Wednesday 11 November 2009

Fiction and Non-fiction

Fiction means something made. Non-fiction is something reported. The old idea was that non-fictional reporting is presented without embellishment, and that indeed was how the first scientists saw their writing. They wrote to report what you would have seen if you had been there. But, as we all now know, things are not as straightforward as that. People may, in a certain sense, see the same thing, but see it differently. One person sees a lump swinging backwards and forwards on the end of some sort of stick, another sees the pendulum of a clock, another sees a case of simple harmonic motion.

The case that Tom Wolfe makes, in The new journalism, adds a further dimension. To enable readers to experience what really goes on in the world, says Wolfe, reporting must use the techniques of fiction. Thus when, in 1966, Leonard Bernstein invited members of the Black power group, the Black Panthers, to his elegant Manhattan apartment for drinks and morsels, Wolfe was there with his notebook, and in his magazine article to report the event, which he entitled "Radical Chic," he did indeed use the techniques of fiction. Just as Bernstein invited the Panthers to his apartment, Wolfe invited readers to imagine themselves into the mind of Bernstein: "Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d'oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs ..." (in "Radical chic," pp. 413-414, of The new journalism). To say that Wolfe couldn't possibly know what Bernstein was thinking would be merely to carp.

Wolfe's essay, "The new journalism" (pp. 15 to 68 in his book of the same name), propounds the idea that to depict properly what it is like to be there, one has to use fictional devices:
... journalists began to discover the devices that gave the realistic novel its unique power variously known as its "immediacy," its "concrete reality," its "emotional involvement," its "gripping" or "absorbing" quality,

This extraordinary power [of the new journalism] was derived mainly from just four devices they discovered. The basic one was scene-by-scene construction, telling the story by moving from scene to scene and resorting as little as possible to sheer historical narrative. Hence the sometimes extraordinary feats of reporting that the new journalists undertook: so that they could actually witness the scenes in other people's lives as they took place—and record the dialogue in full, which was device No. 2. ... realistic dialogue involves the reader more completely than any other single device. It also establishes and defines character ...

The third device was the so-called "third-person point of view," the technique of presenting every scene to the reader through the eyes of a particular character, giving the reader the feeling of being inside the character's mind and experiencing the emotional reality of the scene as he experiences it ...

The fourth device has always been the least understood. This is the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behaving toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene. Symbolic of what? Symbolic, generally, of people's status life, using that term in a broad sense of the entire pattern of behaviour and possessions through which people express their position in the world or what they think it is or what they hope it to be (pp. 46-47).
Tom Wolfe (1975). The new journalism, with an anthology edited by Tom Wolfe & E. W. Johnson. London: Picador.

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