There’s no such thing as nonfiction. This might seem like the title of yet another essay on the merits of essayistic writing as its own genre and not just a negation of another. But that essay has already been written many times, and done especially well by Dinty W. Moore, who explains how essayists have responded to their genre’s moniker, from problematically qualifying it “creative nonfiction,” aiming for a more dignified literary status, to attempts at rectifying the faux pas of this coinage by suggesting alternatives like “the literature of fact.” Moore’s bottom line is, understandably, realpolitikisch: we’re stuck with the term.
That’s fair enough. But I’d like to take another tack and suggest that, at least for me, regardless of whether my writing uses so-called factual or so-called imaginary details, the distinction is itself one that is false. No matter what I’m writing, it’s always fiction, because, for me, nonfiction simply does not exist.
There are two aspects of my so-called literary life that I need to lay out in order to explain this statement. The first deals with my personal development as a so-called writer, and the second with my eventual development as—it’s almost embarrassing to write it, but I have to own the fact—a so-called literary scholar.
I decided to write when I was about sixteen. I’d read Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, and Kerouac’s On the Road, and said to myself, I can make one of these. For me, already at that age, being a writer meant not just writing, not even just storytelling, but making a book, literally entering into the entire process of creating a book, from start to finish. I didn’t just want to write. I wanted to create an object called a book, with everything that this process entails.
The foundation of becoming a bookmaker—not the gambling kind, but the kind that starts with creating a text and ends with a bound stack of papers—is obviously writing. So that’s where I started. I kept a journal for a couple of years. And then, just as high school ended, I began to write my first story, based on a trip to San Francisco I’d taken with a friend the year before, told in an ironic tone. I guess you could call it On the Road meets Breakfast of Champions.
At UCLA, where I was formally studying for a BA in Applied Mathematics, I spent most of my time on literature and art classes. I made friends with Rachel, an English literature student who planned to be a writer, and told her I wanted to write too. She told me that, to be a writer, you had to enroll in a creative writing workshop, explaining where to go and what to do in order to apply—including that you had to submit a story to be accepted. I submitted the story I’d written the summer before and managed to get into Aimee Bender’s fiction writing workshop. The story was workshopped, the response was positive enough, but I sensed that the workshopping framework wasn’t helping my writing. It always seemed like I was having a different conversation from the one that my classmates were having, and it was hard to feel like I was somehow off-key all the time. I’d grown up in an immigrant home, where the focus was making ends selling at flea markets every Sunday, and I’d gone to public schools, where most of the kids focused on overachieving in the sciences rather than excelling in the arts. I was totally out of step with the cultural discourse being conducted around me. My work was guided by an intuitive cluelessness recognized by my peers mostly for its “attention to detail” and “quirky sense of humor.” It was nice to have these innate qualities acknowledged, but I was never able to get to the bottom of what really interested me, which was: Is this story doing anything to the reader?
It was around this time that I started drawing cartoons. Back in high school, I’d given a class presentation on James Thurber—A Thurber Album, which collected his work, ended up in our house after a stop at a garage sale where my dad probably bought a box of stuff he was going to resell—and now, in college, while continuing to write fiction, I found myself wanting to make a Thurber-inspired cartoon book. I called my cartoons Saddies and, today, it seems pretty obvious that they forefronted my same innate qualities—attention detail and quirky humor—in a way that was less abstract than what I was writing. It worked: the response I got from readers was immediate, and thanks to a UCLA Student Union Arts Commission, I raised the money to create my first collection. In creating the book, I looked at Ed Ruscha’s mass-produced little volumes, originals of which were kept in the special collection of the UCLA Arts Library, and used them as my model. I worked with a graphic design student named Jancy, with whom I conceived the book’s look, I located a printer to put the book together, and I edited the cartoons, putting them into themes and sections, finally publishing the collection as an art book. I sold my books at bookstores and art openings. Within a year or two, I sold most of the first print run of 1000 copies. But even then, I knew that I was not really a visual artist. My cartoons were not artworks in the same sense that Art Spiegelman’s or Edward Gorey’s cartoons were. I gave a talk on my cartoons at an art space in Downtown LA and there I said that I was, in mathematical terms, flipping the order of operations usually at work in comics, using text to illustrate images, rather than the other way around. I was a writer making cartoon books and, despite spending seven years drawing cartoons and publishing four collections, I was not a real cartoonist. And even if the promotional copy on the back of my last collection called me a “cult cartoonist,” I knew that the whole thing was nothing more than a longterm project whose essence was fictional.
But I want it to be clear that, when I say that my cartoon effort was fictional, I don’t mean that what I drew was “fake”—that it involved any kind of deception or facade. The cartoons were real as I am and I really meant every word and line in those books. My heart—and many hours of work—are on every page. I have at least another book’s worth of comics, not chosen for the collections, which I’m considering one day publishing as Rejecties. Still, the idea of me as a cartoonist was a living fiction: I was using my imagination to create a personal role, social and artistic, for myself to fulfill as a young writer beginning his literary life. I fashioned myself into a cartoonist, and this fashioning is what fiction is really all about.
