Wednesday 4 December 2013

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

It has been more than six months since I last read a book of fiction. Tonight, as this post goes live the situation will have changed. For the next couple of days I will be re-reading Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of the Underdevelopment), Cuban author Edmundo Desnoes’ magnum opus.

This decision to read non-fiction for so long was not taken deliberately. For my Easter holidays last April I took three books to Havana with me, one of which I was about to finish. The second one was The Help, which didn’t appeal much to me (entertaining, but playing to a certain audience of which I, sadly, did not consider myself a part) and then Jerusalem arrived. That set a chain of events in motion that culminated last week with me devouring the final pages of an epistolary memoir. Volver sobre mis Pasos (Going Back) is an intimate and candid portrait of the late Cuban film director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, a.k.a. Titón. Through the letters he wrote to fellow film-makers, officials of the Cuban government, friends, colleagues, his children and his wife, we gain access to the life of one of the most fascinating figures of Ibero-American cinema in the last fifty years. It seems to me, more than six months down the line, that the decision to read so much non-fiction was an attempt to forget The Help’s cliché-ridden style.

Yes, but how real is it?
What kind of readers are we? Non-fiction or fiction ones? In my experience we usually veer towards one of these two genres. I confess that I fall in the fiction camp. Most of the time you will catch me reading novels, collections of short stories or even plays (not my favourite read, I admit). I do, occasionally, wander into the realm of fact-based literature but I am always careful with my choices. The reason why for the last six months I read non-fiction uninterruptedly was because each book brought a different feature to the table. A feature or a group of features, that drew me heavily into its narrative.
Fiction is born from the disappearance of the self and the appearance of a third person that replaces this self. This metaphorical third person can be, ironically, narrated in the first person singular (Dr Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd comes to mind, especially that innovative twist at the end). This process is dialectic in and of itself, whether that be pursuing a truth the writer wants us to find, or arguing two views without leading the reader to think that only one of them is valid. Of course, I am referring to good books. Mediocre books give you the solution to the puzzle on page eight. The rest is just entertainment.

Where, then, does non-fiction lie? Do essayists and historians give up their selves for a metaphorical third person? If they do, that would imply bias. I certainly noticed it in Jerusalem, especially towards the end as the plot moves to the present-day. Bear in mind also that the book’s author, Simon Sebag Montefiore is a renowned novelist in his own right. That means that this biography of the holiest of cities is not just a historical and cultural account of the peoples who have inhabited it but also a gripping, page-turning thriller that starts with Titus’ siege of Jerusalem in 70AD and continues with Suleiman the Magnificent, the Crusades, the life of Jesus, etc. Eat your heart out, Ian Fleming! And you thought your James Bond was tough.

This – gentle – battle between non-fiction and fiction reminds me of the question short story authors are often asked: when will they finally write their long-awaited novel? The assumption that short stories are not real literature or that they are a lesser form, resonates with me when I analyse non-fiction versus fiction. Usually one is maligned at the expense of the other.

For starters we question the writer’s neutrality. I did that, too, when I read last summer Víctor Jara’s biography, written by his widow. To be honest, I did not mind Joan Jara’s bias; after all she was the one who had to identify her husband’s dead body in the morgue. I would lose any sense of neutrality straight away. But we do tend to think that the author has an axe to grind and by choosing a fact-based narrative they will render their vendetta a more veritable argument. Secondly, the absence of a deus ex machina device, as they have in fiction, limits the author describing real-life events somewhat. Where fiction provides a twist (even one that had not hitherto been hinted at), non-fiction supplies more conjecture. I am more lenient towards the former in regards to plot but expect a lot more from the latter when it comes to conclusions. However, does the word “history” not come from the Latin “historia”, via the Greek “historía”, which means “learning or knowing by enquiry”? This is where I think fiction and non-fiction cross paths. Both are attempts at answering questions, as well as asking them. They do choose different tools, though.

Memorias del Subdesarrollo is that kind of novella that blurs the line between the fictitious and the real; a style I really like. There was also another reason for me to take up non-fiction again. The book was adapted for the big screen by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, the same man whose letters accompanied me for the last three weeks. A beautiful segue, I say, between non-fiction and fiction.

© 2013

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 8th December at 10am (GMT)


  1. I am a greedy and almost omniverous reader. I always have at least two books on the go at once and one is (usually) non fiction. Biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, diaries, letters... All feed my fascination with people, and give me glimpses into lives I would not otherwise see.

  2. I'm more of a what strikes me at the moment type of reader, could be this, could be that, could just be a rhyming cat.

  3. My preference has always been non-fiction. While I have floated to fiction throughout multiple periods of my life, I've always stuck to non-fiction.

    Right now, I find it tough to read fiction. Whereas with non-fiction, you can pretty dictate the pace/frequency of when you read it, which works for me as I do the bulk of my reading at work during lunch and breaks, fiction requires you to frequently immerse yourself within the story.

    Which is great if you got the time to spare, but not so great if your time is highly regimented. With fiction, when you hook up with a good story, you can't put it down, which is bad if you're trying to read at work.

    Which puts me in a rather interesting quandary: I write fiction, but I have a hard time finding the free time required to settle down with a good book of fiction to read, so I go to my trusty fall back of reading non-fiction.

