Friday, February 1, 2013

The Fiction/Non-Fiction Divide, Part II: A Million Odd Cups of Tea and Consequences

Three cups of tea (not the book)
by Sebastian Faust

In recent years there’s been a rather infamous string of fraudulent memoirs. With James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Matt McCarthy’s Odd Man Out, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, and Margaret Jones’ Love and Consequences, a well-worn narrative has developed in which these fabricated stories have been passed off as true, received with critical acclaim, and then, when the deception is found out, greeted with derision, dismissal, or a sense of betrayal. 
And certainly, there are aspects here wherein the public has well and truly been deceived, sometimes even defrauded of more than the simple factuality of the tale. In the case of Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, not only did the author fabricate pieces of the narrative, his associated charity used donations to build far fewer schools than he claimed, and instead, spent lavishly to fund his own publicity and extravagant travel expenses.  
In all such cases, it appears that some of the motivation behind the fabrication was the author’s desire to self-aggrandize, or to gain publication, or to craft a narrative for his or her life that is larger than the factual story. (For more in a similar vein, see Ben’s recent post Consuming Manti Te’o.) 
What these authors have done is wrong, but it leaves a question: what does it mean for the work they leave behind? 
When Love and Consequences was released, it was lauded as “humane and deeply affecting” by The New York Times. When it is revealed as a fraud and a confabulation, does the narrative suddenly lose its powers to 'deeply affect'? Is truth found in the book’s factuality, or in the narrative itself?  
The power of novels (which fall squarely in the fiction camp) to move us, to shape us, to surprise us into a state of wonder argues strongly that fact is not what gives a story power. Truth arrays herself in many guises, and the distinction between ‘true versus false’ is not identical to ‘fiction versus non-fiction’.

Truth can be found in a nonfactual story, but ever since the segregation of fiction and non-fiction, we've begun reading in a different way, a way that subtly shifts our expectations of what a text can (and cannot) do.  
That dichotomy – the parsing into categories of fiction and non-fiction - has skewed our ability to read stories, to discover the fullness of their meaning. Specifically, such genre-based expectations have caused us to now read ancient narratives in a way their authors would have never conceived, and in so doing, it leaves them but pale shadows with very little to say to us - very little ability to change us - all from the moment we adopt the fiction/non-fiction paradigm.

This classification is relatively modern, a few hundred years old. Before its rise, genres we now associate with non-fiction often incorporated elements both factual and non-factual (just look at the Roman histories), and readers were not impelled to tease the strands apart or treat the work as a patient to dissect upon the table. 
It was not a question of Did that bit really happen? The question to ask was What does that bit signify? 
That is to say, when myth appeared in a work, it wasn’t dismissed as non-factual and therefore irrelevant, nor was it taken as pure history whose only meanings were That it actually happened and We can perhaps learn lessons from such a venture’s success or failure. It usually signified something more, a shorthand or stand-in for some larger idea – it worked as metaphor and allegory, a trafficking in concepts that came already freighted with meaning.

However, when we approach such works with a built in fiction/non-fiction dichotomy, we seek to isolate the factual and dismiss the remainder as fanciful, or naïve, or even fraudulent. That, or else we commit the malpractice of mistaking myth for factuality and stripping it of its meaning. 
These assumptions are especially common when approaching Scripture, the most widely read ancient text of all. 

And yet, these two responses to Scripture (either dismissing its mythic elements, or else reading them as simple fact) are two sides of the same coin; each is a response to the other; neither exists independently of the other. 
Those who view the mythic elements as simple statements of fact are doing so as a defense against those who respond to such language with derision or scorn. Those who dismiss the mythic narratives as ‘lies’ or as ‘naiveté’ are doing so in response to those who treat them as factual. And this limiting of options grows directly from the fiction/non-fiction paradigm. 

Read these. Lose mind. Repeat.
So it is that, when we come to something like a creation narrative, we either hold to a rigid belief that what is presented is something like a newspaper writer reporting on the facts, or else we dismiss it as the fanciful superstitions of a naïve culture – all other doors are closed. But if we remove the fiction/non-fiction lens, we discover other options. 
Consider that the first chapters of Genesis present two unique creation narratives side-by-side, two narratives that are both different in tone, and contradictory in their particulars. Those editors who placed the two stories together, had they been working from the fiction/non-fiction paradigm, either did a sloppy job in crafting a coherent report that presents the facts just as they happened, or they dismissed the stories as being so devoid of truth that two contradictory narratives can stand alongside one another without creating the least bit of tension. 
Yet neither of these is the case. Rather, by viewing myth as significant, by realizing that there can be nonfactual-yet-true stories, they preserve a pair of narratives that signify something much more, something more true than either 'fiction' or 'non-fiction' are able to capture.
We have in one a God who is cosmic, who is transcendent, who is powerful; like a king who speaks and a myriad of servants stand to obey, God speaks and light springs forth, the waters roll back, the land sprouts trees and grasses. And more than this, we have a God who works for good; each successive creation is greeted with joy, for each is beautiful, useful, harmonious, an organic flowering of the cosmos. 
In the other, we find a God who is intimate, who is immanent, who walks through a garden and dirties his hands with clay. The Garden he fashions is his Temple, his dwelling in the midst of the world he created, his presence among humanity, with numerous allusions to later imagery used of the Tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple. 
This isn't fiction, for these stories do more than tell a good and moving tale while offering new insight into human motivations. This isn't non-fiction, for the two stories are at odds in their particulars, and thus are not straightforward and factual. 
This is myth, where the metaphysical enters fully into a storied world and carries us along to a place where the deepest truths of the universe play themselves out in the costume of mystery.  

If we are to overcome the limitations of the fiction/non-fiction divide, we must let myth do its work, to lure us into the sort of terrain that will, perhaps, open up to us new possibilities in the world that we hadn't earlier considered.  Its job is to seduce us, sometimes even to fool us, it has to draw us in to a place where suddenly our eyes are opened and we are truly able to experience wonder. 
So let us listen again; let us allow ourselves to be taken in, and let us open ourselves to wonder.  

Sebastian Faust is an avowed heretic, armchair theologian, and a self-styled canary in the coal mine of pop culture. He lives in Nashville with his dog Watson, a service dog trained in growling at hipsters. You can't follow Sebastian on Twitter because he doesn't understand technology. 
You can, however, follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at 
Contact us at onpoptheology [at]

No comments:

Post a Comment