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Pickle Me This

November 6, 2007

Narratives and Polemics

I begin by noting that I like the redesign of the Saturday Globe & Mail. Everything I like best is still there, and then there are additional surprises. I like that Books now starts on its front page; somehow the section reminds me just an ickle bit more of Guardian Review (though of course it’s still nowhere as good). The “Endpapers” essay is interesting too: this week’s was “Tilting at the windmills for literary non-fiction” by writer Ken McGoogan. An engaging piece, as he offended me terribly, but then he won me over by the end.

My offense stemmed from McGoogan’s initial dismissal of fiction, and stemmed for two reasons. One: that fiction is my religion (I am not being facetious) and so I’m bound to get a bit defensive. In my whole life I’ve never found anything closer to magic than fiction, and I’m sorry but non-fiction has never done that trick. I truly believe that slowly surely works of fiction can change the world, and in very different ways than either of these books did.

Second, I was troubled by McGoogan’s assertion that fiction readings were dull, that he “vastly prefer[s] an on-stage conversation or interview, or better still a no-holds barred panel discussion.” He gives the example of Edmonton’s Litfest at which “Audience members challenged speakers and presented arguments. By crikey, they had come to participate”. Yes, but. I personally feel that a book is best enjoyed in one’s own company, but what is wonderful about a public reading is the opportunity to listen. I don’t get that very often myself. No challenges, arguments, thinking of clever questions and retorts, but just listening: passivity is not always a bad thing and many more people should practice it. The world is not always ours to be attacked, or critiqued, but some meet it this way perpetually. With fiction, not so much, and I think this is only positive.

I will have more to say this week on appreciating non-fiction (in regards to Carol Shields), but for now I am not sure I agree with McGoogan that the genre is always the underdog. Indeed non-fiction receives less attention, but aren’t sales doing just fine? Aren’t non-fiction writers sought after by publishers, or at least much more so than fictioneers? Does good non-fiction really need the promotion McGoogan is suggesting it lacks? This I do not know for sure.

What I do know is that McGoogan’s synthesis is perfectly wonderful, as he calls for his revolution. “First step: We divide fact-based literature into two broad categories– narrative non-fiction and polemical non-fiction…. Second step: We abandon non-fiction… We cease to define countless literary works by what they are not”. He sees the necessity for these genres to stand up together with fiction, for each to complement one another. No longer the dichotomy : “Where today we have two main categories, Fiction and Non-fiction, tomorrow we have three.” How positively healthy that sounds, how refreshing. I love that idea, and how fortunate that I read far enough past the disagreeableness to get to it: a patience I learned, perhaps, from my life in fiction?

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