Over the weekend, I purchased a copy of Granta, the splendid UK literary magazine. I was elated to see a copy lying there on its back, next to Tin House and The Paris Review, though I wondered how it got there. Only one copy; the sticker affixed to the cover read “US $16.99″ a hefty price for a literary journal, no matter its size, its beauty. Did the bookstore order one copy? Maybe an older gentleman comes every three months to buy the copy, as part of a long standing, unofficial bond between he and the bookstore. If so, I swooped in, filled with the thrill akin to sniping an eBay auction at the last minute. I remembered the opportunity I squandered in London. Copies of Granta from the sixties and seventies, all adorned with fantastic covers and rock-bottom prices, were splayed across the table at an outdoor book fair along the Thames. I happily paid the exorbitant price.
And instead of working on this column, or a story, or the feasibility of turning a 200 word prose-poem-like thing into flash fiction, I brewed some coffee and cracked open Granta’s volume devote to Pakistan. Holding the book reminded me of my ongoing ambivalence to e-books, even though I buy them, read them and still come away with literary satisfaction (or otherwise). I am by no means a luddite, my vinyl record collection (sans turntable) notwithstanding. The convenience of the e-book for all parties involved (instant delivery and low prices for the consumer; low production costs, potential higher margins for the writer) outweighs the perceived and intangible values of a physical book. Then again, my copy of Granta evoked this sense of jubilation, of excitement, in the same way as when I held the hardback copy of Victor LaValle’s Big Machine; sometimes, the gorgeous artwork, the smell of the pages, the bending of spines, all conflate to create an unquantifiable value.
As I read the first story, “Leila In The Wilderness” by Nadeem Aslam, then moved to a poem, “PK 754″Â by Yasmeen Hameed, I felt vindicated by the price I paid. Discovering “new” voices, and experiencing their styles, their word choices, their rhythms for the first time makes a book, any book, electronic or paper, worth the price of admission. Again, literary satisfaction trumps and triumphs over the mode of delivery. What did I know of Pakistan, past and present? What did I know of its customs, its idiosyncrasies, and its people? These questions, born of a symbiosis between writer and reader, between nations, each side rife with assumptions and stereotypes held against the other, are fluid, transcendent, and are communicated through literature with little concern with the “how.”
Later, I read two more stories: “Portrait of Jinnah”Â Â by Jane Perlez and “Kashmir’s Forever War” by Basharat Peer. Unlike the excellent “Leila In The Wilderness” which preceded, the nature of these two other stories eluded me. That is, I was uncertain of their genres; were they fiction or nonfiction? When such a question is asked, another surfaces: does it matter? Some say “no”; some say “you damn right it does.”
During interviews on the subject of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, author Junot Diaz revealed that “facts” the regarding the Dominican Republic, which were contained within the footnote narrative throughout the book, were untrue. Perhaps those well-versed in Dominican history knew this, and got the joke immediately, but I wonder if this revelation pissed off a few readers. Even if the book is a novel—as in “fictitious”Â—do readers still take the writer’s word for it? A similar, older take on the saying, “If I read it on the Internet, then it must be true.” As for me, I took the “facts” at face value; if anything, I paid more attention to the narrative as it delved into the details of various comic books (which, of course, were all true).
There’s truth—and there’s “truthiness,” to quote Stephen Colbert. We’re all aware of the skewering James Frey received for A Million Little Pieces. He is literature’s poster boy for all that is believed to be wrong in creative nonfiction and, specifically, memoir. In David Shields’ book Reality Hunger, Alice Marshall was quoted to say:
I’m disappointed not that Frey is a liar but that he isn’t a better one. He should have said, Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be. He could have talked about the parallel between a writer’s persona and the public persona that Oprah presents to the world. Instead, he showed up for his whipping.
Likewise, Shields himself wrote:
In the aftermath of the Million Little Pieces outrage, Random House reached a tentative settlement with readers who felt defrauded by Frey. To receive a refund, hoodwinked customers had to mail in a piece of the book: for hardcover owners, it was page 163; those with paperback copies were required to actually tear off the front cover and send it in. Also, readers had to sign a sworn statement confirming that they had bought the book with the belief it was a real memoir or, in other words, that they felt bad having accidentally read a novel.
The suggestion is that Frey should’ve created distance between A Million Little Pieces and the expectation of memoir—that is, “don’t you dare lie to me!”Â—which essentially deflects the issue of memoir, whether or not the writer is correct in each fact, each conversation quoted, each detail of the the event as it happened, back onto the reader. Frey burned at the proverbial stake because his book was called a “memoir”, a term that unearths expectations inside the minds of readers.
According to Vivian Gornick (quoted in Reality Hunger; originally appeared at Salon.com), the author of one of my favorite books, The Situation and The Story: The Art of The Personal Narrative:
Memoir is a genre in need of an informed readership. It’s a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting. Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade him or her that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand. A memoir is a tale taken from life—that is, from actual, not imagined, occurrences—related by a first-person narrator who is undeniably the writer. Beyond these bare requirements, it has the same responsibility as the novel or the short story: to shape a piece of experience so that it moves from a tale of private interest to one with meaning for the disinterested reader.
Which is okay in my eyes, so long as the truth or, rather, the caveats are revealed upfront. No need to backtrack after the fact, to say, “well you read it wrong.” Ask Frey how that turned out for him. As for whether a story is fiction or nonfiction, It doesn’t matter to me. A safe, perhaps moderate stance to take, but yes, the quality of the story matters most to me. I’m a pessimist by nature and, while I don’t consider writers to be outright liars, I do assume that there’s a smidgen of embellishment, a slight, Plathian slant to the truth.
And there’s the whole philosophy of truth: what is the truth, what makes something real, etc. With truth in literature, I think what gets missed is the reader’s experience: did he sink into the world in which the story existed, with its sights and sounds, did he enjoy the characters (which is independent from liking or hating the characters), was the plot plausible, did the book earn its climax and ending, or were they mere bolt-ons, the results of convenient plot twists? In other words, was the story executed so well, that not only did it entertain the reader, but he could believe it to be true? Besides, isn’t that the litmus test, the “bullshit” test, so to speak, when we read books, fiction or non?
The terms “fiction” and “nonfiction” are mere containers, modes of delivery, along the lines of paper books or e-books. After reading the aforementioned Granta stories, I did ask myself where I should slot them. However, I knew it didn’t matter, further solidified by the fact that I didn’t want to research the dates, the times, the faces, the battles, the mountains, the unmarked graves, the political puppets, the stone-throwers, the tanks, the buildings pitted by artillery shells; I didn’t (and still don’t) know if the stories were fiction and the writers didn’t tip their hands. Rather, they both wrote rich, provocative stories and I, lonely reader, fell into their worlds, walked the streets, saw the markets, smelled the gunpowder, heard the cheers and moans. That’s how its supposed to go. Let someone else question the truth.