Novelistic Nonfiction

I finally finished The Telling Room, this morning on my way to work. And last week, mostly by coincidence, I came across a descriptor, “novelistic nonfiction,” for the phenomenon I described last week.

It was funny, almost immediately after I started complaining about his meandering and dithering, his wife called him on it, in the book, and told him to settle down and write the ending. But I think it took him another 10 years to actually do that. By the 80 percent mark, he finally tried the cheese. By the 90 percent mark, he finally talked to the betrayer and got his side of the story. But then he spent the last 10 percent of the book basically explaining why the betrayer’s side didn’t matter. Even if it was the one more objectively verifiable.

And, on some level, I get it, I do. I have this conversation with (and about) my mom all the time. She forwards me emails about how some outrageous conspiracy is happening. I spend 30 seconds fact-checking it against Snopes, and letting her know that it’s not true and she should check things before she sends them, because it’s irresponsible to alarm people and to spread easily dismissed mistruths. And she says something like “I didn’t forward it to you because I knew it was true, but because I thought you’d find it interesting.” I interpret this to mean that she finds some emotional truth to things, whether they’re verifiable or not.

Now, what I’m about to say will frustrate people who are like me. So give me a minute— I really am on the side of sane, rational responsibility, here, but I’m going to empathize with her for a second.

This is an argument that I make about art, now that I’m older. When I was younger, I used to get frustrated about Impressionism. (No seriously. I exhaust even myself.) All those pastels and dots— they seemed wishy washy, to me. At about that time (and really to this day— part of the reason I was drawn to a book about Spain) I was developing a fondness for El Greco. I had been a fan of realism, in art. People who looked more or less like their photographs, etc. But when I went to Spain and had a revelatory experience about life and art, I started to see how it could be more emotionally true to depict an elongated figure with fingers of ridiculous proportion, because it said something about peace and grace that you couldn’t have said with photographic realism. El Greco’s earlier work was more realistic in proportion than his later work. It’s not that he couldn’t have painted St. Francis’s fingers with greater emphasis on proportion, it’s that his work was more powerful when he committed to conveying an emotional truth, not a photographic one. But there was still something about the boldness of El Greco as compared to, say Monet’s water lilies, that I found viscerally satisfying.

But I’ve come around to the Impressionists, grudgingly. I still prefer art that is bolder in its statements, but I’ve started to see that it’s not about the depiction of water lilies, per se, as much as it is the depiction of light, color, mood— a moment. I can see that the length of St. Francis’s fingers are an enhancement to the painting, not a limitation thereof. I’m a big believer in emotional and spiritual truths, and in the importance of factoring them into the conversation.

With that said, I think there are limitations to that. If I get “news” from someone I trust, and it turns out to be false, and when I go back to them they say they don’t care whether it’s true or not because it’s interesting… well, that damages their credibility, for me. If they sent it to me as art, maybe I’d feel differently about it. But I find it… challenging that someone I trust would attempt to push me toward outrage without good basis. It takes a lot of energy to be outraged, and it takes a tremendous amount of energy just to be me (see “I exhaust myself,” above.) If you know those things about me, don’t whip me up into a frenzy about something you don’t know to be actually outrageous. Or at least not about something you didn’t care enough about to spend 30 seconds investigating. I believe that in the actual world, it’s better if objective truth, which I grant you is extremely hard and possibly flat-out impossible to come by, is at least one of the things that matters to us. If we can all agree that logic is one of the tools we’re going to use to get through this thing together, I think we’re better off.

I think the betrayer’s story did matter. I think the author’s rationalization of that made it a weaker book than the author had the talent and material to produce. If the emotional truth of the story was what mattered most, then the author should have written a novel. The fact that it was nonfiction should have meant that the objective truth of the story won the day. And I guess it sort of did. He didn’t deny the truthfulness of the betrayer’s story. He left it in a “yes, I know the story, grand as it was, didn’t happen that way, but don’t you see why he’d tell himself it did?” kind of place. It was, in the end, the emotional truth of a moment in time, I think he’d say. And although I’m glad that he was able to preserve the happy memories he created along the way, I felt let down as a consumer of all that.

3 thoughts on “Novelistic Nonfiction

  1. Pingback: Lazy Thinking | Adventures of Auntie M

  2. I myself just finished listening to “Silver Screen Fiend,” by Patton Oswalt, and this reminds me a bit of that. In the book he talks about Van Gogh’s “The Night Cafe,” which is all about the emotional truth of that space, not the reality of the place. He uses the metaphor of the night cafe as “that room, that once you enter you can’t leave unchanged.” That place and experience which forever holds onto you, and changes you at a fundamental level.

    In the book, he explains pivotal parts in his life, his “night cafes” especially as they related to his development as a comedian, a writer, and a film fanatic/want to be film maker. I liked it much better than his first book, it’s tighter, it’s more thoughtful, and it was something that I identified with more strongly.

    Parts really resonated with me, especially the crutch of his “list” of movies that he goes through thinking that as he marked them off, he was getting one step closer to becoming a director, until the night cafe of his four year film addiction changed him.

    There’s a column in this for me, I think, that’s half-written, so, I won’t say much more, but, I even had to listen to it twice, completely through, immediately after finishing it the first time, and I’ve never done that.

  3. Pingback: Wrestling My Inner Writer | Adventures of Auntie M

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