Some few thoughts on facticity

You know the difference between plain old “sci-fi” and “hard science fiction”? One’s boring.

Nah. I’m just joking. The distinction, according to Wikipedia, reflects the division in “hard” (read: natural) and “soft” (read: social) science, thus neatly reflecting the split between my own weaknesses/blindspots/most-hated-fields-of-study and my (thoroughly relative) strengths/interests. I never could swallow the idea that learning how to think involved so much memorization (which is only a trick our chemistry plays on us (or doesn’t), after all). There are apparati for remembering; once I had fallen for the book, the computer, the tape, those organs of recording, the natural sciences were lost to me (and yes, I realize that there is more to the natural sciences than memorization, but those first steps (high school Biology, Chemistry, etc.) are steep, and I am weak). The act of remembering is even potentially deleterious (those who do so too often “live in the past”; insomnia is, often, a result of remembering too much or too well; traumas (or really, anything, in excess) remembered (whether falsely or “truly”) haunt our present, produce erratic behavior (see: the Lifetime network)). I was/am engaged by the imagination, the dark side of the orbiting chunk of ourselves we call memory; memory served only to tell me which of my lies had worked and which had not. Facts were to be shed at the earliest possible moment following the assessment of the depth and success of my memorization of them. I was, in other words, a B student.

But this post isn’t about a B, it isn’t about my blindnesses and biases. (No, it probably is. They all are.) Still, I heard this segment on Morning Edition on my way to school last Thursday– having already read The Lifespan of a Fact, there was nothing there to shock me, and no, that’s not because I’m a jaded hipster, even though yes, I do live in Portland. Rather it was because the book is inherently inhuman, implausible. It is purported to be a picture of a project rather than the work that was produced by that project, but that’s an impossibility. As Michael Martone says in Architectures of Possibility, “A fact…is a thing done. Once it is finished it has no existence. A fiction…is a thing made. Once made it is real; it has an existence.” Usually, the inhuman’s left behind in the finished product (is that what makes the work “finished”?) — the shavings are swept into the trash, the dried palette is washed down, the 1s and 0s of the recordings of our words are written over by other 1s and 0s, etc. The scientific method, in other words, is obscured by the artistic one– rather than say, “Here is our experiment, and here’s how we did it– now you can do it, too,” the artistic impulse is to camouflage (even in, maybe most especially in, “metafiction”), to say, “Here is the work. You couldn’t remake it if you tried; just look at Pierre Menard.” Even when we try to make something of those shavings, we create a fiction, because we’ve made something of it that it was not.

I read John D’Agata’s About a Mountain, too, a few years ago. At some level, I guess I engaged with it as nonfiction, whatever that means, but at almost all other levels, I didn’t really care what it said on the back cover, on the copyright page. I can’t recall reading that part of the book anyway, any more than I recall the price of the book or its exact weight. Should I? I wasn’t reading it for “information,” and I didn’t come to it with any idea of using it as research, of peeling away the facts supposedly contained in it to affix them to my own expression. This is my default reading mode, and has, I think, always been, and with everything. I get irritated with any piece of writing that spends too much time worldbuilding (which one shouldn’t, because of my own faulty worldbuilding here, conflate with “hard science fiction” or even science fiction generally– make no mistake, there is heavy worldbuilding domestic realism, for example (usually called “historical fiction,” because that sells more copies)). (And perhaps this is odd, but I don’t get irritated with those things that are only worldbuilding. When that is the story, I’m happy to be there. When it is only a tool, though, I generally find myself looking for the nearest exit.) Perhaps this is why I can’t read most serious scholarship. Why history and biography almost always disappoint. Why the journalism I can stand presumes that I have some idea of the world around me and what is happening in it. I don’t like to be treated as uninformed. I’d rather be the one in the cat costume than the journalist taking the picture. Don’t we all want to at least feel hip?

