In Defense of Non-Fiction

Howdy, CM readers. My name is Phil, and by his sheer graciousness, Kevin has let me post on his blog. Truly, a child will be named after him. Maybe not necessarily one of mine, but some child.

In any case, to non-fiction. While David’s post is among the nifty, I have to take exception to the sentence, “Reading fiction is more rewarding than non-fiction because it provides a unique perspective. Non-fiction tends to reinforce or even drive the collective angst-that’s why its topicality leaves me cold.” It perhaps depends on what is meant by “non-fiction.” Admittedly, McNamara’s little mea culpa, and non-fiction of that sort, is often painful and usually exhibits a short shelf-life. But let’s move on to other types of non-fiction.

Consider, for instance, intellectual history, or the history of ideas. Non-fiction of that type I find much more rewarding than fiction, at least if it’s done well. So, for instance, the comprehensive nature, and well-written style, of Kirk’s The Conservative Mind is both a pleasure to read and enlightening. It is enlightening because of what it deals with, the “what” being ideas actually held, by individuals who in reality once existed, who influenced, in some large or small manner, the existent world. It is a pleasure because the text flows with energy, filled with sentences of strong construction and, perhaps more importantly, emotional force. Certainly, this is a step up from the typical dusty form of academicese in much of this type of non-fiction. While finding a strong work, especially of intellectual history, can be trying, it is certainly worthwhile.

Moreover, intellectual history, in this way, can serve to provide a “unique perspective,” especially if the perspective is not necessarily dominant. Indeed, if written well, looking into the past can provide a perspective more unique than that from the minds of most novelists. An example of a different time, and a different style of thought, is illustrated in Carlyle & Carlyle’s six volume set, Mediaeval Political Theory in the West.

Or, with that in mind, perhaps it is even better to go to the source of these intellectual histories, to look at the works that have lasted through the centuries. This, again, can provide a perspective more unique than that of the novelist. To delve into the Trinitarian theology of Augustine, to encompass one’s mind in the philosophy/theology of Aquinas, to see a world destroyed with Las Casas….there indeed are unique perspectives, formed within mindsets and worlds that no longer exist, shaped by assumptions and notions that a person today must wrestle with to understand, made all the more powerful because these works focus on a reality, or an idea, or Truth.

This is not meant to disparage fiction as a whole – a mind solely focused on non-fiction, without a sense of the poetic or literary, is sure to to a limited mind indeed. And, again, much non-fiction is drivel, by reason of content, style, or both. But, alas, the same could be said of much fiction as well.

But what are the correct lines between fiction and non-fiction? Or, is the error in looking at the differences of these two, and not considering the broader issues? For me, at least, it seems that a great deal of the problem in writing (and reading proclivity) today is not so much fiction vs. non-fiction, as much as the flowing word vs. immoderation (of one type or another) and the deep insight vs. mental/moral/aesthetic straw. But now these are random musings, to which I have no answer…