This connects to the second line of argument that needs to be explained so that I can get across what the word fiction means to me, and why, for me, there’s no such thing as nonfiction.
Just as I was entering UCLA, I got a piece of advice from a working writer: to avoid English departments at all costs before they killed any ounce of creativity I might have. I was so young and so naive—and, like I said, lacking almost any cultural context—that, taking this advice literally, I changed my major from English to math. Life eventually played itself out, and, despite all my efforts, I ended up at the Hebrew University’s English Department for my doctorate. As part of my research into literary and narrative theory, I set out a theoretical framework that refined, for me, the significance of fiction, and so was forced to contend with how I might define the core issue at stake in this concept.
It seemed obvious that fiction was a genre classification, but I wondered what happens when our need to classify something, itself legitimate, also encroaches on what that something means. In common parlance, we say something is “fiction” if we consider it to be made up—and we put anything that we recognize as “made up” into the fiction category. But is this the full meaning of fiction?
This question became crucial to answer and, as I am wont to do when trying to understand a concept in terms of the word that’s used to represent it, I looked up the etymology of fiction.
Initially, it seemed that the word, coming from Old French ficcioun—meaning dissimulation, invention, or fabrication—did have to do with making things up, possibly even for deceptive ends. But the word’s deeper roots told a slightly different story. The Latin fictionem meant not only feigning but also fashioning, and the root of all these words, fingere—which meant to shape, form, devise, or feign—was itself taken from the verb to knead or to form out of clay. So, at its deepest root, fiction was, in fact, something that was fashioned, kneaded, formed out of raw material, and given shape. It was a word that was rooted in our fingers—the use of our digits to form our own objects, whether shaping pots out of clay for baking, or kneading bread that will bake in those same clay pots.
Fiction is our ability to shape, to give form to what we perceive or experience in the so-called real world. Whether we do this using details we invent, which themselves depend on our attention to detail in the so-called real world, or details that are more directly tied to our so-called real experience—literally doesn’t matter. The moment we give form to details, the moment our fingers give them shape—whether with a pen or a keyboard—we are, ultimately, enacting a fiction. We are kneading reality into consumable loaves of cultural production.
The problem this poses for a writer in the so-called real world in obvious: How are you going to be classified? Any time you submit a text you have to choose whether you enter it into the fiction or essay category. Even the so-called hybrid category implies that it is made up of two or more separate elements. And the editors who choose the works in each category are different people, with different sensibilities in terms of their own genre expectations. I recently submitted what I considered a fictional story to an editor who turned it down because, she said, the journal did not publish literary criticism. But the story I sent was a fiction. It’s just that the narrator was a literary scholar who, necessarily, talked about his literary research, and was generally verbose. The nature of the language in a text follows the nature of the narrator’s linguistic range, and also determines the contours of its fictionality. Since I’m a literary scholar, my story—narrated by a literary scholar who happens to share some traits with me—was taken as literary criticism when, in fact, the events of the story were shaped into a fiction and told a narrative that never really happened in the way portrayed in the text.
In his essay, Dinty Moore quotes Norman Podhoretz saying, “the American books of the postwar period which had mattered to me personally . . . were not novels . . . but works the trade quaintly called ‘nonfiction,’ as though they had only a negative existence.” I agree with his sentiment, but the fact is that, as Moore notes, he did not actually talk about what genres did matter to him, like memoir, literary journalism, essays, historical studies, or other types of text put under the category of nonfiction.
But my question is a little different. What happens when we consider all of these genres—essays, which shape ideas, histories and journalistic books, which shape events purported to have happened, memoir, which gives shape to our memories—to be fiction? The idea that these books require less imagination to write than books based on so-called invented events is obviously false. And yet we treat these books differently. We consider the so-called invented stories to have a different order of ontological existence, even though, ultimately, they all share the same source: human imagination.
The genre of a literary work is not definitive when it comes to its communicative significance, which lies beyond the direct meaning of the words on the page. In this sense, the genre wars are not unlike the canon wars—they serve politics, they serve the marketplace, they serve the cultural capital of both readers and writers. What they don’t serve is literature.
Can we appreciate a painting without a frame? This is the question we have to ask when we consider whether thisvery text can be read as fiction. It obviously appears under the guise of an essay. But deception is part and parcel of fiction. It has events. It has a narrative. It has ideas. And it has a communicative significance that lies beyond the words on the page. It’s a story like any other.
David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar. His earliest publications include four collections of single-panel cartoons, the last of which was Baddies (Melville House). His fiction has appeared in the UK’s Ambit, the KGB Bar Lit Mag, and Atticus Review, among others, and his translations in the New Yorker, LA Review of Books, and Lapham’s Quarterly. His critical studies include Narrative Faith: Dostoevsky, Camus, and Singer (U Del Press) and IDIOT LOVE and the Elements of Intimacy (Palgrave). He has recently published a series of personal essays in Public Seminar about growing up on the ethnic and cultural margins of Los Angeles. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and little one.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.