Friday, November 19, 2010

Is there such a thing as literary non-fiction? If so, how do you define it?

Last week the ladies at –The Blue Bookcase, started a Bloghop covering work of a literary nature. They define this as

"literary" if it focuses primarily on texts with aesthetic merit. In other words, texts that show quality not only in narrative but also in the effect of their language and structure.”

Now into its second week & we have another question which is,

Is there such a thing as literary non-fiction? If so, how do you define it?

When I first saw this, I blinked, looked again, then turned & ran. Because this looked, like a migraine waiting to happen, I mean we all know what’s  understood by the term “literary” ‘ or do we? flitting around a few of my favourite blogs,  I’ve learnt that it’s a mythical creature, something like a Chimera, you know, part goat, part lion, part serpent. A composite of various styles, genres, fictions (meta, post mod etc.) or it’s something approaching godhead, a high-falutin, pedestal sitting savant, peering through it’s monocle at the world below…So I ran and with my typical high level of bravado…..I hid.

After a few moments hiding, clutching my security blanket (I  sat staring at my bookcase), I opened my eyes and starting thinking. What is Non-Fiction? I mean is poetry nonfiction?, because, it appears that’s what I’ve always thought. Then there’s the works of philosophy, would anyone who has read Nietzsche's  “Twilight of the Idols” or Albert Camus’s “The Rebel” deny their literary merit .This left me with a dilemma, the opposite of that I started with, I now had more ideas for books than I had time to write about, so what do I choose, well, in the end, with a bit of juggling, swordplay & various other techniques I whittled it down to three.

After Babel – Aspects of language & translation

George Steiner

after babel“Translation exists because men speak different languages. This truism is, in fact, founded on a situation which can be regarded as enigmatic & as posing problems of extreme psychological & socio-historical difficulty. Why should Human Beings  speak thousands of different, mutually incomprehensible tongues…..”

First published in 1975, this book constituted the first systematic investigation of the theory and processes of translation since the 18century. Donald Davie of the Times Literary supplement wrote “He is saying great things we cannot afford not to take note of….I greatly admire the intellectual venture which the book represents”. But for me this book is a gateway, a door, a key, through this book I discovered a world of writers, poets, philosophers, authors old & new. This book, with it’s passion for its subject matter, the sheer bravado of vision, coupled with the intelligence shining from every page, makes this a literary gem.

My second book is, Gaston Bachelard’s

The Poetics of Space

Thirty years since its first publication in English, French philosopher Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space remains one of the most appealing and lyrical explorations of home. Bachelard takes us on a journey, from cellar to attic, to show how our perceptions of houses and other shelters shape our thoughts, memories, and dreams.

”Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor. It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination.”pos

This book comes across as a prose poem, celebrating mans relationship with space - whether wide open or the smallest room.

“Shells & doorknobs, closets & attics, old towers & peasant huts, all shimmer here, shimmer as points linked in the transcendental geometry…..The poetics of space resonates deeply, vibrating at the edges of the imagination, exploring the recesses of the psyche, the hallways of the mind. In the house Bachelard discovers a metaphor of Humanness”

Underground-Tokyo gas attack & the Japanese psyche, by Haruki Murakami is myhm third choice, and this is a book I have reviewed before

On the 20th of March 1995, 5 members of the Aum shinri kyo cult entered the Tokyo subway system & upon boarding the trains released a lethal gas.The method used was a chemical agent in liquid form, called Sarin, they each carried two packets or about 900mls ( a pinhead sized drop can kill an adult & their families), which were dropped on the train floors then pierced with sharpened umbrella tips. The 5 members then left their individual trains to meet with their accomplices & were driven off.
This act, by the Aum shinri kyo was, and to this date is still, the most serious terrorist attack in Japanese history. In a society that had been considered virtually crime free, this attack caused widespread fear & disruption on a scale that simply overwhelmed all concerned.

How do you write a book, that’s for the most part a series of interviews, & yet still have it instantly recognised as a book that could have been written by no one else, a book that has your persona written through its very spine. In writing this book Haruki Murakami, not only investigated the crime, but questioned the country (his motherland) in which this act of terrorism was committed.

