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America's Uptight Obsession with Truth and Nonfiction

For me, Kate Foster’s review in the San Francisco Chronicle of Lieve Joris’s The Rebels’ Hour perfectly illustrates some of the ridiculous hangups Americans have when it comes to nonfiction and the representation of “truth.”

The Rebels’ Hour is in an interesting postion—it’s a work of “literary reportage” that is “based on real characters, situations, and places, without ever coinciding with them completely.” The publisher—Grove/Atlantic—categorized this as history, and included the following note on the copyright page:

The Rebels’ Hour falls into a category—literary reportage—that has a long history worldwide, but does not have an established tradition in the United States. As Joris clarifies in her preface, “the facts in this book have all been researched in minute detail, but in order to paint a realistic picture of my characters I’ve had to fill in some parts of their lives from my own imagination. It was the only way to make the story both particular and general.” The end result, as one French review noted, is a book that is “even truer than truth” (Afrique-Asia). Having had to choose between fiction and nonfiction, we felt The Rebels’ Hour belonged on the shelf marked nonfiction.

All of this is why I didn’t include the book on our translation database. I even brought this up with Lauren Wein (the book’s super-cool editor) and she agreed that it shouldn’t be counted in the translation list, since it’s clearly not fiction.

Not so, according to the Chronicle. Instead, they label Foster’s piece a “fiction review” and she explains her own viewpoint right away:

This setup, which includes changing the protagonist’s name, will make some readers uncomfortable. After all, in a war-torn country with the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, there is more than a story to tell; there is a record to set straight.

(To be honest, American readers need to be made uncomfortable. In fact, I would argue that making people uncomfortable is a mark of a great work of literature.)

Grove went out of their way to explain the book’s situation (written in a style that really is pervasive throughout the rest of the world) and Foster foregrounded that “questionable” position at the beginning of her piece—but did she then need to criticize the book based on its shortcomings as a novel?

Despite Joris’ vivid details – the putrid smells of sweaty young soldiers and death, generals constantly gabbing on cell phones, a protagonist partial to milk and Fanta – the story doesn’t read like a novel, and Assani never comes into clear focus.

And it’s not as lyrical as a book of poems either! I don’t know when this hang-up started—maybe with James Frey? (At Dalkey we encountered a bit of this in regards to Voices from Chernobyl, a collection of interviews with Chernobyl survivors that have been recast as (gasp!) monologues. Are the responses exactly the same as the actual people gave? How much did Alexievich pretty it all up? It’s worth noting that this won the NBCC Award for Nonfiction, so I think it’s clear that some people can understand and appreciate this type of “reportage.”)

Regardless, every month there’s a new scandal re: someone making shit up about their lives. Most of the time it’s an American writer elaborating on their past in order to profit and sell more books. And get on Oprah. And intentionally deceive the American public for personal gain. I completely agree—this isn’t cool and is more than shitty. But is that situation analogous to The Rebels’ Hour? Not by a long shot. But Americans, in their typical Puritanical way, are too uptight to understand that there are gray areas, that nonfiction is never objectively “true,” and that the memoirs everyone gets all bent out of shape about—when they find out they’re chocked full of lies—aren’t worth worrying about in the first place.

OK, I’m done for today . . . It’s just so discouraging that Americans seem to have a hard time enjoying/learning from other cultures because they can’t write books according to our prescriptive standards and rules . . .



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