Realms of Possibility: A Conversation with Phillip Gourevitch, Norbert Grstein, and Colum McCann
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: I’ve been struck over time that nonfiction writers are often treated the way photographers were treated by the great art museums and art snobs of the early or mid-twentieth century. Just as photography was not accepted as Art—with a capital A—nonfiction is still largely excluded from Literature—with a capital L. Even by writers themselves sometimes: Many novelists who got their start in the ’50s and ’60s, say, became best known for nonfiction—and they felt resentful if the nonfiction got mentioned first. The big game was to be a novelist. But why cling to such hierarchies? I mean, if you’re really trying to respond to the world and to render some account of reality in narrative prose, isn’t that what matters? Why is nonfiction still made to sit at the back of the bus?
NORBERT GSTREIN: The difference reminds me a bit of physics before and after the theory of relativity. Classical physics is good enough to express and explain most things. With the theory of relativity, skepticism and ambiguity enter the field—just as in fiction different worlds open up. Fiction is interested in the relativity of the narrator, who is often someone other than the “I.” Another distinction might be that a fiction writer has to establish his or her reality, while a nonfiction writer begins with a given reality.
But I find the most interesting type of fiction in the intermediate area, so to speak—fiction filled with facts. W.G. Sebald, Danilo Kiš, Jorge Luis Borges: Those authors mixed fiction and facts and created a new reality. It’s not too down-to-earth, as some might say against nonfiction, but neither is it a floating reality or a reality without commitment. It is possible, I think, for a fiction writer not to take reality seriously enough. Peter Handke could serve as an example, the way he traveled through the former Yugoslavia and wrote about the Yugoslav Civil War with his head in the clouds. Which suggests that he did not have enough respect for the facts.
COLUM MCCANN: Let’s immediately collapse this arbitrary wall between fiction and nonfiction. We might build it up again as the debate goes on. But what does the word “fiction” mean? It comes from fictus, to shape. It has nothing to do with reality or nonreality. So why is there a gulf in people’s imaginations between nonfiction and fiction—when it’s so plain to us that facts are mercenary things? Facts become fiction in so many ways. I will never forget Colin Powell holding up a photograph of a chemical tanker, what, six years ago now, saying, “This is a photograph of a chemical tanker. This is a fact.” He extrapolated a fiction from the facts—because he didn’t know what was inside that particular tanker, but he told us that chemical weapons were being moved to different parts of the desert. And on the basis of that fiction our daughters and our sons got sent off to war.
I believe that a lot of novelists are now taking stuff from “real life,” the facts that are out there and reshaping us, because we doubt what we have been told and how we have been presented with the story—so the job of the novelist right now is to put everything in doubt. And to say, “Question who told you this,” “Question why they told you this,” “Question why they sent your kids to war,” et cetera. We’re in the midst of a great age of fictions, I think—an artistic response to how we have been lied to and what we have been told the facts supposedly are.
GSTREIN: In my opinion the big difference between fiction and nonfiction is actually made by the reader. A reader reads nonfiction for information, and fiction for other reasons, which are not quite so easily determined. Nonfiction is about the facts, while with fiction, the question is, really, “Is this a good book or a bad book?”
GOUREVITCH: I disagree with the idea that one reads nonfiction purely for information. Perhaps one reads bad nonfiction just for the information—and then quite likely one should distrust the information.
You said earlier, Norbert, that the nonfiction writer has the advantage of a given reality, while the fiction writer has to establish her reality. I’m not convinced of that. I think that the nonfiction writer, too, has to establish a reality—in much the way that Colin Powell did, except that he did it dishonestly, and a writer must do it honestly. I mentioned photography earlier. Photography, too, was dismissed by painters as the mere recording of information. But even with photojournalism—the most deliberately informational mode of photography—one would have to be blind to overlook the individual creator’s eye and hand. Consider that photojournalists will often all stand in the same twelve foot space, penned off in front of an event—be it a presidential speech, or Sniper Alley in Sarajevo where they all had to be behind the same six feet of sandbags. And they get very different pictures. From the so-called given reality they establish their individual reality, without any artificial manipulation of the image itself. It is the same with nonfiction. I like to think of the restrictions of nonfiction—the requirement that one sticks to the facts—as a formal challenge. But within the limits, the work can only be done well if one has an imagination as free as any novelist, playwright or poet.
And, by the way, it would be a mistake to confuse pure factuality with pure truth. The New Yorker has a famous fact-checking department, which can be enormously helpful, an ultimate safety net—and yet if you had pieces written only by the methods of fact-checking, and not by a writer with perception and sensibility and judgment, the result would be absurd. I suspect one could write, say, a thousand-word piece that was perfectly fact-checkable and completely untrue.