Highlighting in the process a people lonely & alienated, trapped in a society enthralled by industrialisation & modernity. A people lost from their traditions, spirituality & the family ties of its past. In writing this book he questions all modern cultures?

Having entered both of the hops, I think it would be extremely remiss of me not to thank and mention the people behind this literary exercise, so I send a hearty thanks to the ladies of The Blue Bookcase –Connie, Ingrid & Christina.


Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I've added Underground straight to my reading list. I hadn't heard of it before, but it sounds fascinating.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read any of these. I know that you've recommended After Babel to me more than once and I really need to get a copy. Same with Underground. Good post!

Bellezza said...

I loved Murakami's Underground. What a fascinating look at not only the courage of the Japanese people, but the bizarre thinking of the cult. So interesting that a group who can't find meaning any where finds it in following a twisted leader and hurting others...

Susan from Reading World said...

Nice discussion! I thought it was hard enough defining literary. Nonfiction was the easy part. Obviously, I didn't give it enough thought! You're right. It makes my head hurt!

JoAnn said...

Good discussion of this topic! I really must read Murakami....

Gilion at Rose City Reader said...

These are great choices. I've recently become very interested in the idea of translations, so the first book is going on my Christmas list. The Murakami is going on my husband's because it is right up his alley.

Rose City Reader

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I hadn't looked at Underground in this way, but you are right. It changes completely how I reviewed it. Thank you.

Here's my post on literary nonfiction. I'd love to hear what you think.

And if you have read any wonderful literary books
published in 2010, I urge you to nominate your favorites
for The Independent Literary Awards. The awards
include categories of Literary Fiction and Literary Non-Fiction.
Nominations close December 15.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Sam, This is almost Murakami's missing novel,it's surprising how many hardened murakami fans have not heard or read this which is a shame as it's a fantastic book, his nearest fictional equivalent is "After the quake" which has similar subject matter ie something awful happened, then what happens next. Thanks for dropping by.

Hi pete, Yeah I know, at times I feel like I'm becoming a bit obsessive with my championing of this book. But as I've probably said before this book was one of those that changed not only what I read, but how I perceived literature, I remember I was working in Berlin & after work I'd come home to my flat & spend the evening trying to understand the authors intent, focusing on passages until I thought I understood them.
Thanks for the comment.

Hi Bellezza,you & I both long time Haruki fans, have had this chat before, yet we both still have no answer for some of our fellow citizens behaviour, which is both scarey & at the same time allows for optimism.
Thanks for stopping by.

Hello,Susan I thought nonfiction was easy,until I looked at a few answers from other blogs & saw that not everyone thought poetry or philosophy was nonfiction, then what about memoirs etc.hence my bravery/
Thanks for your comment.

Hi JoAnn, If new to Murakami, try A collection of short stories called - The Elephant Vanishes (reviewed here)or the novel - Kafka on the shore, which was my first Murakami.

Hi Rose city reader (still love the name)when buying After Babel make sure it's the later edition as this has the revised text & adds russian & east european material also a new preface setting the book in the present context of hermeneutics, poetics & translation studies. my edition (the 2nd) is pub 92.
Thanks for your interest.

Hi Readerbuzz, Thanks for your comment of what is truly a fascinating book, will check out your review of it for some more pointers, as I'm not sure I understood all of the books implications.
Thanks again.

Em said...

"a book that has your persona written through its very spine"; so true...

Poetry crossed my mind, but then, isn't it another beast altogether?

Bachelard? I agree and we could of course add Barthes to that. That's one thing I have noticed when reading theory, French theory is usually very literary (to the point that it makes it really difficult to grasp) and I find it even more literary (and difficult) in the original language, despite it being my native language; something to ponder...

IngridLola said...

This post seems to me like a piece of literary non-fiction itself ...

*ೃ༄ Jillian said...

*When I first saw this, I blinked, looked again, then turned & ran.*

Ha ha! Me too!

You highlight some interesting selections. Thank you for sharing. :-)

gautami tripathy said...

You showcase some intriguing books. I will check those out!

Here is my Literary Blog Hop post!

@parridhlantern said...

Hi, Em, don't you think poetry could be the purest form of nonfiction, as it is often a thought, a feeling, or an object distilled down to its essence, like for example this haiku from Masaoka Shiki

at this time
morning glories fix the color
deep blue

with its depiction of the oncoming of summer.
Barthes, forgot about him have a couple of books on my bookshelf as well.
Thanks for your views.

