Anyone who is a regular reader of my blog knows that I love nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction and memoirs. I think it takes a tremendous amount of skill to write compelling, interesting, and powerful stories about things that are real, without changing the ending or characters of ideas to reflect what we wish the story could be rather than what it is.
At the same time, I’ve never been a fan of fiction that deliberately takes on political issues, even though I don’t mind nonfiction on similar issues. For example, I loved Jesus Land, a memoir about living in a Christian conversion sort of camp in Jamaica, but wouldn’t have picked up a fiction book on the same time. Why is that?
Ben Yagoda’s new book, Memoir: A History, wrestles with a lot of these questions. There are a lot of things about the book that I want to talk about, but when I came across the following paragraph it struck me as extremely provocative and related to some of my questions:
Dictating his own memoirs, At Random, in the late 1960s, Bennett Cerf, the cofounder of Random House, commented that when he started in the publishing business, in the 1920s, “fiction outsold fiction four-to-one. Now that ratio is absolutely reverse, and nonfiction outsells fiction four-to-one.” The reversal reflects the craving we have developed for the literal. Fiction has become a bit like painting in the age of photography — a novel item that has its place in the Booker Prize/Whitney Museum high culture and in the genre-fiction/black-velvet-Elvis low but is oddly absent in the middle range. Certainly, when it comes to proving points and making cases, fiction’s day is gone. referring to her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Abraham Lincoln called Harriet Beecher Stowe “the little lady who started this Great War.” But that was then. The most recent novels to have had a social impact, or that were even paid attention to in any national debate, were the muckraking works of Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair in the first decade of the twentieth century. Today, for a didactic text to be taken seriously or even attended to, it requires a certification of documentary truth. [emphasis added]
After reading that paragraph, I knew it was something I wanted to talk about. What do you think of Yagoda’s contention? Has fiction lost it’s political power? Do books of nonfiction carry more weight in creating social change that fiction?