I’ll just say it: intratextual worldbuilding seems to me a matter of arrogance, and of misunderstanding. A variety of desert-islandism. “This (one/my) book is all you need to read on the subject,” says the worldbuilder. And perhaps some background on the period in which a biographer’s subject lived might be useful in her account of that life, but she should recognize that, if it is factual, it is also information freely available in many other places. We, her readers, have access to those other sources, and, if we are truly interested in that information, can readily find it, in its proper context, elsewhere (again, when worldbuilding is the story, I’m all for it). And, as a corollary, if you, as writer, are the only source for the information you have to impart, what you are writing is fiction, even if it has its origin in the world of fact. Remember the scientific method: if I cannot replicate your findings (and how can one replicate history?), they cannot be proven. Once a thing is done, it is a fiction. [I mean, there’s this, if you want to deepen your muddle: The Fiction that Fiction is Fiction, though I suspect it isn’t anything you haven’t thought of before.]

All to say that that Morning Edition commentator’s shock at finding out that D’Agata’s book is a fiction seems manufactured to me. And yet, it seems that such shock is fairly widespread: viz. Ned Stuckey-French’s outraged post over at the Brevity blog, Dear John. You can’t spit on a Review these days without losing some lubrication on this kerfuffle, and I think it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Much ado about marketing?

What I’m driving at is that, as a reader, I don’t care much about intratextual facticity, or what I’m calling (and thereby ever-so-slightly fictionalizing) “worldbuilding.” It’s always there, outside of the text, if I want it. I mean, hey! There’s a world there, here. Just look around you. Want some corroboration of something “factual”? Find it! If D’Agata or Frey or whoever wants to manipulate those facts, well then, as Lifespan of a Fact shows, there are plenty of ways to refute those manipulations. That either author was “found out” is ample proof, isn’t it? So why make a big deal out of their falsehoods and exaggerations? Anyone approaching their books as research, as fact, will soon enough find that s/he is barking up the wrong tree. It seems a little insulting to call for warnings, disclaimers, new genres; it feels just slightly too much like the text on the outside of a McDonald’s coffee cup.

What is facticity? It is– it has to be– multiplicity. Reproducible histories (which is to say, corroborated histories), multiple sources. When we learn to write research papers, we are told to find several sources, right? To guard against bias/fiction/prejudice/blindness. Anyone’s authority (especially one’s own) is questionable, fallible. But we’ll believe a committee, we’ll buy a consensus. It isn’t, actually, a matter of authority, of facts, but of how we approach our material.

Incidentally, when you type in "book of the world" in Google image search, you get a lot of results of pictures of toilets. Try it!

Let’s imagine a truly faithful book: one in which every fact has been checked and the veracity is apparent in every word. Sources everywhere, footnotes, annotations, citations, quotations– proof. No disclaimer would be needed for the frontispiece– the disclaimer would be the size of the book. With every sentence, the force of facticity would assert itself, and the fractals of “truth” would spin each word out into a sentence, then a paragraph, then a monograph, a book, an encyclopedia, a database, a discipline, a lifetime, a generation, a world. You want “worldbuilding”? Try establishing something in print as a fact. And then ask yourself whether everything labeled non-fiction needs to be “hard non-fiction.” Ask yourself whether things like About a Mountain aren’t desirable even if they aren’t “factual.” I understand the pitch of the arguments against calling such work “nonfiction,” but I think the arguments themselves are aesthetic rather than mimetic/existential/phenomenological. It’s not a case of what truth is but of whether truth is always the best tool. But then, I’m not the hard nonfictionalist’s ideal audience. I never was good with facts.


[Oh, and here’s my disclaimer, at the end rather than the beginning, so that no one will leave confused: Some of my thoughts were manipulated by the process of composing this post. Do they “accurately” reflect my thoughts on the subject? Wouldn’t it be nice to think so?]

5 thoughts on “Some few thoughts on facticity

  1. ‘Non-fiction’ is an entirely negative term. It tells you what the writing is not, but it doesn’t begin to tell you what it is. Non-fiction need not be factual, it doesn’t even need to be ‘not fiction’ – a lot of philosophy involves stuff that we would otherwise describe as fiction, but it is nevertheless classified as non-fiction. So I tend to think that the non-fiction label doesn’t tell us anything about the work concerned. Our language for describing literary works that are not overtly fiction seems to be woefully inadequate.

