Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fiction and NonFiction: The Failure of Labels

By James Curcio

Anyone that knows me knows that, to begin with, I hate labels. So I'm going to be upfront with my bias. I think it's only fair that people are upfront about things like that, and I think that we would all be better off if we were more honest with ourselves and each other about things like that -- but that's what the next post is about, not today's.

I also am not going to provide any psychological commentary on the fact that I feel this way about categorization, and my wife is a librarian.

No, today's post is about labels. And a particular kind of labeling at that. It is about the distinction that we draw between fiction and non-fiction. It is a big red line drawn between two "types" of writing, and two intentions. It is, fundamentally, about the fact that we, the collective we, actually have no idea what we are talking about most of the time, but we simply don't look at anything close enough, so everything seems alright.

Most people just take these sort of things as a given, accept that we must label things "fiction" and "non-fiction" to get on with life and one another, and leave it at that. This strikes me as impossibly dangerous and even verging on insane. That is something else about me.

Of course, many people will be quite pleased to argue to no end about sub-categories of fiction and non-fiction writing, and what constitutes which, and they are even more pleased to argue about genre, a topic I have touched on in the past myself. (Here is an interview with a fellow author Elizabeth Spann Craig where we discuss this topic, among others.)

blending genres or lost in the fade?
art by jouram roukas
But as you may have noticed, my er "touching" was of quite a different sort than is normal. Because I am not concerned with what books should fall into which category. I don't give a damn. I'm concerned instead with what labeling actually does to us. I'm concerned with how the categories that we draw affect our thinking, even affects who we are as people, how we are as people. This is, fundamentally, the underlying topic of this website, in fact--not fiction or non-fiction, but rather how the often rote or automatic narratives that we create and live by create our world. I'm pleased to talk also about the intentional narratives as well, but it is often the unintentional ones, the unconscious ones, that bite deepest because of their nature as invisible.

Like many of the ways that we carve, chop, and delineate our lives, more is revealed in what is assumed than what is considered. As such, I feel that there is really no topic that should be left untouched in our exploration.

So before we can even talk about our assumptions, let's consider delineation. It is important not so much for the purposes of accurate or inaccurate categorization as the reality that the very process of doing so creates. Is this clear? It is of no concern to me if Star Wars is or is not Science Fiction, but it is of great concern what Science Fiction means, and why we should feel compelled to put it in that box in the first place.



As a writer, if we are to consider ourselves as "fiction" or "non-fiction" writers at the get-go, we are structuring the way that we look at the world, not only as writers, but also as people. For instance, I believe that Hunter S Thompson used who he was as a person, or at least a comfortable persona that he could wear, as a means of creating a new style of "journalism," because he quite simply had to be the person he was, and it was too freakish for him to fit into any of the boxes that the system provided for him. He was, for a time, a strong enough personality that he could pull that off. This is the trick that many of the "greats" do in fact pull off, each in their unique way, and for all of them it is because they refuse to follow the rote.

Art: Nathanel St Amour
Many writers are satisfied to follow the rules, and part of this is because publishers make it damn near impossible to do it any other way, because it is easier and certainly safer for them to, and it is also a safe assumption that for every one Hunter S Thompson, there are 1000 lazy writers who don't want to fall into a category out of that laziness, rather than because they have given great thought to what categorization would do to their style, and more importantly, who they are as people.

It may seem a great exaggeration to say that writing non-fiction for instance changes who we are as a people, but if we take our work seriously enough that it becomes who we are, or perhaps the other way around, then this is really worth our time, even if you think by now that I've simply wasted a whole page of paper "on nothing" and "by God will he get to his point already?" Well, I've dealt with the issue of identity and process in the piece Living Your Myth, which was published in Apocalyptic Imaginary, an earlier version of it here online for free, so we can at least pass that over if you've read it already -- and it is quite simply a part of my style to be considerate of my topic in a way that seems like I'm meandering every which way around it, and then we get to the close and you may realize that I have in fact given us all quite a bit to chew on, even if I've never really answered anything because final answers are to my thinking a form of DEATH.

I'd like to believe that at the very least we can agree that, except when it is really time to go, we'd all like to put off DEATH for just a little while longer, yes?

By breaking our writing into fiction or non-fiction, we at once pretend that fiction is in some sense more "make-believe" than non-fiction, and that non-fiction is a format that, perhaps, requires a reduction of the subject so as to become more "objective." These are really quite large philosophical assumptions, but we make them so casually, and in such an everyday manner, that it is very easy to see any re-consideration of the format as being difficult. I guess it can't be helped if I am difficult, but finally my first point here is that who and what we are as people is inseparable from our feelings on such matters, and secondly, we must at the very least consider what "fiction" and "non-fiction" actually are. Yes, at the very least.

