Wednesday, August 10, 2005

How do you prefer your reading?

Sunday's New York Times had an interesting interview with author V.S. Naipaul. It's something of a follow-up to his remarks in 2001, after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, in which he said that the novel was dead and only nonfiction writing could truly capture the complexities of the world we live in.

''What I felt was, if you spend your life just writing fiction, you are going to falsify your material. And the fictional form was going to force you to do things with the material, to dramatize it in a certain way. I thought nonfiction gave one a chance to explore the world, the other world, the world that one didn't know fully.''

My Iowa classmates and I often beat topics like this to a soggy pulp over many pitchers of beer. Some would've agreed with Naipual that fiction - American fiction, especially - is in trouble, that it lacks a distinct voice. I often disagreed with such sentiments, arguing that fiction doesn't have a distinct voice because there are just so many out there. (Hell, just walk into a bookstore.) And I see that as a good thing.

Yet I think I agree with Naipaul's feelings on nonfiction writing. (Rachel Donadio, who conducted the interview with Naipaul, later wrote her own essay on the subject.) During my time in Iowa, I was able to find my voice as a writer much more comfortably through my nonfiction work. (This blog might be the best example of that.) And that nonfiction work often got a better reaction when I had to read it in class or for an audience. There's an immediacy and vitality to writing about events as they happened, rather than attempting to dramatize and allegorize them. (Ultimately, however, you still have to tell a story.)

But that's from the writer's point-of-view. What about the reader's perspective? Are there more nonfiction books in your reading stack than novels? (I know I've been reading much more nonfiction this summer than fiction.) When you go into a bookstore, which sections do you walk toward first? Do you agree with Naipaul that nonfiction writing better reflects the modern world and teaches us more than fiction can? Maybe nonfiction has a shorter "shelf life" than fiction, so we think we need to read it sooner than a novel. After all, if that novel is worth reading, it should have a timeless quality to it, right? Or is it just more work to get through a novel than a nonfiction book? (Never mind how difficult it might be to find that novel.)

▪ This doesn't just apply to books, either. What about Gus Van Sant's Last Days? It's much too soon to know if it's a successful film. But would it be more popular (or have more relevance) if it was just an outright Kurt Cobain biopic, rather than a (closely) fictionalized version of his final days?

▪ By the way, if you're looking for something with the epic scope of a novel with the relevancy of real-life accounts, I highly recommend Adrian Nicole Leblanc's Random Family. It's a damn good book.