Why IngridLola, my deepest thanks
It's because i am enjoying your challenges.

Jillian, just the default setting, of a shy & retiring bookfiend
thanks for your comment.

Hello Gautami, thanks & please do, I'm loving the idea that books I love may be appreciated by others.

Anonymous said...

These books sound fascinating! I always wish I read more nonfiction... of course there isn't time to read half the books I want to. I enjoyed my visit to your blog!

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Thebookstop. TIme & a TBR large enough to be seen from space is a problem i can well understand.

Em said...

I suppose you're right in some ways as poetry can do away with narrative. I'm thinking about it and trying to turn things around in my head, but it's getting late.
Your haiku example seems adequate, but you say that because it has to do with feelings, for instance, it is non-fiction? I am not convinced about that. by expressing your feelings through words, don't you fictionalise to a certain extent? Maybe concrete poetry would be a good example?
I am not opposed to your idea, I'm just reflecting on it.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Em, if you take what is purely factual as your basis for nonfiction,ie what can be known empirically, then feelings, ideas expressed etc couldn't be counted as covered by the term nonfiction, but apart from excluding poetry, wouldn't that also exclude philosophy, to a certain extent psycho analysis (dream interpretation, free association etc.) & also a great chunk of memoirs written over the years. All of the above rely to a certain extent on feelings, on thoughts & theories, conjecture, ideology,& interpretation based on apriori knowledge as opposed to empirical data.Thanks for your comments & I'm glad it's making you think,as that was the idea (to stimulate debate) because it's the same for me, still trying to work out where the boundaries are, or if there are any.

Em said...

I think that anything that has followed a process of narrativisation becomes to a certain extent fiction. I would see annals as non-fiction, while a historical narrative would be fictionalised and thus not purely non-fiction. However, poetry confuses me and I can't figure out where I should place it in my classification. That's why I'm think that concrete poetry might actually be non-fiction, but then, is it really literary?

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Em, just to muddy the water-- The Oxford English Dictionary defines annals as "a narrative of events written year by year. Also any process that edits in some form or another must fictionalize, purely by leaving stuff out.Back to poetry, if concrete poetry is nonfiction, concrete poetry being "poetry in which the typographical arrangement of words is as important in conveying the intended effect as the conventional elements of the poem, such as meaning of words, rhythm, rhyme and so on." this being a genre within the canon of poetry, then by default poetry is nonfiction whether literary or not & looking at some of the poets writing within that genre, I'd plump for literary(at least some of it). thanks for your continuing imput, as this has really fired my neurons & got me thinking.

Em said...

But... can a list/record of events be really considered as a narrative? I'm not sure I agree with that Oxford English Dictionary definition...
I agree with your comment on editing and fictionalising, which annoys me! With the annals though, you do not have the retrospective aspect. Yet, what is recorded is what seemed important to the person at that time. Tricky... This is something I need to think more about, but that might have to wait.
But what do you make about narrative poetry? Surely The Faiery Queene is fiction, no?
Can anything expressed through the medium of words be actually considered as non-fiction? Language in itself ficionalises reality.
Could the expression of things that are abstract be considered as non-fiction then (which would probably bring us back to your original view of poetry, although I don't think it could apply to all poetry)? If we try to represent things that are abstract, then we can't fictionalise as what we represent is non-existent, therefore, it could be considered as non-fiction. That would actually be an artefact, so can artefacts be non-fiction?

Ok, I'd better stop before I start getting a headache! I've never thought about some of these things before, but I'll surely keep thinking about them.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Em, Tought You might find this interesting, it comes from " The Anthologist" by Nicholson Baker - "THERE'S NO EITHER OR DIVISION with poems.What's made up And what's not made up? What's the varnished truth, What's the unvarnished truth? We don't care. With prose you first want to know: is it fiction, is it nonfiction? Everything follows from that. The books go in different places in the bookstore. But we don't do that with poems, or with song lyrics. Books of poetry go straight to the poetry section. There's no nonfictional poetry and fictional poetry. The categories don't exist."
Hope you enjoy.
ps it's a good book, one that lovers of poetry will especially appreciate.