Wednesday 31 May 2017

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

As a reader, I find non-fiction as compelling as fiction. However, non-fiction becomes a minefield when polarising conflicts are thrown in. Biographies and autobiographies are usually straightforward affairs in which history has as much a big part to play as character. Memoirs or real-life-based accounts, however, are a different kettle of fish. I was reminded of their complex nature recently after reading a diary entry by the Libyan-American writer, Hisham Matar, in the London Review of Books.

Hisham was in Arkansas last year touring his latest book, a memoir entitled The Return (I am acquainted with his work through his novel In the Country of Men). At a public reading at a library, a Syrian woman asks him how it is possible for him to still be able to write with everything that has been happening in the Arab world for the last half decade.

Hisham’s response made me think of the relationship between politics and literature. A relationship that is less natural than many people might think and more nuanced than many others would prefer.

In between these two positions: one claiming that all literature ought to be political somehow or other, and another saying that literature and politics should never mix, the writer’s voice is lost. If an author’s oeuvre depends chiefly on adhering to one of these two extreme positions, the result will not be a work of art but a party manifesto.

By coincidence around the same time I read Hisham’s article, I had just finished The Gate, by the French writer Francois Bizot. The Gate is a powerful, detail-rich insight into the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Bizot is an ethnologist who is captured by young guerrillas and taken deep into the jungle. His interrogator happens to be the school-teacher-cum revolutionary Comrade Douch (sadly famous Comrade Douch) who would go on to kill thousands in the horrifying Tuol Sleng prison. Bizot was kept three months in the jungle. He was the only foreigner to come out alive from his group. All the others were murdered. The book stayed inside him for thirty years. This is the price of nuance.

Non-fiction by its very nature tends to be more tyrannical than fiction. Writers need their readers to believe that the way they are telling the story is the way it actually happened. In order to achieve this, sometimes they adopt the view that is more prevalent around them as opposed to the more truthful to them and their narrative. In doing so, they are exercising someone else’s imagination whilst sacrificing theirs. This is why it is so important to understand what the Syrian woman was saying to Hisham. I get it. In the face of horror, how can we pick up a pen instead of a gun?

Horror of the type being visited upon the people of Syria nowadays surely leads to trauma. One of the consequences of trauma is numbness. A mental numbness that cancels out some of our functions. We can still breathe, eat and defecate. But it is hard to create in those circumstances. This is what happened to many Holocaust survivors. The tragedy they had just experienced was too unreal to make sense of it immediately. This is also why it is essential to read books like Primo Levi’s If This is a Man/The Truce. Far from adhering to a particular discourse, Primo comes up with his own one. One that is unique whilst not letting the Nazis off the hook, humourous whilst not “pretty-ing up” what happened in the gas chambers.

In the end Hisham tells the woman that, when faced with horror like the Syrian one, writers should still attempt to write. In doing so, writers should free themselves from any obligation, no matter how lofty the ideal. It is to literature that authors are contracted first and foremost. Writing about a conflict, or a difficult political issue, is fine. But above all, it must be literature.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 3rd June at 6pm (GMT)


  1. Makes sense indeed. Have to have the right fit and not just fit it in because you want it to be said. All where the writing takes you.

  2. Non fiction can transport me! Interesting discussion

  3. Non-fiction can (and does for me) shine lights into corners I would not explore any other way. I am so grateful to writers. All of them. And try and read from different perspectives.

  4. Non-fiction is my preferred choice of reading! Your posts are always insightful and fascinating.

  5. I like to read almost anything but my preference is biographies. I like to know why people did what they did. It helps me understand history and also today.

  6. When I become interested in a particular writer or topic, I often read anything and everything I can put my hands on in relation to the matter. This would include fiction, non-fiction, essays, biographies -- name it. If the opportunity is present, I also like to hear the writer lecture and/or interview the individual one-on-one. I am not certain what purpose all this serves/accomplishes, other than providing fun for me.

  7. Non-fiction was for many years the backbone of my writing and editing work...Fiction is where I go to relax or hide out. Greetings from La Florida

  8. I wonder if it is impossible to ever have an 'objective truth' - scientists might insist that there is (and I don't suppose anyone, now, believes that the world is flat) but the second we look at lived experience we are looking at subjective truths - of which there may be many. What I want from non-fiction is a writer who is able to be honest with him or herself, even if that account differs from that supplied by others.

  9. I read as much non-fiction as fiction these days. Though i am always aware that it being non-fiction doesn't guaranteed it being the truth

  10. The real truth (for me) would be difficult to write about. How can experienced horrors be so portrayed?

  11. Immediately after I read this - and thank you for another inspiring post - the book An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan came to mind. (Keenan was working as lecturer at the American university of Beirut when he was kidnapped by islamists in 1986. This book is an account of his four years as a hostage.)
    When he was asked how and why he wrote about this terribly ordeal (and it is an exceptional, lyrical account of immense human strength and survival), he said that he needed to find, in his mind, ways to push the walls back that imprisoned him.

  12. That seems like a sensible answer. I would think writers would be MORE inclined to write after facing disaster -- as a way to try to organize and make sense of it. It may take a long time for a suitable work to emerge, but the act of writing is also the act of interpreting and, ultimately, healing. (Or at least coming to terms.)

  13. To be honest I love read Non-fiction so much!

  14. Hi Mario - what a very good post ... which certainly brought out ideas I hadn't considered and also gave me books I should remember to read (at some stage) ... excellent - thought provoking. I was at the Dear Diary exhibition at King's on Wednesday (Somerset House, Inigo Rooms) ... where there was a video diary from Syria ... and holocaust diaries ... it was fascinating to see the development of the diary over the centuries: things I hadn't considered - thanks for this post ... cheers Hilary

  15. Yes, Primo Levi... è un grande.
    I read mainly non-fiction. Horticultural literature is especially relaxing, even though there is some hate speech... against lupins, for example. ;)

  16. Non-fiction was my preferred choice of reading material while growing up. Nowadays, I really try to avoid reading memoirs or of recent events, since more often than not, the point of view is skewered towards groupthink, which ultimately makes the story somewhat biased. If I do read one of recent events, I make sure that I have some working knowledge of the event in question.

    I Are Writer!

  17. Nice post!I only read history books..but iam sure there is nice books in all kind og genres:))


  18. I have the highest respect for non-fiction writers. How better can we understand places, people, and historical events we will never experience ourselves, if not for those brave men and women who share their stories? Understanding their experiences and world views expand and unite us through knowledge.

  19. I love both my fiction and non-fiction with life in them.

  20. Hola paso por agradecerte tu fidelidad en mi blog.

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