Life & Letters

Non-fiction is Dead: Long Live Belles-lettres

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What’s so ‘non’ about literary work that is based on reportage and commentary? Let’s stop subordinating this genre with the term ‘non-fiction’

Nonfiction writers are second-class citizens, the Ellis Island of literature. And yes, it pisses me off.

—Gay Talese

It is the word ‘non-fiction’ that upsets me in the first place; the assumption of a lack which radiates from the terminology and grasps the entire genre. We decide on ‘non’ words from a position of self-importance, don’t we? Just as smug dramatists and narrativisers must have done for ‘non’-fiction a long, long time ago. To begin with, I looked up various dictionaries to see which one accorded more dignity to this non-starter of a term. The Merriam-Webster carries only one embarrassing line: ‘literature or cinema that is not fictional’. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s was a shade better: ‘books, articles or texts about real facts, people and events’; and the OED gave much hope: ‘literary matter based directly on fact (opp. Novel)’, before it was dashed by the venerable Chambers: ‘…said of a literary work; factual’.

Distinguished American historian Barbara Tuchman had elaborated on her distaste for the term ‘non-fiction’ in her essay The Artists as Historian in 1966 thus: ‘I see no reason why the word [artist] should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry while the rest of us are lumped together under that despicable term ‘Nonfiction’—as if we were some sort of remainder. I do not feel like a Non-something; I feel quite specific. I wish I could think of a name in place of ‘Nonfiction’.’ In her collection of essays, Practising History, she went on to use the phrase ‘the literature of actuality’.

The attempt to redress the balance has continued in more contemporary times. At a meeting convened by the National Endowment for the Arts in the US in 1983 to decide on what to call the genre of writing that would be felicitated by the NEA Creative Writing Fellowships, the word ‘creative non-fiction’ was coined. The committee felt that the word ‘creative’ communicated effectively the literary craft that went into writing such non-fiction, and that the strength of the genre lay in the fact that creative non-fiction writers could indulge in being poetic and journalistic at the same time.

I remained unconvinced, however, even after reading about this seemingly epochal emergence of a new genre-name. After all, at the end of the day, we were still taking recourse to using a ‘non’ word. The more I thought of it, the more I felt convinced that the word to use for the sort of writing that appealed to me—writing that was based on reportage and commentary with an ear for the craft, and for consummate literary construction—was best described by that charming phrase coined in the days of Voltaire, ‘belles-lettres’, meaning simply ‘fine writing’. As a matter of fact, till the fascination with the duller ‘creative non-fiction’ took over, ‘belles-lettres’ was indeed used to describe essays, speeches, commentary and suchlike that could not be put under more established categories like fiction, poetry and drama.

So, belles-lettres it is for me—and no phrase represents this genre of writing better when I think of my favourites: Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas; Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; Germaine Greer’s Madwoman’s Underclothes; Edward Said’s Musical Elaborations; and Amitav Ghosh’s In An Antique Land. Then there are those writers who are better known for their fiction, but somehow grew on me because of their smaller body of ‘non-fiction’ work. Like Marquez, whose magic realism left me unconvinced till I read his Clandestine in Chile, an account of an exile filmmaker returning to Chile in disguise to make an underground film about the current establishment. Or indeed our own Arundhati Roy, whose Booker-winning novel left me cold, but her activist tracts moved and cheered me.

Granted that it might be a personal kick, but exactly how great the confusion was about the genre, even in the minds of some of these great writers themselves, is evidenced by the fact that the first two in my list of favourites were planned as works of fiction but then grew into book-length essays; and literary commentators, uncomfortable with the ‘box-office’ success of In Cold Blood, decided to name it the original ‘novel-essay’. What irony! For excellence in a literary work to be acknowledged, it seems an allusion to fiction or some fictional form must exist. Capote himself used the cop-out phrase ‘non-fiction novel’ for In Cold Blood. But while the phrase seems apologist, what he had to say in connection with this ‘new’ genre in a famous interview in The New York Times is rather more useful: “It seems to me that most contemporary novelists, especially the Americans and the French, are too subjective, mesmerized by private demons; they’re enraptured by their navels, and confined by a view that ends with their own toes.” He goes on to say: “I feel that creative reportage has been neglected and has great relevance to 20th-century writing. And while it can be an artistic outlet for the creative writer, it has never been particularly explored.”

What necessitated this prevalent association of ‘artistic’ with fiction, which Capote was criticising—was it a love for subterfuge? Recently, a novelist-friend who I believe writes ‘non- fiction’ equally well, said to me, “I will never publish my non-fiction in book-form; I like to hide—it is too scary to be out there.” Then there is the more non-existential kind of hiding that has become important in these days of censorship—fear of libel, and attacks on ‘irresponsible’ writing, and the success of legal or vandal recourse by the ‘injured’ party. Or it could be the age-old fear of upsetting loved ones. Remember Mary Roy lashing out in interviews at her daughter’s portrayal of her and their household in The God of Small Things?

More recently, Jeanette Winterson writes in her memoir that after reading her first book, a novel, the sparkling Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, only faintly disguised as a work of fiction, her devoutly Catholic mother sputtered angrily to her over the phone that it was the first book she had ordered using a fictive name for herself. Yet, Winterson adds: ‘Mrs Winterson objected to what I had put in, but it seemed to me that what I had left out was the story’s silent twin. There are so many things that we can’t say, because they are too painful. Stories are compensatory.’ Is that the reason she has now penned her vivid memoir?

What if we were to turn the tables on fiction? And instead of buying the notion of the primacy of fiction outright, look for elements of belles-lettres in the best works of fiction. After all, some of the world’s greatest novels, like Winterson’s first, have been autobiographical ones, drawing on the author’s own life. Like Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Like David Copperfield by Dickens. Or Kerouac’s On the Road. Works that are often described as blurring the lines between fiction and memoir.

And then there is the premium placed on authenticity and precision. Review after review of fiction castigates a new novel for a lack of these, or praises it for the fulfilment of such ‘criteria’. A review of the iconic A Passage to India by Forster started thus: ‘Written as a precise mixture between a realistic and recognizable setting and a mystical tone….’

More recently, The Guardian review of McEwan’s Solar states: ‘McEwan swiftly persuades the reader that he can write authoritatively not only about science but the culture of scientific institutions, too.’ After all, it is this preoccupation with the ‘real’, the ‘authentic, ‘the precise’ that Salinger takes on in the very first line of his iconic The Catcher in the Rye: ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’ So finely are elements of both genres of writing intermeshed that it seems a pity to carry on according one of them subordinate status to the other. Isn’t it time we abandoned the rather insulting phrase ‘non-fiction’, and gave belles-lettres its true place in the sun?

When Aman Sethi’s book came out in the Indian market a couple of months ago, a reviewer who is a writer himself made the egregious error of referring to The Free Man repeatedly as a novel in his review of the same. While the Delhi literary world stood together and aghast at what seemed to be irrefutable evidence of a phenomenon that we have all long been aware of, that our critics and reviewers are notorious for writing reviews after merely ‘skimming’ the book, it seemed to me that at last justice was at hand; a manuscript that was first imagined as a work of fiction by its author had metamorphosed into an important work of reportage because the author felt ‘compelled’ that it be so, and was now being ‘mistakenly’ read as a novel.

I quietly celebrated with a glass of wine, and sat down to start writing this piece.