Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Great Oxymoron

I knew at some point I would have to bring up this topic, but was somewhat dreading wading into the troubled waters of the creative non-fiction debate.  Firstly, I don't know if I am adequately able to define the vague oxymoron that is creative non-fiction in an academic fashion.  So this is going to be a conversation about creative non-fiction as I see it.  

From the beginning, I will give you the working definition that I use to describe it.  Everyone has at least one friend who is a great storyteller, but seems to embellish the events to the point of slight absurdity.  This is how I identify creative non-fiction.  There may be an element of truth to the tale, and the details might be fudged to make for a more engaging experience for the listener or reader.  Another point worth stating is that perhaps the limits of memory force some authors to fill in the blanks.  Marina Nemat admits in her book Prisoner of Tehran that she is not capable of remembering all that happened to her during her stay in prison.  As a result of her experience, including torture and rape at the hands of her captors, her memory of that period of her life is imperfect. Due to this confession within the pages of her memoir and my compassion for her situation, I tend to be more forgiving of any possible untruthful elements of her personal narrative.  

To my mind the debate comes own to a question of truth in advertising.  I think that the literary world (and Oprah) rightly came down on James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, who fabricated a large portion of his book which was marketed as a non-fiction.  His readers felt personally deceived when it surfaced that his story was largely untrue.  Rather than possible memory loss due to a traumatic situation, he knowingly lied about the events documented in his so-called memoir.  If he had marketed the book as a fictional book inspired by true incidents of his life, than that is a completely different animal.  When people pull a book from the shelves of the non-fiction shelf, there is an unspoken trust that the book contains facts or the facts as they are perceived by the author.  What Frey did was a violation of that trust.

Another aspect of this issue of creative non-fiction is that of books that are marketed as fiction which are largely autobiographical.  Authors will often draw upon personal experience for their writing material and some arguably delve a little too deeply.  Though he is one of the greats of Canadian literature and a personal favourite of mine,  Mordecai Richler seemingly borrowed a lot from his own life when creating his protagonists.  As Jewish men in Montreal, they shared many of his life experiences and even his personality traits.  Should these novels be considered creative non-fiction?  I am not sure, and discussing these questions of categorization are perhaps a silly game for people like me that enjoy such debates.  Some would argue that the labels no longer hold the same relevance as they once did, especially where memoirs are concerned. Others would say that the distinctions do still matter, and they want to know if they are consuming the truth or the product of the author's imagination.  My primary concern is always the entertainment value of what I read, but these issues do inform if I pick up a book in the first place and they are worth thinking about when making conscious choices about what one reads.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Canada Reads: Oh What a Year

Every year I tune in to CBC's annual CanLit contest, Canada Reads just for the pure entertainment of listening to Canada's version of celebrities debate the merits of five books. For the uninitiated, I will give you a quick rundown of what Canada Reads is.  This is an annual contest put on by CBC Radio in which five celebrities champion books which are in turn voted off in the spirit of Survivor. Over the years, this competition has become a large factor in the Canadian publishing industry, with last year's winner, Terry Fallis, seeing a jump in sales of 700%.  Normally it is strictly a battle between fiction books, but this year was the first time that only non-fiction books were up for the crown. 

I think that the addition this year of non-fiction books brought a different level of discourse to the debate.  Particularly there was a war of words across the table and in the media, the focus of which was Anne-France Goldwater.  Her book, The Tiger by John Vaillant, was being pilloried by the other debaters for poor characterization and she launched an attack on the other books that was both scathing and ignorant all at once.  She accused Marina Nemat, the author of Prisoner of Tehran, of lying about the events which she claims happened during her incarceration in Iran.  Another author which drew Goldwater's ire was Carmen Aguirre, who she dubbed a "terrorist".  I found Goldwater generally off-putting in her quest to mix things up, and when she refrained from badmouthing the authors of her competitors' books, I found her long-winded rants more annoying than anything. 

Thankfully the quality of the debate outshone some of the more, and I was pleasantly surprised at how invested the other panelists became in the outcome.  Each of them brought a special perspective to the panel and were very diplomatic in the face of Goldwater's extremist notions and insulting comments.  This debate did become more personal due to the fact that four out of the five books were memoirs and the authors themselves drew most of the attention.  As I pointed out earlier, Canada Reads is a force in the publishing industry, and as such it provides a good platform for any author to increase their audience and sales.  The stakes are high for everyone involved, and that, coupled with the emotional nature of memoirs, made for a more lively discussion.  There were a number of issues brought up which shape our current landscape, and hopefully will propel more people to read the books discussed.  

As usual, the moderator, Gian Ghomeshi, managed to objectively referee the participants and elevate the conversation.  I really enjoyed this season and feel that it really allowed for some interesting questions to be posed through the works presented.  A dark part of me relishes the controversy that this installment has caused, but another, more dominant portion of my mind will look forward to next year when the biggest topic is whether or not the protagonist's husband is a jerk or the narrative plodding.  Those were the days.