MCCANN: The New Yorker also fact-checks its fiction pretty seriously, and that can drive you nuts, too. It seems to me that the purpose of literature is to come alive in a body, in a time, in a geography, that is not your own. That’s the real triumph of literature, whether it’s nonfiction, fiction, poetry—any medium: We become alive in that other time and place. I spent a few days in a hospital recently, and I had a chance to re-read Ulysses. Ulysses takes place on June 16, 1904. I was reading about Bloom and Stephen and the citizens in all the pubs together, and it struck me—as it had sort of struck me before, but this time more so than ever—that my great grandfather had walked the streets of Dublin on June 16, 1904. I never met my great grandfather, and I know very little about him, but suddenly he became spectacularly alive in the fiction that had been created by James Joyce. Now my great grandfather was real and can be documented as a “nonfiction fact,” so to speak—otherwise I wouldn’t be here. But he really meant nothing to me until I read a fiction that had been created around him, in a sense. This interweave, this double helix of fact and fiction, is where the beauty lies. And I don’t think nonfiction, as we classically define it, has pushed itself as far as it can go in that direction. It has not pushed itself as far as fiction has.
GSTREIN: I think nonfiction can make big mistakes by not taking fiction seriously. One problematic example is the book Who Killed Daniel Pearl? by Bernard-Henri Lévy. There’s a scene that describes the decapitation of Mr. Pearl. It’s a horrific scene. And the author decides to lay a second track over that scene—he tries to imagine what might have gone on in Mr. Pearl’s head during that moment. And, of course, Mr. Lévy has no clue what is going on in this man’s head. But he decides that Mr. Pearl is thinking about women during those last moments of his life. The last question Daniel Pearl asks himself, in this version of events, is “What do women really want?”
GOUREVITCH: My understanding is that the book is not presented as fact. It involves factual investigation and then departs into these fictional reveries. And I suppose to do that right the question is whether one makes those distinctions clear.
GSTREIN: Do you think you can do it?
GOUREVITCH: It’s not my thing, but I don’t see why it should be taboo. I think the question is whether it can be done successfully and persuasively. There’s always going to be the problem that one side or the other is more persuasive. You come away thinking, “Boy, it’s better when that guy goes off into fiction,” or, “That writer should stick to nonfiction and not put things into his victim’s head.” James Agee, at the beginning of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—which is one of the really interesting and maddening books that gets assigned to the nonfiction canon—talks endlessly about the value of documentary observation. He’s with Walker Evans, embedding, as we now say, with a sharecropper family during the depression for Fortune magazine. In his remarkable preamble to the book he writes, “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.” He writes almost a nonfiction manifesto. Then you turn the page to chapter one, and it begins with this lyrical opening in which everybody’s asleep—except, he imagines, the woman of the house, and as he pictures her in his mind’s eye, he sees her looking back at him, considering him in some sort of cosmic, erotic reverie. And reading this you think, “Wait a minute! This is pure fantasy. I thought I was getting nothing but the dirt beneath the nails!”
GSTREIN: With fictitious persons one has mostly aesthetic problems. But when real people are concerned, ethical problems present themselves as well.
GOUREVITCH: You mentioned earlier the role that the reader’s imagination plays in all of this. I have a young daughter who, whenever she hears a story, asks, “Is that a true-life story?” And she doesn’t like one or the other better. She’s just trying to understand what is documentary and what is fantasy. I find it interesting because some of the great nonfiction is, of course, memoir, which seems to me to belong to a third category, frankly, between fiction and nonfiction. It’s not reported or documented and it involves this complicated thing called memory that’s neither fiction nor camera-like documentation. Think of Primo Levi and his memoir of Auschwitz, for example. That’s different from a researched book about Auschwitz, or an oral history of Auschwitz. What you get in that book is a voice, a sensibility, in his case, a literary sensibility. The book, halfway through, goes into a meditation on Dante. It’s also a memoir in which Levi himself barely exists. At one point in the second volume, he gets sick and comes close to death. He says he’s not sure what happened over the next six weeks because he was at death’s door. Period. And then he goes back to the stories of people around him.
GSTREIN: I have a daughter as well, a four year old. She accepts it when I say that the sky is blue. And then if I say, “The sky is red” or “The sky is yellow,” she is, at first, a little astonished, and then she is impressed that language can do that.
GOUREVITCH: Yes—well, the four year olds aren’t our problem. It gets a lot harder with the grown-ups.
MCCANN: I think the most important thing about a memoir or an autobiography is that you get the texture, the spirit of things, absolutely right. Facts by themselves are uninteresting. What’s interesting is the human heart. Faulkner, in his Nobel address, said literature is about “the human heart in conflict with itself.” If you have on the page your blood, sweat, and tears, and you put down the contradictions that are going on within you, then you’ll have written a beautiful book that people will want to read. And they will believe you.
GSTREIN: Because the language tells.
GOUREVITCH: And because people want to believe.