Thursday, February 14, 2013

Why I Do Not Like Non-Fiction Stories

In his Poetics, Aristotle declared mythos (fiction) to be more philosophical than history because history merely tells you what happened, while fiction tells you what could and should have happened.

This is certainly an element of why it is that I love fiction, but (increasingly) dislike . . . not history, per se, but non-fiction stories. Non-fiction stories are, of course, "history" in the literal sense. They are biographies or autobiographies, the latter sometimes in memoirs, the former often in a variety of "true story" genres, from more formal biographies to things like "48 Hours" on T.V. I will happily watch something "based on a true story," but I have no interest in the "true story" itself. More, I actively dislike it (which doesn't prevent me from sometimes watching such things if they are on -- much as a rubbernecker looks on in morbid fascination, wishing to look away, but somehow unable to do so).

Why is this? To say I prefer fiction because I am a fiction writer is getting cause and effect backwards. Perhaps I write fiction because I prefer fiction. Which only brings us back to square one. Why would anyone prefer fictional stories over nonfictional stories?

Aristotle's answer is actually but part of a larger answer. Fiction takes place in a safe play-space, whereas non-fiction stories are things that really happened to someone. In a work of fiction, it is possible to empathize with every character in the work -- antagonist and protagonist alike. This is an important element of fiction. Further, we know that, being fiction, everyone in the work is safe. We are not left concerned about their well-being once we are finished reading. We had all the benefits of being worried, but we were worried for a character's safety in much the same way we are worried about our own safety when riding a roller coaster. We get to be worried or frightened or even happy in a safe play space that we can leave behind, retaining the benefits of the empathy created in us through the reading and through stepping into the shoes of the various characters while leaving behind the worries, etc. But of course, we don't really leave those emotions behind; rather, we have trained up those emotions and learned how to deal with them better. Fiction helps to put us in control of our emotions by allowing us to play with them, to experience them when there is nothing at stake.

Non-fiction stories, however, really did happen to someone. More often than not we are put in the position of only empathizing with one party in the story. It thus builds up the us-them dichotomy rather than dissolving it through empathy. Further, since we are reading non-fiction, we know that the people in the story are not safe. People may be physically harmed, or even dead, and there is plenty of emotional and psychological suffering to go around that is really going around, reverberating through real people, through real lives, in real neighborhoods. We thus remain concerned about those we read or watched or heard about. Rather than training up our emotions, our emotions get raised, then rubbed raw. The characters are real and thus are not in a safe play space. They are not playing, and it's not safe. A roller coaster heading toward a pole you know you will miss because the track curves is fun; a car heading toward a pole you may or may not miss because you may or may not turn the wheel in time is not. The former trains us to control our fear; the latter makes us more fearful.

In the end, the answer is that fiction makes us better people, whereas nonfiction stories can at best have a neutral effect (much as reading a classroom history book may have), or at worst they can have a harmful effect, perhaps even making us worse people.

This is why non-fiction stories get under my skin. I can feel myself being manipulated by the storyteller to have empathy for one party, and to reject empathy for another party in the story. This is much more obvious in non-fiction than in even polemical fiction. One loses all the philosophical benefits of fiction (e.g., empathy, ambiguity, and balance) that contribute to the growth of a person, but in non-fiction emphasis is put on division and choosing sides and judgmentalism in even the most seemingly benign non-fiction stories. Fiction is full of paradoxical tensions, which drive complexity and growth. Non-fiction is full of Manichean dichotomies, which force one to choose one side or the other (with it being pretty clear what side you're supposed to choose). One is complexifying, the other is simplifying. And the good is that which complexifies (not complicates), while the bad is that which simplifies (often through complication).

Please note that what I described is non-fiction stories -- biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, "true crime" stories such as we see on T.V., etc. -- and not history, philosophy, the sciences, or even intellectual biographies (which in many ways most biographies of famous people really are, the sordid details of their lives being glossed over more often than not). It is the "sordid details" that, in non-fiction stories, are degrading to the soul, whereas these same details, in a fiction story, are what build it up. This is why history (broadly speaking) leaves them out, allowing one to look on disinterestedly.

This, then, is why I feel lifted up and rejuvenated after a work of fiction, but feel more than a little dirty and exhausted after a work of non-fiction. I prefer fiction because I want to reap its philosophical and psychological benefits, to grow in empathy and beauty.

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