There have been several cases where it became clear that an author had pretended to be someone other than who they 'actually were' when they wrote a story, and people can get very angry about that. In fact, it can even come to lawsuits in some instances. On the one hand, I agree completely that it is important for people to be honest, and yet on another, I find this all pretty absurd. Authors pretend all the time. This is a nice way of saying that we lie. They just had the courtesy to label their work as "fiction," and the anger people really have in most of these instances is that they've been "had" somehow. And yet fiction writers are asked to be so convincing that the reader is sucked up into the world that they are reading about, into the lives of these make believe characters, and the mark of a good fiction author is said to be that they trick their audience into this belief. This is all very confusing! My solution to the problem is to say upfront that I make a living--at least from time to time--by telling lies. This is the most honest and simple solution that I can find, though ironically it's still far from the truth, because I tell the truth for a living, and the best truths I can possibly tell are the fictional ones.

What this all points to is that we actually haven't any kind of grasp on what "fiction" or "non-fiction" actually are at all. So I appreciate your patience in allowing me to begin to demonstrate that to you. I could find many other instances of the quandary we're in, but please for the sake of brevity just allow that I could, if all of us valued our time a little less, find more cases that demonstrate how poorly we understand "fiction" and "non-fiction," so that we can actually take a few baby half-steps toward righting ourselves once and for all.

I am not going to try to argue that there is no point in categorizing anything. Firstly, my wife might kill me in my sleep. Secondly, all language is in essence a system of categorization or labeling--though we will never get anywhere if we try to discuss exactly what kind of labeling system it might be--and we are clearly using language. To finish off the trio, in the business of writing, publishers have a vested interest in being able to simply label things, both for themselves and for their markets, and it helps readers have some idea of what it is that they are going to be getting into ahead of time. So there is a need, but we've already covered at least a few of the problems that arise from this need which, sadly, very few people seem to be aware of, or at least care about very much. (Of course, there might be some sense in saying to hell with all labels in writing, especially to do with genre, nor that a system of gradation might serve us better than a simple binary dichotomy, Hegel's wet dream--though it may be better to sexually frustrate dead German philosophers out of sheer principle, and anyhow, frustration seemed to serve as ample motivation for Kant and Nietzsche alike.)

So, let's look at the idea of fiction as make believe. Where do the characters that we create originate from? What happens when we set them loose on the page, or in the mind of the readers? This is a fairly common place to begin when considering this relatively new form of writing, the fiction novel. (Exactly how "new" is subject of argument, but it could be measured at any rate in hundreds of years, not thousands as some naive students are prone to believe for some reason. Don't forget, we've only had cars for a little over a hundred years, yet most people seem to think that there were two Hyundai's and two Toyota's etc placed on the arc along with all the other animals... But now I really do digress.)

I digress because we actually have no clear direction to take once we've set at looking at fiction as "make believe," as these things obviously had to come from somewhere, although there is some sense in taking the "writing as shamanism" approach which I have hinted at in my own writing in the past.
However, that is not altogether satisfactory, because it is  more that the author should serve the cultural role of shaman, along with all other artists, in a culture that lacks any other form of that sort of spiritual guidance--not prescriptive guidance but rather something much more beneficial, a figure that helps people remember that they must above and beyond everything else BECOME YOURSELF.

Nonfiction pretends to be true. Fiction pretends to be false. A story. But both of them are stories. And it is this distinction that allows the media to play games with our minds with journalism. It is what allows us to believe that fantasy stories are "just tales" and wonder why they have such psychological power when they hit the right nerve. The reason for this is lodged within every book we've written through this project. It is in the in the mission statement.

(And yet when I submit my material to publishers or agents, the first question they inevitably ask is, "do you write fiction or nonfiction?" It's a problem for me every time, too.)

When I return to continue this subject, I will look at yet more ways that "fiction" and "nonfiction" both fail us horribly, and in the process demonstrate that logic too fails us--unless if we are scientists or mathematicians--and all our beliefs are in fact a form of fiction as much as anything else. So tune in again when I get the cranial-sacral juices flowing enough to get us all there, as it were.

In the meantime, I'd like to suggest you check out the link below and pick up a book or even album. Not just because I had a hand in some of them, but also because they are all works in the process of untethering us from old and static concepts, none of them absolutely succeeding at those tasks I'm sure, but we all must work a step at a time. And in the process, every now and then, great things happen... 

[Where is the fucking counterculture? Mythos Media.]

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