I used a Ning in my lit classes this past semester: a user-friendly course-building technology that drew on elements such as discussion forums, walls (a la Facebook), blogs, comments, and so on. This allowed me to mediate problematic class discussions even after we’d run out of time, by posting to my blog and encouraging students to read it. I ought to be grading right now, so instead of drafting a shiny-new post, I figured I’d treat you to some of my mid-semester musings, exactly as I presented them to my class.
A little context: this post occurred toward the beginning of the semester, during a discussion of the impact of nonfiction versus fiction. I was surprised to find that most students claimed to not be affected by fiction at all since it wasn’t true; my own feelings run directly opposite, and so I felt the need to qualify the discussion after class. My modus operandi is to try to frame my for-class posts with absolute transparency, so that my students can see that even die-hard academics progress from muddled thinking to clarity. Additionally, I edit very little, so that they can view the post as a sort of sample Zero Draft or reader’s response to the material we’re covering. I try to ask the kinds of questions I want them to ask (and eventually address) in their papers. It’s been my experience that, the more concrete models they see, the easier it is for students to figure out how to map out this sort of thinking in their own work. Ideally speaking, anyway.
Here’s the original post, below:
I’ve been thinking about the question that I brought up in class on Monday, about the impact of fiction versus nonfiction, and how genre shapes our reaction to a given piece of literature. I have to say I was surprised at the prevailing sentiment that nonfiction delivers more of an emotional “punch,” if you will, than fiction—but then, this is the most common approach to the issue of genre. So why was I surprised?
At first I wasn’t sure how to approach the question. After all, I might have just felt outnumbered by the sheer number of responses that ran counter to mine, as I have always felt that all literature, whether fiction or nonfiction, is equally affective. I have felt just as moved—if not more—by the Buendias in One Hundred Years of Solitude as I have by James Baldwin’s reaction to the Harlem race riots. Bruce Wayne’s struggle to define justice in The Long Halloween gripped me the same way I was by Alison Bechdel’s memoir of her closeted father and her own sexual identity as a lesbian. News accounts of genocide and fictional imaginings of what it must be like for victims, child soldiers, and despots all provoke the same reaction from me, the same type of horror.
Perhaps this is because, as a writer, I span both genres and have to believe that fiction (!) is just as powerful as nonfiction; that is, it’s simply a matter of meaning: I want to believe that a novel dealing with issues of sexuality, masculinity, power dynamics, and the extremes we are driven to when faced with loss, will affect a reader just as much as a memoir about growing up in the shadow of the Sri Lankan civil war.
This is, I suppose, the easy answer.
Then this morning, halfway into my coffee and the process of becoming human, I had a minor epiphany. Instead of it being a matter of meaning, and therefore relevant only to myself, perhaps it is a subconscious recognition of the fact that fiction derives from reality, our imagining of what could be. That is, quality fiction will give us characters who are no different from the people we encounter in reality, places as vivid as the places we inhabit, flawed circumstances with which we can all identify. And, as such, I don’t discriminate between the two; I wind up treating fiction as a kind of nonfiction itself.
Now I find myself wondering how this approach has shaped me as both reader and writer. Maybe the only thing genre tells me is whether or not I can use a text as a reference. Maybe this is the best approach, maybe it’s the worst approach; is there such a thing as “the best approach” to literature? If I were to ascribe a value judgment on mine, I’d say that giving the same weight to emotional experience in fiction and nonfiction is probably useful, in that it levels the playing-field and allows us to evenly compare works across genre. Maybe there is usefulness and importance also in remembering that, while nonfiction tells us what was, fiction tells us what that past could have been like and/or what the present and future could be. It asks that we sympathize with the characters and circumstances it presents, reminding us—just as much as nonfiction—that we could be or know these people, if our lives were just a bit different.