Monday, May 14, 2007

Where is my fictional non-fiction?

David Halberstam died recently, killed in a car crash, and the English-speaking world lost one of its great writers of non-fiction. I loved his books, especially "The Fifties", and would often read a book of his even if the subject matter didn't compel me -- he was just that good.

In thinking of him I keep wondering: would his books been as interesting if they were all made up? Writers -- especially genre writers -- are programmed to "show, don't tell", and those habits run deep. There are beloved exceptions -- much by Borges, The Dictionary of the Khazars, Stanislaw Lem. But by and large fiction hews to the time-honored tradition of characters and plots.

But non-fiction -- expository non-fiction -- is often exciting, gripping, compelling -- all of the things fiction is supposed to be. Is it all of those things only because it's true? I think that if someone had written a book as readable, as interesting as "The Fifties", but about a completely different world -- I think I would have loved it.

5 comments:

Paul Witcover said...

In a way, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men and Starmaker come to mind . . .

Ysabeau Wilce said...

I've often thought of doing something similar for Califa. Perhaps a railroad guide book or something. But then I figured no one would be interested in such minutia but me...Aren't some of Jeff Vandermeer's books along these lines?

Paul Witcover said...

Yes, Vandermeer definitely did a lot of this sort of thing in the first Ambergris book.

Paul Witcover said...

It just occurred to me that Philip Jose Farmer did something along these lines with his straight-faced "biographies" Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life.

TacitHydra said...

Dave Schwartz (he's got a book coming out in 2008) is doing something exactly like this on his blog.

I love Calvino and Borges, and this hits exactly the same buttons for me. He's doing it in dribs and drabs, every once in a while, and the whole thing is gradually starting to coalesce. It rocks.