Arts & Culture

Fiction and Non-Fiction: Different Forms of Lying

The Sami Rohr Prize For Jewish Literature “There is no such thing as non-fiction,” said novelist David Peace in a recent television interview and I’m inclined to agree. So when the Jewish Book Council’s annual Sami Rohr Prize – a … Read More

By / November 17, 2008

The Sami Rohr Prize For Jewish Literature

“There is no such thing as non-fiction,” said novelist David Peace in a recent television interview and I’m inclined to agree. So when the Jewish Book Council’s annual Sami Rohr Prize – a new literary award that has instantly become the most important book prize in the loosely affiliated world of Jewish writing – chose to alternate its annual prize between “Fiction” and “Non-fiction”, I was surprised to say the least.

I was even more surprised when I found out that Lucette Lagnado was the winner of the non-fiction prize – not because of her undoubted ability but because the prize committee has implicitly agreed with my reservations about the genre distinctions by choosing, on the face of it, two extremely similar books for the fiction and non-fiction prizes.

The two highly deserving winners of the prize so far have been Tamar Yellin and Lucette Lagnado, winners of fiction and non-fiction, respectively. The committee is at pains to note that they celebrate writers not books, but in the past two years I have not read two more similar books than the ones that preceded their receipt of the Rohr Prize – The Genizah at the House of Shepher and The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.

Both books are archaeologies of their fathers’ culture told through daughter-centric biographies. Both explore the paternal family and its transformation as the father moves from a colorful Levant to the bland, English-speaking West. The crucial, if hairsplitting difference is that, although both are recounted in skillfully literary ways, one is ostensibly a fictional account of her family based on certain key historical facts whereas the other purports to be a historical account of her family based on research and family lore.

So why does the prize split these genre hairs? And, if the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is negligible, what are pertinent distinctions for literature? 2. The Narrative World of Language

We live in an interwoven world that is available to us only through narrative. Quantitative information may appear to be objective (Earth gravity is 10 m/s2), but meaningful knowledge does not exist independently of its context (what is a meter? what is a second?). When the context unfolds diachronously (over time) knowledge is available narratively (putting the “story” in “history”). When the context is synchronous (at one moment in time), knowledge of the immediate situation is available through exposition (literally putting in a place), or through explanation (laying flat).

Either way, describing knowledge is always a matter of double transformation: perceiving and expressing. Although perception can be a gestalt, immediate thing, expression always unfolds through time, through a narrative. We can perceive certain apparent facts instantly; we can only explain significance narratively.

When we describe, or even understand something (i.e. mentally describe it), we translate it into meaning for ourselves. Then, to pass on that understanding, we form an expression that depends on the tools and abilities we have. At one end of the spectrum we have Picasso or Shakespeare whose abilities to express new understandings of the worlds around them seem almost limitless. At the other end we have young children whose abilities to form sentences, opinions, expressions are tightly circumscribed by their stage in development.

Nevertheless the spectrum is continuous, containing everyone who forms an expression: “When you say to give form, you’re giving a shape to something that’s much more nebulous,” Art Spiegelman told the LA Times in October “As soon as you try to tell the truth, you’re always lying.” Language is our pre-eminent meaning-making tool. It is what determines how we view the infinite world around us, but it is a tool of production, not of revelation.

I mean the word “infinite” seriously here. There are literally an infinite number of ways to describe even the simplest of objects or relationships, large or small, wide or narrow scope, single, double, or multiple perspectives. As we absorb and understand the world around us using the creative faculty of our imagination, we enter the world of language. This internal world is not controversial – some Jewish thinkers describe it as the Olam Ha Dimayon (‘the world of imagination’) – however, whether it is organized through language has been in dispute since at least Sapir and Whorf proposed their hypothesis.

Moving from that internal world, though, into human society requires the medium of language. Literature is any work – for the sake of argument – that takes both its imagination and the medium of that imagination seriously. As a finite tool in the face of the infinite, language – even in literature, its most potent form – is partial, subjective, and unavoidably biased.

So, what’s my point? Since descriptions of the world are already figurative and dependent on a representational mode that is totally different from the world it describes, fiction and non-fiction are only contingent products of authorial truth-claims. When Chief Bromden says, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen” he’s explaining Kesey’s truth claim. Kesey ventriloquizes Bromden to elide the messy proof, but his point is that saying something like “the rain came stabbing down” may be less literally true than “it was raining hard.” However, the metaphorical truth of “stabbing down” is much richer and more figuratively true.

Likewise for the whole book, Kesey could have written a scathing expose of the similarities between the social constraints of US capitalist society and other oppressive twentieth century hegemonies, with nods to Native Americans, technology, Foucauldian methods of medical labeling and marginalization and the warping of individual relationships. He could, but not only would it have been much more narrowly read. It would also have been less fully true. 3. The Seduction of Truth

Readers, of course, want escapism from books, but they also want the illusion of both truth (reportage of verifiable facts or the titillation of confessions) and Truth (revelation of the world as it really is).

The current obsession of the English-book buying public with biography, self-help, and non-fiction is a literal failure of the imagination. It is part of the spectrum of public disorders that has led, at the extreme, to fundamentalism: the denial of the subtlety of language and of the necessary situatedness of knowledge. Fundamentalism (and the simplistic streak in us all) believes that scriptures or texts in general can be fully true and simply understood.

