I’ve noticed I get a lot more comments here when I write about fiction than nonfiction. And I’m more interested in fiction too. But we’re in the minority. We live in an increasingly “reality” obsessed world.
In fact, faux memoir has become something of a mainstay in the publishing business, and fake “misery lit” now has its own page at Wikipedia. But in all the discussion of forged substance abuse/holocaust/ethnic minority memoirs, not a lot of talk focuses on the sad truth that fiction writers felt they had to pass off their work as nonfiction in order to sell it.
Even though James Frey wrote what a lot of folks agreed was a heart-stopping read with A Million Little Pieces, chances are slim he would have become an overnight celebrity if he’d called it a novel.
And even after his disgrace, Mr. Frey has a solid writing career. Maybe I should have tried to pass my romantic comedies off as memoirs, too: “Chanel at the Fence” perhaps, or “A Million Bad Dates with Guys Who Look Like Hugh Grant.” When the Smoking Gun found out I was really an old hippie chick who couldn’t walk three feet in a pair of Manolos, I still would have had name recognition.
The truth is that despite the occasional publishing phenomena like Dan Brown’s conspiracy theories and sagas of angsty high school vampires and wizards, most bestselling books are nonfiction.
And this isn’t just true of the book industry. Look at the Oscars: would Sandra Bullock have even been nominated for The Blind Side if she hadn’t portrayed a real woman? And how many awards go to actors who portray real celebrities like Ray Charles, Katherine Hepburn, Truman Capote, Johnny Cash, etc. in all those biopics? One actor friend, more than a bit annoyed by this phenomenon, suggests that the Academy establish separate categories for impersonating and actually acting.
Then of course there is the phenomenon of “Reality TV.” Today people are more entertained by a bunch of Z-list celebrities clunking through dance routines in embarrassing costumes than by anything resembling a story. Even popular dramas like the CSI franchise chug along with wooden dialogue and tired plotlines, relying for their thrills on real-life footage of rotting pig corpses and/or somebody’s colonoscopy.
Have we become like the circus audiences of ancient Rome, so jaded that we can only be amused by witnessing real-time human suffering?
Fiction was once our most effective voice for social and political truths. Abraham Lincoln accused Harriet Beecher Stowe of starting the Civil War with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And novelists like Charles Dickens and Sinclair Lewis alerted the world to wrongs and changed the fabric of society.
But in a market like ours, I suppose Mrs. Stowe would need to claim she “just growed” in Uncle Tom’s cabin herownself—maybe before suffering from that strange skin-whitening disease that so tragically attacked Michael Jackson. Instead of Oliver Twist or Main Street, we’d have Charlie D’s painful memories of abuse in the bootblack factory, and “Red” Lewis’s personal confessions of debauched Gopher Prairie nights.
And I’ve got to admit I my own nonfiction reading has taken a bite out of my novel reading time, since most of what I read online at least purports to be nonfiction. And here you are reading this blog, which is pretty much reality-based (I swear.)
So what about it—are you reading more nonfiction than fiction these days?