    • I think that you’re right, Paul: “Our language for describing literary works that are not overtly fiction seems to be woefully inadequate.” Perhaps because we pretend that there is so much at stake in whether a particular work is “Philosophy” and not “Literary Crititcism” (or, more likely, vice versa), “Religion,” and not “Philosophy,” “Journalism,” and not “Memoir,” and so on? I don’t think this jockeying for aesthetic place distinguishes it from its brother, fiction; I think there is a great deal of disdain, still, attached to “Horror,” to “Science Fiction,” to “Romance,” and the categorizations themselves remain a fiction. Which then calls back into question this idea of “nonfiction” as telling us anything at all about the work at hand. “Fiction” from the Latin “fingere”: “to model in clay, hence to fashion in any plastic material” (Partridge). So “nonfiction,” not fashioned of plastic material? Context not plastic? Expression not? Structure/order not?

      Purely as a side note, we here in the US have just been reminded of the permeability of our notions of “fact”– time has just been adjusted in most parts of the country, and what was once 6:28 AM is now 7:28 AM, meaning that I need to leave for work. Time: a thing made.

      • Ah, here in the UK our time changes in two weeks. Time is clearly a global fiction, yet we would regard ‘reading’ a watch as non-fiction, as telling us something factual about the world.

        The disdain for horror, science fiction or what have you is basically a disdain for anything that might be labelled ‘genre’. Which, so far as I can see, simply means that form of fiction in which what is being told (story) can take precedence over the manner of telling (prose). But in fact much that is considered non-genre can partake of story, and much that is considered genre can partake of fine writing. The categories are porous. Categories always are porous. Which is why drawing hard and fast dividing lines between them is always such a ludicrous exercise.

  2. Nice one Gabe. I think the measure of worthwhile internet writing is whether or not you want to print it out and save it into tree. This one, like many of yours, I do.

    “And, as a corollary, if you, as writer, are the only source for the information you have to impart, what you are writing is fiction, even if it has its origin in the world of fact.” – agreed, and thanks for putting it into words

    Maybe the contract with the reader who thinks they are getting non-fiction or what is real, or what happened is a lot like the fantasies we brew. Maybe it’s the person we fall in love with, or the politician who will save us – hence the reaction that to lie is unholy when found out. Yet it seems even lying has become debased. Since there are no consequences for many of the big lies, who gives a shit about any other one.

    • Well, there are lies, and there are untruths (much like Paul’s “non-fiction” above, I would define them by what they are not because I don’t think we really have a handle on what they are). It’s always about the best story: we seem to love it when we can reach out and touch or otherwise experience whatever it is that we’re talking about in the abstract, when words take on dimension through reference to what we’ve experienced as “fact” (a thing done); I have to believe that is why nonfiction is (relatively speaking) so popular– those references are in-built. But fiction, too, has its share of advantages– I certainly don’t want to seem to be disparaging the essayist’s job. And then there are things like Dianetics, like the Book of Mormon, that we make true despite the lack of such references (facticity), whose hold(s) on the world that we share with others are tenuous at best, and yet they become vital to some readers. It is possible, I think, to create, spontaneously and without resort to facticity, that sort of truth. Is that a lie? I don’t know if it is.

      Your contract is important, Greg: It reveals the weakness in the argument for a rigid categorization (Fiction/Nonfiction). If you prioritize something, anything, as “truth,” you risk just the sort of reaction that you’ve described. Ultimately, whether a book is “fiction” or “nonfiction” is up to the printer, a person who has most likely never read the work in question and has nothing invested in it. One slip, one slight alteration to the prepress, and the “non” on “nonfiction” disappears. What I mean is: it’s a label, a word, nothing more or less. Facticity is something else, and should always be considered so. Fox News calls itself “News.” So does CNN (“Cable News Network”). The truth? Doesn’t belong to either. As another Fox, Fox Mulder, would say: “The truth is out there.”

      Probably, there should have been more scare quotes in all of that, but I got tired of them.

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