The Year of Nonfiction
Jan 27, 2017
By Lauren Matheny, Colorado Review Associate Editor
I feel, however, that this shift might be global rather than personal. Or maybe I’m creating a tempest in a teapot. On a recent trip to my local bookstore, I performed my usual ritual: get a coffee, browse the store, and build up a huge pile of books to look at that overflow from my arms. I’ll usually pick up one or two history books or biographies among my pile of novels. In this last trip, something changed—my fiancé pointed out, over his own mini-pile (who goes to a bookstore and picks up two books, I ask you?), that I’d grabbed seven-ish books of nonfiction. The variety was wide, certainly: a history of the Ballet Russes sat next to a biography of the Mitford sisters; one author’s experience hiking an intense trail paired with a history of Nazi occupation in France. My fiancé’s second comment—“Well, those look depressing”—I let slide. But the first stuck with me. I was a fiction writer, for heaven’s sake. What was I doing with this betrayer’s hoard of decidedly nonfiction?
I regret nothing.
Halfway through my third nonfiction book of the year (David Oshinsky’s Bellevue, an incredible, expansive history of public hospitals in the United States and New York’s premiere institution, in particular), I realized that nonfiction was doing powerful things to my fiction writing. It might be something about the reality of it all, the constant reminder that, while we create fascinating worlds in novels, sometimes real life generates personalities and events that are stranger than fiction. Humans in the real world can certainly be crueler than any great villain in literature. They can also show more grace and humanity than any angelic creature invented by Dickens or Dostoevsky. I don’t directly think about the people in my reading as I’m writing my fiction, of course—not every story needs Rasputin or Jackie Kennedy Onassis in it (or maybe they do; who am I to say?). But the general weirdness of life, the way that things flow forward in their own pull to create a story—these lessons will only serve to make my fiction stronger. Bruno Bettelheim, a prominent child psychoanalyst, encapsulated this idea in his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales: “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue.” The embracing of real world complexity in our fiction is what creates stories that stick with the reader—stories that might not be real but are, unmistakably, true.
Moving away from the sort of esoteric, artsy-fartsy nature of my inspirations while writing fiction, I think there’s a simpler reason I’m reading vast amounts of nonfiction at the moment: the world is a scary place right now. I imagine that every person from the dawn of time—from the moment we could look out at the world and realized how vast it truly is—has had this thought. However, the past few months have ushered in a new sense of instability and a vast array of unknowns for people across our country, and the world. When I feel particularly overwhelmed by the state of things, by all the injustices occurring, by the continued emphasis on the ways in which art does not matter, I return to my history of the Romanovs. Or to my book that discusses the way people lived in the Victorian era. Or my biography of Napoleon. Or the book that discusses what it means to be an American in this day and age. I go to these books to remind myself that there is life outside my own brain, that people have gone through difficult things before, and will again. And I’m connected to all this because an author decided to write it down.
I was weighted down by a sort of preconceived notion that I shouldn’t be wasting my time reading nonfiction—if I’m reading it, shouldn’t I be writing it? And then I took a moment to sit, and let it percolate: the realization that all the writing in the world—poems to prose, biography to fantasy, the short essay to the long-form historical exposé—it all interconnects. There is no wasted reading, just as there can be no wasted creativity for a writer.
So excuse me—there’s a new book about the history of ragtime that’s burning a hole in my bookshelf.