I’m reading Ross talking about another first-person non-fiction narrative that turns out to be B.S. and it’s making me think of how a lot of old-school novels involve this pretense to accuracy. Often they’ll begin with a narrator telling the “true” story of how he heard the story that makes up the heart of the plot. Or else the manuscript will be discovered somewhere. For reasons that I’m sure are well known to people who were paying more attention in lecture, early audiences seem to have been incapable of digesting something like “this is a story I made up because I thought you would get something out of reading it — enjoy!” Instead, prose had to be true.
Meanwhile, contemporary fiction is pretty sharply bifurcated between crappy “genre” fiction and literary fiction that often seems very artsy-fartsy. For a well-crafted but basically straightforward story of people doing things and interacting with each other in a moderately realistic way, you need to turn to narrative non-fiction. You can tell people you’ve just been reading Bill Buford’s Heat and hold your head high in sophisticated circles, it’s not like copping to owning Tom Clancy’s Op-Center: State of Siege.
But if you sold the story as fiction, I think it would be deemed inadequately literary. And yet the facticity of the narrative has nothing to do with anything. Do I actually care if Buford really sliced his finger dicing carrots that one time? Or if Dario the butcher really yelled at some restaurant owner in some other Tuscan town? To me it seems basically irrelevant. The verisimilitude of a lot of the mise en scène really is integral to the book’s appeal, but the same could be said about Moby Dick and any number of other straightforwardly fictional works. The literal accuracy of the whole thing, by contrast, contributes very little to the actual work. What it does instead is alter the marketing possibilities and likely critical approaches, opening up space for a certain kind of narrative to be taken seriously. Which isn’t to say that people should lie in their memoirs, but maybe there’s something to be learned from the fact that there’s such an appetite for made-up stories of a certain kind.