Matters of fact: reading nonfiction over the edge
Matters of Fact examines what happens when writers and readers encounter texts presented as nonfiction: texts that make some truth claim on outside experience, texts whose characters and events have at least some tangible dimension outside the written word. The current critical climate blurs most meaningful distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. Literary critics have argued that since experiences can be approached only through the stories we tell about them, it is futile to attempt to produce a single "true" account of any event. Daniel W. Lehman approaches the fiction/nonfiction conundrum from another perspective. Rather than attempting to establish distinctions between abstract notions of fiction and nonfiction, he examines the experience of engaging with both kinds of texts. Reading and writing nonfiction, he contends, is fundamentally different from reading and writing even the most strongly realistic fiction. The difference between the two stems from a recognition that actual subjects are linked to nonfiction texts. An author may try to hide the link by withholding names or changing details, and scholars may try to ignore the link as somehow tainting a purely literary experience, but nonfiction's operations defeat those efforts. While authors of fiction build worlds that encompass their characters and narratives, a nonfiction text always competes with the lives and events that lie outside it, lives and events it cannot contain. Matters of Fact examines how this inside/outside contest plays over a variety of nonfictional texts, ranging from nineteenth-century narratives by Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew through the writings of Sigmund Freud, John Reed, Tom Wolfe, and JoanDidion, culminating in a discussion of Tim O'Brien, who has written stories of his experience in the Vietnam War in hybrid combinations of fiction and nonfiction.
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