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  • Why Soldiers Rape
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  • Fiction vs. Nonfiction: 
                Wherein Lies the Truth
  • The Frightened Muse
  • Racism Railroaded Justice in Jogger Rape
  • The Plight of Women Soldiers
  • The Scandal of Military Rape
  • Violent Veterans, The Big Picture
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  • Betrayal in the Field
  • When Johnny Comes Marching In
  • Women at War Face Sexual Violence

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Wherein Lies the Truth


Fiction steps in where the ordinary articulateness of human beings fails. It gives the human soul a voice.

But if these truths about the human condition are so hidden, my students might ask, how does a fiction writer get to them? Through research, a lifetime of experience, analysis and, above all, the imagination.

To give an example: Had I written "Bad Angel" about a real teenage mother, my ability to get at the truth of her experience would have been restricted by all sorts of factors: Her sense of privacy, the limits of her ability to express and examine herself, my obligation not to expose her every fault to the world, my inability to know what she was thinking unless she told me, and my uncertainty about how much of that was honest. Even had I interviewed her for years, I would have been limited by what she chose to say and whether she knew how to say it, as well as by my fear of exploiting her. I would have always been the white journalist trying to peek into her world, and she would have always been the Other, the way the poor and dark-skinned are so often depicted in the press. In short, I would never have been able to understand her enough to write in her voice or from her point of view.

I saw these limitations reflected in the many books of interviews with teenage mothers I read to research my novel. These girls were happy to talk about why they got pregnant and whether they would stay in school, but not one admitted to feeling loneliness, despair, rage or even irritation with her baby, let alone to neglecting or abusing the child. Yet I knew that teenage mothers often do abuse their babies. I also knew, as a mother and former teenager myself, that motherhood cannot exist without moments of blinding rage; and that teenagehood is inevitably accompanied by loneliness and moods. Furthermore, I knew that being a teenager and a mother are inherently contradictory: the first is self-absorbed, the second by necessity self-sacrificing. Yet this conflict was not even touched upon by any of the girls interviewed for the books I read. Why? Because the girls either could not, or would not, admit to these feelings. As a fiction writer, however, I could.

Let me use another example. Could Vladimir Nabokov have exposed the dark and tortured soul of his obsessive nymphet-lover if he had merely interviewed a Humbert Humbert? I happen to have read dozens of interviews with rapists and child molesters conducted in prisons, and none of them touched the understanding Nabokov achieved with Lolita. Instead of giving us sociological jargon about pedophelia, a psychological profile of arrested development, or quotes from some therapy-saturated child molester ("Yeah, I felt her up 'cause my Dad abused me when I was five"), he gives us Humbert Humbert's soul, with all its blights and beauties, its fury and remorse.

"I stood listening to that musical vibration [of children at play] from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord."

In that one sentence, Nabokov gives us the epiphanic moment when Humbert Humbert realizes that he has irreparably robbed Lolita of her childhood. But this is no confessional at a prison therapy session, offered up in the hope of winning parole. This is a poignant and intelligent revelation, H.H.'s first and only moment of true unselfishness. By giving us this sentence, with all the weight of what has come before it, Nabokov uses his knowledge of human nature to make us simultaneously sympathize with and abhor H.H.—he makes us understand him much more profoundly than could any interviewer. And the way he does it is the way the best fiction writers always do it—he conjures us, through the power of his language and imagination, inside Humbert Humbert, so that we cannot stand aloof and condemn him without thought or insight. We cannot dehumanize him because Nabokov makes us become him, forcing us to see all the facets of his personality, the monstrous and the poignant, the insufferable and the pathetic. And in doing so, Nabokov makes us just that little bit more human ourselves.

For several centuries now, readers have appreciated this magician-like ability of writers to get us inside characters and at certain truths. We have looked to writers from Shakespeare to Tolstoy for moral and philosophical guidance, and for critical evaluations of ourselves and our societies. Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair were among many authors whose fiction changed the way we saw social injustice, for example; some even changed laws. Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, James Baldwin, Samuel Becket—these and a multitude of others have held up mirrors to the human soul that have altered our thinking and the way we see and create our art. Until this current era, novelists have held a respected role as examiners of society and investigators of the human psyche; as thinkers from whom we learn certain kinds of truths and honesty that no other form of writing can offer.

But something, alas, has changed. Readers are no longer willing to take an author so seriously. Many readers seem to have lost the patience or willingness to look to fiction for moral, philosophical or even social truths. If this were simply part of the general post-1960s reaction against authority there would be less to lament, but the problem is that million of readers are turning instead to self-help books, memoirs or nonfiction, as if these forms contain better truths than fiction. All a book has to do is claim to be fact to be given the kind of attention that almost no literary novel can command anymore. Serious fiction is losing respect, and sales to boot. Many readers would rather see a reporter interview a teenage mother than see a novelist create one. Others seem to consider cold facts about how a computer works more important than the troubling mysteries of the human psyche. The novel and its unique access to the truths of the human soul has fallen with a crash.

The reasons for this fall are many. It is partly the fault of deconstructionism, mixed in with Freudianism, which destroyed the mystique of the author and put critics on the throne. Suddenly, authors became hapless beings batted about by the tides of fashion, formalism, cultural traditions and their own circumstances. Whatever messages they tried to impart were probably unconscious, certainly unintended: The poor saps would be the last to know.

