Monday, September 17, 2012

Mondays on the Margins: Out of the Box: The Mostly True Story of a Mysterious Man

I should have paid closer attention to the description of this book before I accepted a copy to review. Bob Harris sounded like a character with some interesting stories to tell, which he is. However, I would never have taken a copy if I'd seen that it was billed as 'creative non-fiction'.

I have a problem with creative non-fiction. Well, I don't have a problem with non-fiction writing being creative, I have a problem with 'creative non-fiction' as a genre, since it seems to indicate to me that an author is saying "I want to write something that is non-fiction until I feel like making stuff up, and then it will be partly fictional non-fiction". I guess this is better than the authors who claim that they are writing non-fiction and then make parts up without admitting it, but still... I don't see the point. If you want to write fiction, write fiction. If you want to write non-fiction, stick to the facts and use your writing to make it creative.

I'm willing to admit that this is my issue. Still Life With June, a book I loved, written by Canadian author Darren Greer, contains a character named Darrel Greene, and this bugs me. Darren Greer came to the book club meeting in which we discussed his book, and I asked him about this, and about another part where the narrator lists various pseudonyms he's written under, and one of them is the author's own: Darren said it's just a way of being playful with the conventions of fiction. And hey, I'm all for playful, I don't want to be the Victorian no-play-allowed governess, but.... I just think it's dumb. I feel the same way about novels that have prologues where it is purported that the manuscript was found in a locked trunk or something, and we're supposed to giggle and nod and pretend like we might believe it's a TRUE STORY. A good work of fiction, in my opinion, doesn't need this pretext of 'reality' -- its truth comes from a different place. Likewise, a good piece of non-fiction shouldn't need fictional embellishment.

Added to my instinctive dislike of the fictional 'framing device' is the fact that said device is fairly clumsy and doesn't seem to serve the author's stated purpose of adding 'flow and continuity'. On the back of the book, the fictional 'niece' Julianna, is said to have suffered from a form of arthritis that kept her bedridden for much of her youth before she began travelling with her "Uncle" Bob. In the book, this illness is alluded to but never fully described, as if we're supposed to have read the back of the book and then take it as understood. Also, the author (Julie Morse) begins the framing chapters with "I" (Julianna) and then jumps back into Bob's story in succeeding chapters, with "I" (Bob) without bothering to distinguish who is now narrating the story, which is quite confusing. Julianna doesn't travel with Bob all that much in the book. In fact, at one point she's too preoccupied with her own life to accept his invitations for a lengthy period of time. This makes it doubly confusing as to why the author thought the fictional niece was required, as she is less a smooth link between stages of the story than a randomly-inserted cipher.

There's no question that Bob Harris is a well-travelled, charismatic and dauntless character. He has travelled to more countries than I can actually name; he grew up in Chicago during the Depression and learned some life lessons the hard way; he displays a business savvy and a way with people that can't be taught; and there are hints that he might have done some intelligence work (spy stuff). The author does a good job of conveying his charm and joie de vivre. It's hard to think of an appropriate audience for this as anything other than a vanity project for friends and family of the main character; perhaps that's why Morse felt the need to tack on the framing embellishment. Unfortunately, it seems to me that it adds nothing except unnecessary confusion.

6 comments:

Amy said...

I hate the concept of creative non-fiction

Marilyn (A Lot of Loves) said...

This doesn't sounds appealing at all. I don't understand the point of creative non-fiction and I avoid it at all costs. It seems to be a growing genre though, and I'm not sure why. I like to know the cold hard facts, or I want to be whisked away to pretend-ville. Nothing in between.

clara said...

I don't think of creative non-fiction as "I tell the true story except when it gets boring and then I make stuff up." I think of creative non-fiction as the stuff of the best blog posts, where we tell stories creatively but the stories are still true. Like Bon Stewart's blog, or Schmutzie's blog, or your blog...Your post about going on the field trip is creative non-fiction.

What you're describing, here, is a bastardization of the genre, in my opinion. (a genre which I love, in its unbastardized version, in case it wasn't clear)

The non-fiction part is important. If you're making shit up, then it's fiction. No muss no fuss.

Collette said...

Heck, I didn't even know there was a genre called " creative, non-fiction". Maybe that's what the history textbooks should be called down in Texas.

Finola said...

I agree with what Clara said. To me creative non-fiction has to be true, but the way that you tell the story can be creative. ie. you can add dialogue or other story telling techniques.

In fact one of the short-listed entries for the recent creative non-fiction contest at CBC's Canada Writes was disqualified because the author used an inaccurate age for one of her children. If I remember correctly the author used snippets of her daughter's different ages.

The author hadn't intended to mislead and it was an honest error, due to the fact that the term creative non fiction is so confusing and ill defined.

clara said...

I just read this: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/a-personal-essay-by-a-personal-essay
and thought of you.