I can imagine a biography of a fictional character, but it would not be the kind of biography that I should want to write. Though I write nonfiction, this does not mean that I do not read fiction: on the contrary, I consume more novels than any other type of book. I notice that dedicated readers of fiction tend towards new books. I am only slightly embarrassed to admit that the novel I am reading at the moment is by Marcel Proust. In any case I feel that those readers who restrict themselves to fiction may be denying themselves pleasure as well as instruction.
I would argue that biography can be as enriching and as entertaining as fiction. At its best, biography teaches us about life itself, just as fiction does. The great man had written almost every type of book, including works of both fiction and biography, so he knew a thing or two. The goal of every author of every piece of writing is to get the reader willingly to suspend disbelief. Every piece of writing puts forth some logical argument and some theory of cause and effect for the simple reason that words, especially prose words, are sequential.
Nonfiction, history, is about what is known to be, or generally accepted to be, accurate. Facts are like archeological finds — they must strike us as tangible and real, therefore likely, plausible, attested, but also new and revelatory. The promise of nonfiction is that it is accurate, and therefore, like an archeological site, incomplete — here are the stone walls, here is part of a mosaic, here are two goblets.
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My theory concerns what these objects might mean, how they might be connected to an earthquake for which there is evidence, but I cannot go too far toward completeness or the reader, who might otherwise enjoy my narrative, will cease to be willing to suspend disbelief in its accuracy.
It is certain that after I die, more tangible evidence will surface, some plates, some clay tablets, a skull with a spike pounded into the cranium, and so theories will change, and I will be praised for having stuck to the facts as they were then understood. But the history of literature shows that listeners and readers want to know not only what happened, but also how it looked, sounded, smelled, felt, and also what it meant then and what it means now. They want to know but also to experience, and therefore they seek completeness, and so they willingly suspend disbelief in fiction The Odyssey , the Book of Genesis, Waverley , Flashman.
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What they get from these sources is not only pleasure, but emotional education, the exercise of the imagination, an enlargement of the inner life. A writer of fiction also has a theory, a theory about what happened, and also about whether the past and the present are similar, whether people change or remain the same. As with the archaeologist, my theory, if I am a fiction writer, will be found wanting after I die, but pleasure in my stories may linger War and Peace or surge The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Chances are that in order to construct my narrative, I did plenty of research, but just as with historians, I know that as yet undiscovered sources will turn up.
The test for my theory will not be whether my narrative is factually accurate. It will be whether my idea of human nature retains immediacy. As a reader, I love both history and historical novels. Both are fascinating and valuable.
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Why should I forgo either? Fiction or nonfiction? I can only answer subjectively and autobiographically. From the start, reading modern history at Oxford in the early s, I knew somehow that I was in the second-class carriage. Why is fiction leaving aside poetry and drama superior? Not just because it reflects an intrinsically more creative process, but because at its best it is capable of getting inside the heads of people with a richness, complexity and profundity that no other genre written or otherwise can.
Of course, Tolstoy is on a pedestal — assuredly the greatest novelist. Dickens falls short, unable or unwilling to drill down into those heads; Flaubert is too contemptuous of his characters; Joyce takes that fateful wrong turn after Dubliners. But plenty of others do do it — Austen, Eliot, Fontane, Forster, Proust, Grossman, even in my time Pym and Powell — and, not to avoid the unavoidable cliche, enrich immeasurably our awareness of being human, even teach us how to live. But there is something to be said, by me anyway, on the other side.
Those might be my desert island authors — no question — yet it has been nonfiction that has at least as decisively shaped my view of the world, certainly once I was a young adult. Even so, when the chips are down, nothing quite beats the right novel. During the anxious days and especially nights that followed, it did the job — and I was, and remain, grateful. Why do we so often think of fiction as the outstanding form?
As nonfiction previewer for the Bookseller , and the author of five nonfiction books of my own, I am often moved to question why fiction dominates our conversations about books. Novels are not what the majority of people buy, nor are they where most money is made. And sales of hardback nonfiction are booming too: up 8. It masks the fact that nonfiction can do anything fiction can do; and often does it better.
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