Skip to content
Join us on October 26 at 7PM EDT for the 2021 WWB Virtual Gala. Learn more and get your tickets today!

PEN World Voices Festival: Is Nonfiction Literature?

By Geoff Wisner

PEN World Voices Festival íIs nonfiction literature?ë That was the provocative question that Philip Gourevitch, Colum McCann, and Norbert Gstrein addressed at a panel discussion in the auditorium of the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

íOf course it is!ë most right-thinking readers would say. Yet if so, why does it get so much less respect?

Gourevitch, who acted as both moderator and participant, noted that although Nobel Prize winners like V.S. Naipaul have sometimes written extraordinary nonfiction, no one has yet won the prize for literature on the strength of his or her nonfictional work. Nonfiction, said Gourevitch, seems to be wedged into the cracks of the literary scene. Like photography before the mid-20th century, it is not yet taken seriously as an art form.

Gstrein began by saying he felt that the division between fiction and nonfiction is not especially interesting. In nonfiction, certain issues are cleared away: the narrator is more or less identical with the actual writer, and the subject matter is assumed to be factually true. In fiction, on the other hand, the writer must establish the ground rules of his or her reality.

PEN World Voices Festival

The fiction writer may bring real-world facts into fiction, of course, and Gstrein cited W.G. Sebald, Danilo Kis, and Jorge Luis Borges as some of the most interesting who have done so. On the other hand, Peter Handke, writing about the former Yugoslavia, is an object lesson in how a fiction writer can get into trouble by playing fast and loose with real-world facts.

When Gstrein went on to say that people read nonfiction for information, whereas they read fiction for more nebulous reasons, Gourevitch jumped in.

íOne reads bad nonfiction for information,ë Gourevitch said. In doing his own research, he drew a distinction between good books and merely good sources. Just as you can put several skilled photographers in practically the same spot on the landscape and they will produce distinctly different photos, so a good nonfiction writer puts a special mark on the work. That use of the imagination is what separates literary nonfiction from journalism.

íMost people don't give a damn about fiction these days,ë said McCann. Novelists, he said, are borrowing stories and real life and reshaping them because we don't trust the stories we've been told. Facts, he said, are mercenary things, able to serve the purposes of fiction. He recalled the image of Colin Powell at the UN, holding up photos of buildings and tankers. The photos were surely facts of some sort, but their meaning was subject to manipulation. (Similarly, Gourevitch mentioned the legendary fact checkers at The New Yorker. Careful as they are, he said, you could write an article in which every fact was checkable but the story itself was utterly false.)

A bookseller in the audience noted that after 9/11 many customers said they didn't want to read fiction anymore. Yet when Tariq Ali was asked what people should read to understand the modern world, he didn't recommend any news Web sites or histories of Islam. We should read novels, he said. And despite his own devotion to artful nonfiction, Gourevitch said his own response to 9/11 wasn't to read books about Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Instead he turned to novels like Man's Fate and The Possessed.

íIf we do not try to imagine the lives of others,ë said McCann in the closest thing to a summary that this event produced, íwe are completely lost.ë Fiction and nonfiction, when done well, each provide a way to do that.

Published May 4, 2009   Copyright 2009 Geoff Wisner

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.