Then, on top of deconstructionism came our current Information Age, in which people are driven to feel so inadequate and ignorant that they are afraid to spend time reading anything but hard fact. This, coupled with the late millennium version of a lifestyle—work twelve hours a day, spend your leisure time at the gym and forgo sleep—has given people the illusion that reading fiction is an expendable luxury. Who has time for the subtleties of fiction when the Web, television, movies, radio, newspapers and a torrent of nonfiction books all promise to fill us with the facts we need to join rush hour on the information highway? I see this attitude in my students. "I don't read fiction," they declare with a self"righteous ring. "I only have time for fact."

When people make a statement like this, what they are saying is that fiction contains nothing important; that the only facts that mean anything are the exterior, checkable kinds of facts. Insights into the human experience, examinations of the conscience, the reality behind closed doors—these sorts of matters count for naught.

Underlying the current distrust of fiction, and the mistaken attitude that important truths are not to be found in it, is something more than the fall of the author or the worship of facts, however: it is fear of imagination. I see this most strikingly among my reporter friends and students, the people whose business it is to write nonfiction. After all, the journalist's creed is never to make things up. They have been trained to think of books as little fact missiles, packed with Useful Information that will make them better people, like vitamin pills. So when I explain to my fellow reporters that my understanding of my teenage mother came not from research but from what I know of human nature, they blanche.

"But you must have based it on someone you met," they say. No, I didn't. "Then on interviews you did—is she a composite character?" No, she isn't. Sometimes I have even been asked, "Well, were you a teenage mother then?" No, I have to say again, I made it all up. They don't want to believe that an author may be able to imagine what it's like to be a teenage mother (or a nymphet-lover) better than such a person can explain it herself. A current ad for a nonfiction writing program reveals this same fear in its proclamation, "Truth is stronger than fiction"—as if fiction contains no truth at all.

I witnessed how much imagination is feared, and misunderstood, when I read from my novel to an audience containing a number of anthropologists. After I had finished, one raised his hand. "But aren't you exploiting this girl?" he asked.

"This is fiction," I replied. "She doesn't exist. There is no real girl to exploit. I made her up."

The anthropologist didn't get it. I was using this girl for my own means, he insisted; had I at least offered her my advance? Didn't I feel guilty for invading her privacy?

"You can't exploit a fictional character," I replied again. "Fictional characters have no privacy."

The anthropologist could not believe that my character was a figment of imagination because he did not understand how fiction originates. And because he didn't understand how fiction originates, he did not want to believe me. Either I was lying and the girl did exist. Or I was telling the truth and the girl was invented—in which case why should he believe anything I wrote at all?

But fiction is not, as many non-writers seem to think, a random grab-bag of uninformed, made up whimsies, as undisciplined and unreasoned as a dream. Nor is it simply reporting with the names changed. It is an amalgam of experience, education, reading, insight, analysis, conversations, observation and conscious research. Tom Wolfe could not be more wrong when he accuses novelists of failing to use the reporter's pen. Novelists never stop reporting. They spend their lives observing, thinking, watching, analyzing. And most of them conduct purposeful research as well. Many of George Eliot's novels are historical, packed with accurate details about times way before she was born; likewise for Dickens and Tolstoy. Emile Zola, Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane all lived and researched the harsh worlds they wrote about. Today's novelists are no different: Andrea Barrett, John Updike, Robert Stone, Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx, all these writers and most of their comrades research constantly for their fiction, mining not only concrete facts but truths about the soul. Even if, as a Freudian might say, fictional characters are nothing but extensions of the author, they still contain all the knowledge, insight, wisdom and experience that author has collected throughout his or her life. In fact, I would wager that the novelists who do not haunt libraries, but rely solely upon their imaginations and memories, are a minority—and they, too, are drawing from a lifetime of meticulous observation. And it is exactly because of this lifetime of work that fiction writers—at least the best of them—can and ought to be believed.

All this is not to say that nonfiction has no value. The very knowledge that an extraordinary story actually happened makes that story especially fascinating. Nonfiction writers have an essential role as recorders of events, exposers of wrongdoing, explorers of mysteries and explainers of history. They can affect politics and laws in a way fiction rarely does. Nevertheless, even though they can make arguments and challenge injustice, the interior is still hidden. Nonfiction is always dependent on what can be found out and verified, and it is always limited by the private, the secret, the unrealized and the unarticulated. Nonfiction always keeps the reader on the outside.

Perhaps this is why some readers prefer nonfiction—perhaps they are, in a sense, hiding. The distance between reader and subject in nonfiction is so much greater than in fiction that perhaps it feels safer. After all, it is easier to read about the suffering of The Other than to be pulled into feeling it oneself. Perhaps people resist fiction because, even in this era of voyeurism and confession, there is still a fear of putting oneself in another's shoes.

If that is so, what a loss. In this time of ethnic and religious factionalism, of deep division between East and West, of racial division and gender hostility, fiction offers a service that readers—and publishers—would do well to heed: It gives us the chance to escape the cages of our bodies and lives and fly over impossible boundaries to become somebody else. It gives us the ability to break out of myopia and its ensuing prejudices and narrow-mindedness. Above all, fiction gives us the chance to understand the world from the Other's point of view—not from the distant outside, but from deep within.

This essay appeared in The Practical Writer, Penguin Books, 2004.

Additional essays by Helen Benedict can be found at featurewell.com When you reach the site, just type "Helen Benedict" in the Advanced Search window. All essays are copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without permission.