The word text comes from the Latin texere meaning “to weave." The combination of vision (we talk about seeing something when we understand it) and a woven tapestry work well as a metaphor to illustrate the fallacy of fundamentalism, of literalism. That tendency exists in us all, but those who embrace it fully see a framed and woven tapestry from a certain angle and think that their anamorphic view of the text is not only a view of the Real through a window, but the ONLY possible view of the Real. Even if an individual does experience a revelation (looks out of the window, rather than just glimpsing the woven representation of it) this revelation can only be explained by weaving together a tapestry of words.

The desperate craving for the Truth and its apparent availability in non-fiction, betrays the desperate desire for there to be a simple window onto the Real world, whereas (and we can see this daily on the Internet) all we can do is produce more and more text explaining what we are understanding. The world is not simple, and it’s not immediately available. We grasp where we are by grasping how we know where we are. Pretending that language is Truth rather than just representation ignores that we live in a narrative world.

A further complication of the metaphor of window/ tapestry is that the “tapestry” is no less our world than the putative Real world outside the putative window. Just as windows, appliances, and decorations form our living space so the windows, tapestries, and language tools form our own perceivable living space.

Our contemporary yearning for “non-fiction” is just the latest distrust in the truth of fiction: Montaigne had to deal with a contemporary attitude that all fiction is lies and Plato even exiled the poets from The Republic for their refusal to adhere to verifiable truths. In our contemporary society, where the life of the collective mind is beginning to rival the life of the collective planet in its interdependence, the strength and sanity of an individual or society is a function of the ability to imagine the possibilities within and beyond the possible.

Within that the category of verifiable facts is a large but extremely limited category and Truth is a chimera. All language lies. The question is only how far is it able to enlighten us about the way that the material and imagined worlds work. 4. Sami Rohr Redux

The lines between categories of books are not set in stone: Franz Kafka once wrote that by taking his diaries and changing the “I” to “he” he instantly became a writer of fiction. As any biographer will tell you, the lines between biography, fiction, and gossip are not so much deserted or even carefully-patrolled border walls as open, crowded and intersecting boulevards. And, although the problem is often more visible in biography and autobiography, fiction, exposition, polemic, memoir, self-help and all our other books are also located in and around the same boulevards. Address, though, is the key to this metaphor – in this bustling commerce of ideas how do we find what we want, and how do we tell others where to look?

Of course one reason that it’s difficult to find what we want is that writers have no real interest in categories. Yes they may identify their work as belonging to a genre or even (pace Jakobson) play games with the accepted rules of genres but writers have books that they want to write, not genres that they want to populate. Philip Roth’s Patrimony is autobiographical but it hardly jumps out of his oeuvre and demands special attention. Likewise, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is diminished by lumping it into either “detective” fiction or “Jewish” fiction. Indeed Chabon’s particular virtuosity seems, like the Coen brothers with films, to be the ability to master and tweak genres so that they are barely themselves.

These two authors are clearly already recognized by both market and critics, but the Sami Rohr Prize is not interested in honoring these already acclaimed types of author. The clues to its interest come in the details. First, although the prize goes mainly to one person and is mainly based on one book, there are significant prize is not a one-shot deal and the runners up each year get significant honorable mentions that sell books and provide ongoing invitations to private literary seminars. Second, the prize goes to the writer, not the specific book. It seems disingenuous in practice because writers are only as good as their latest books, but in theory it’s a significant distinction. Writers are the human sites of production and expression rather than books, which are the products and, sometimes contingently, the commodities they produce.

This year’s honorees included Ilana Blumberg for her Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman Among Books and Eric Goldstein for his Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity. They are both excellent books and deserve awards but the authors are also thinking about a set of issues that appeal to a particular type of committee. The former charts in lyrical autobiographical detail the difficulty of being an orthodox Jewish young woman and woman who loves both scripture and literature. The latter is a broad and nuanced history of how Jews have identified and been identified in a country dominated by the black-white racial divide.

Gender, race, ashkenazim to go with Lucette’s sephardi roots, academics to go with the novelists, Americans in the North, South, and Midwest to go with last year’s winners from England, Israel, and the West Coast: men and women, orthodox, progressive, and secular. The Rohr Prize is not like a Nobel Prize, but rather one large grant along with several other tickets to a salon. The tickets come with money for drinks, new clothes, and time to prepare but the real aim is to create in a Jewish milieu an elite conversation in which a diverse group of growing Jewish writers can talk to each other.

The categories used by the Prize are important because they allow us to think about two crucial distinctions: writers as opposed to books; and prize categories as distinct from bookshop categories on the one hand and critical categories on the other. Prizes are designed to encourage a particular type of enterprise rather than either reflect a market or develop a critical approach. In this case however, the enterprise is actually one of diverse reflection on what it is to be a Jewish writer. The body of work presented by these authors is a college application and it remains to be seen what the graduating theses look like.

Even for the Sami Rohr Prize, then, the alternation between fiction and non-fiction is, in the end, not a significant distinction, it’s just a means to the end of a putative diversity in the mixture of the group – like state, race, and income representation at an Ivy League college. Ironically the fiction of the Prize’s alternating genre serves a practical, not a theoretical purpose. It’s a misrepresentation in order to get at a fuller truth – just like non-fiction itself!