I find a great Paris Review interview in ‘The Art of Nonfiction’ series from a couple of years ago with Geoff Dyer, who begins by disagreeing with the parameters of his own interview, interrupting the interviewer as follows:
The first thing I’d like—
Excuse me for interrupting, but—at the risk of sounding like some war criminal in the Hague who refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court in which he’s being tried—I have to object to the parameters of this interview.
On what grounds?
It’s titled “The Art of Nonfiction.” Now I could whine, “What about the fiction?” but that would be to accept a distinction that’s not sustainable. Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.
You don’t distinguish between them at all?
I don’t think a reasonable assessment of what I’ve been up to in the last however many years is possible if one accepts segregation. That refusal is part of what the books are about. I think of all of them as, um, what’s the word? Ah, yes, books. I haven’t subjected it to scientific analysis, but if you look at the proportion of made-up stuff in the so-called novels versus the proportion of made-up stuff in the others, I would expect they’re pretty much the same.
Later in the interview, Dyer makes mention of David Hare’s remark that the two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’, and then goes on to add that ‘creative nonfiction’ might well have taken over as the most odious of collocations. Since I teach a module entitled precisely ‘creative nonfiction’ at the university where I work, I am going to have to think out a pretty clear disclaimer at the start of each semester. Well, the kind of disclaimer I make already, to be fair.
Essentially we are talking about a distinction with which readers of this blog will be familiar, if not, I hope, entirely bored. ‘Creative nonfiction’ is creative by virtue (I guess) of having been written, and ‘nonfiction’, I suppose, by virtue of it not being ’fiction’, or ‘made up’. (I note also that the term itself used to be hyphenated (non-fiction), making it a challenge to, or questioning of, the thing it was not, but now that the hyphen has gone, the beast has been assimilated as a single concept, wearing its non-ness with pride, as it were). So Nonfiction is defined by what it is not. It is not ‘made up stuff’, but stuff that really happened. However, following the criteria established by Borges, and discussed by Blanco here, that ‘everything is fiction’ then how can such a genre as ‘nonfiction’, let alone ‘creative nonfiction’ occur? Why do we need these ridiculous denominations? Why can we not, as Dyer suggests, just have ‘books’?
In his account of acting as W.G. Sebald’s publisher, Christopher MacLehose describes Sebald’s resistance to The Rings of Saturn as being categorised within any literary genre at all: memoir, history, fiction, holocaust studies, travel writing etc: he wanted ‘all of them’, claims MacLehose – and yet, one suspects, at the same time, he wanted none of them. MacLehose says that the craving for categorisation makes booksellers happy, so that they can put the shelving in order, tell staff what to put where: well that seems fair, you have to have some criteria, cookery books for example, gardening etc, but then again . . . are cookery and gardening books not also examples of ‘creative nonfiction’? And what about ‘Poetry’?
To be continued, ad infinitum . . .