Tell Me a Story
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ROGER ROSENBLATT: In the Sunday New York Times Book Review, there was an interesting article by Rachael Dinadio about the novelist V.S. Naipaul, who spoke of the necessity of writing nonfiction because, he said, “If you spend your life just writing fiction, you’re going to falsify your material.” He implied that without nonfiction, a grasp of the truth is incomplete.
Events in publishing seem to support this. The Atlantic Monthly has cut back on fiction. Publishers avidly seek nonfiction that promises a big, quick sale rather than serious novels in part because the market beckons but also because of the wider idea Naipaul was getting at: Where does the truth of experience lie — in what you see in the real world or in what you make up?
There are some kinds of literature to which the question does not apply. Autobiographical novels about coming of age, such as Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” or Baldwin’s “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” Both novels decorate the facts of the author’s young manhood with invented names, places and thoughts to make sense of reality, the deeper sense that only dreams can unearth.
But if the truth is what you’re after, you have to define the terms. An essay question: Compare and contrast “The Perfect Storm,” nonfiction, with “Moby Dick” — fiction to a tee — two first-rate tales of terror and obsession at sea and of the stubborn pursuit of men for profit.
Yet, we will remember Captain Ahab long after we’ve forgotten “The Perfect Storm” not because Ahab was believably real, but because he was not.
Truth is preposterous both in fiction and in fact. Which really happened, the events of 9/11 or Wells’ “War of the Worlds”? Much less significantly, which was harder to believe, last year’s Red Sox or the musical “Damn Yankees?” For me I can tell you which was harder to take.
The test of endurance has to do with the quality of the story. The choice in and of writing is not Naipaul’s, it seems to me, is the story worth telling, whether it happened or it didn’t.
When a child asks, tell me a story, he’s not asking for fact or fiction, just something wonderful. Both creationists and scientists are single-mindedly devoted to great stories, Adam, Eve, God and Satan, no more or less than frogs birds, apes and us. The stories are not to be confused in the classroom. But when it comes to individual truth, neither story falsifies the material.
In his autobiographical novel, “Manchild in the Promised Land,” Claude Brown offers a way to see fiction and nonfiction as both factual and fanciful as the truth is itself. In a story about growing up in the hell of Harlem in the 1960′s, Brown leaves us stunned equally with belief and disbelief.
“You might see someone get cut or killed,” he writes in the novel’s last lines. “I could go out on the street, and I would see so much that when I came in the house I’d be talking and talking. Dad would say, ‘Boy, why don’t you stop that lyin’. You know you didn’t see all that. You know you didn’t see nobody do that.’ But I knew I had.”
I’m Roger Rosenblatt.