  4. An individual's reading habits and patterns offer a great deal of insight into that individual, I think, and we who call ourselves readers often go through phases regarding what we read as our own lives evolve through age and experience.

    In my own case, my reading interests frequently revolve around historical events and periods. For instance, once upon a time I became interested in the Plains Indian Wars, generally viewed as the 1850s until the Wounded Knee era in 1890. I eventually had collected and read more than two hundred books on the topic -- mostly nonfiction and many being autobiographical period-pieces written by participants in those wars. That reading experience carried me into parallel topics, such as European immigration to America during the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries and led me to also read many works of fiction written by first- or second-generation pioneers.

    I do agree with you, CiL, that most people probably do tend toward reading either fiction or nonfiction, and for a few decades I have concentrated on nonfiction. When I do pick up a novel, it usually is for escapism or because I have met an author and wish to "look inside of him or her," in a manner of speaking.

    In short, I think we who read mostly to learn lean toward nonfiction. I think most modern fiction is drab and is little different than reading a news story. Short stories have never done it for me, and I admire those who regularly read poetry. That requires real work, real concentration.

    I am glad you wrote this piece, CiL. I found it fascinating, and it stirred my thoughts about what I should be reading now as winter howls past my doorstep.

  5. Great post, Cuban. I'm a fiction reader and do what I call supplementing with memoir and limited non-fiction (except for articles in The New Yorker!). I just finished an amazing novel called Duplex, and I'm currently reading another amazing novel called Remainder. I highly recommend both --

    As an aside, The Help was AWFUL. In my opinion, that is.

  6. Another thought provoking piece, Cuban.

    I read both fiction and non-fiction, and worrying about lack of objectivity is something I find strange. Why should someone's objective viewpoint be considered any less reliable than most journalism today? Everyone has an agenda. That's a given. The only threat is from the people who won't admit what their agenda is.

    Writing, whether fiction or non, is about making the reader see a different perspective than they might have done before. If the writer wants to be objective that's great (I wish we had more of it) but I think that often that word is used as a smoke screen.


  7. I mostly read fiction - but with a generous smattering of non-fiction - travel, biographies, that sort of thing.

    I'm off to Cuba in January - and, when I'm away, I try to read work by local writers, but in English - I've found a found a few - can you recommend any I might have missed? (My Spanish is far to feeble to read it, I'm afraid.)

  8. I write fictional stuff, short stories mostly, although I have written a couple of novels. I think fiction is a form of escapism for the writer who doesn't want to follow the factual line. It lends itself nicely to places a factual writer can't go. I like to put an unexpected twist at the end of my stories which quite often makes the reader rethink what he has read!

    Interesting post!

  9. a lot of it depends on how the non fiction is presented...i do enjoy a bit of history, but if it is written like a text book, not so much...some tell the story and others just arrange facts in order...there is a difference...i default to story either fiction or non....

  10. i read both.. maybe a bit more non fiction but then like bri says... the writing style is important and how the plot develops and if the story is well told

  11. Desde mi jubilación que he tomado la costumbre de tener siempre un libro empezado, dura más o menos tiempo, pero por lo menos leo, cosa que antes no lo hacía, así que ya te puedes imaginar que más bien estoy adoptando por tipo novela para que tenga intriga e siga con el interés de la lectura.

  12. Many thanks for your comments. It's ironic and eerie that I wrote a post about fiction and non-fiction and one of my favourite books in the latter genre is "Long Walk to Freedom", Nelson Mandela's biography. Madiba died tonight.

    My thoughts are with his family and friends. We have just lost one of the greatest human beings who's ever walked on earth. Thank you, South Africa for giving us a man with such strong vision, charisma, mental strength and political wisdom.

    Greetings from London.

  13. The Help rubbed me the wrong way too. You were right to put it aside for true literature. Don't go another 6 months between reading fiction! I'm working on a best novels of 2013 post. So hard to choose!

  14. I have always preferred non-fiction...I like reading about all things real. I have learned a great deal from these type of books on a vast array of subjects.
    Although, after having said that, I have been known to be absolutely hooked on a few select works of fiction, so on reflection...I will say I like both!
    A woman's prerogative!! *smiles*

  15. I love read almost all:)
    Depends how I feel sometimes I wanna lodt in a book literally I live in the book and love this but I love Biograohy, history, religion, adventures etc. Isn' amazing read? only I would like have more time to read more and more....

  16. I've grown to appreciate non-fiction more and more. ONe of the best books is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

  17. I don't think I favour one over the other. I have recently been through a phase of starting novels without finishing them, which I really don't like doing.

    Dare I start The Rainbow? I've just read a couple of DH Lawrence short stories. And I've almost finished Tristram Shandy, in installments (verdict: worth sticking with). I think those big old books often were written -and read- in instalments whereas today we feel we need to sit down, set to it, and get it read in one "go".

    Despite my current laziness, I tend to like big books (Middlemarch, Moby Dick, Ulysses) but have never got on with the famous Russian doorstop-writers.

  18. Saludos y que pases un excelente mes navideño, saludos hasta Londres y sigue con tu gran blog :)

  19. I'm also mourning Mandela, Cuban. South Africa and the world lost a hero tonight.


  20. funny our 5 year old told me a book was fiction recently happy new year

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