leavitt's essay Why is someone else in my book's author photo?. I wondered if it was a personal essay, which I read defined, years ago, as an essay that deals with a personal event and relates it to the greater human experience. Many personal essays, I find, are strong on the personal part and don't quite pull off the relating to the greater human experience bit. Should she have tried writing a piece of narrative nonfiction instead, I wondered. If I understand narrative nonfiction correctly, to do that she would have needed to take her interesting personal experience and treat it as a narrative, as a story with a climax, while maintaining its factual integrity. Or may be she should have used her personal experience as a jumping off point for a short story, maybe something about an author losing her identity or getting lost somehow.

Then this morning I just finished reading Caught Telling Fiction in which the author, Jessica Francis Kane, comes off as sounding a bit defensive because her new book is sometimes considered historical fiction. She seems to want to think of it as mainstream fiction that is "historically imagined" (her quotes). She says, "Here’s an analogy: movies and after-school specials. Calling a movie an after-school special seems to broadcast something lacking about it. The same thing happens when a book is described as historical fiction."

My knee-jerk reaction as I was reading her essay was that here was an author who just is having trouble self-identifying what she does, trouble connecting and engaging with her own work, and is way too concerned with how others perceive her and her work.

But her book deals with a disaster with survivors who are still living. And she goes on to talk about dealing with their response to her fiction. Her experience meeting a survivor and others affected by the tragedy she wrote about..after she'd completed the something that might shake someone's view of themselves and what they do. I'm left wondering if what she is trying to defend in her essay is not historical fiction but fiction, period.

Anyway, I finished reading the essay and then noticed that up above the title is a kind of column title "Personal Essays." So here was an essay definitely being classified as a personal essay (by somebody), and I guess it does move from the author's personal experiences to something more universal because she is writing about something more universal--what is historical fiction--and not just her experiences answering questions about her book.

So, there, folks, is a little nonfiction experience prepared for you almost as I was living it, myself. I wonder if there's a name for that kind of nonfiction writing?

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