Arts & Culture
Why Fact Needs Fiction
Many in the publishing world will caution a writer with an interest in both fiction and non-fiction to pick one genre and stick with it, as if a journalist writing a novel was somehow akin to a chiropractor taking a … Read More
Many in the publishing world will caution a writer with an interest in both fiction and non-fiction to pick one genre and stick with it, as if a journalist writing a novel was somehow akin to a chiropractor taking a scalpel to your brain: a dangerous and messy mistake. My fourth book is coming out this spring, and for better or worse I’ve basically ignored that advice. Three have been non-fiction of very different kinds, and the book that brought to me to Jewcy this week is a work of fiction about the perils of trying to turn real life into art. I switched to fiction with Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter because my previous book, a memoir, was published at a very bad time for memoirs. James Frey was being ritually humiliated for his fabrications, a white porn writer took the name Nasdijj and passed himself off as a Native American abuse-survivor to great acclaim, and the author of supposedly autobiographical works like The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things turned out not to exist at all. Easy as it is to pile abuse on such writers, I mostly have sympathy for them, as I do for the most recent, most audacious, and saddest of memoir fabulists. Watching them all raked over the media coals, I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that a memoir might be unintentionally false, and so I made that one possible interpretation of the life and times of my alter kocker anti-hero Itsik Malpesh. Yes, to greater and lesser degrees, writers of fake memoirs are liars, or they are chumps who allowed themselves to get caught up in the genre-driven machinery of publishing, or they are simply self-deceivers who have come to believe their own tall tales. What I am most interested in, however, are the ways in which our own life stories are just that: stories. We make sense of what we’ve experienced by thinking about and retelling what we have heard of our experiences. We’ve been told stories all our lives – about who we are, where we came from, who we should be, and why – but who among us ever fact-checked family history? Of course, when it comes time to write it down and put it between hard covers, we should do just that — or else someone else might do it for you. But we shouldn’t pretend it’s as straightforward as making sure memory is in line with the historical record. As even the most vaunted memoirs remind us, our understanding of the stories we’ve lived changes with time, and inevitably so will the ways we tell them. In a nutshell, that’s what my novel is about, and it’s the reason I think anyone interested in getting at the truth of the way we live with stories needs to dabble in a little non-truth now and then.