Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
from Burnt Norton
CNF. Sitting on the train the other day I was wondering what it was and its appeal. CNF is not a syndrome or a terminal disease; it’s the acronym for Creative Non-fiction, which I keep hearing and reading is the best-selling genre. Perplexing perhaps, or not.
I can concede that there have been artistic and masterful ‘interpretations’ of historical events, from assassination, wars, to industrial and political intrigues, for example; and alternative narratives, having been culled from fact, have provided readers with exciting novels. E.L. Doctorow gave us Ragtime and The March. The late Robert Penn Warren portrayed Huey P. Long in his All The King’s Men; and riffing on that title, Woodward and Bernstein relived the days of Nixonian paranoia and descent in All the President’s Men, while John Dean dramatized it all in his Blind Ambition. Tilar Mazzeo wrote The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It, the story of the first international businesswoman in history. Tom Wolfe gave readers The Right Stuff. Readers have since learned that salt altered world history; that the race for staking the Pole (pick either North or South) was a matter with far-reaching political implications. On the literary front, readers have learned about the unknown parts of the lives of famous writers, who are often not read outside college survey courses, such as the aspiring playwright Henry James in Colm Tóibín’s The Master. John Hersey’s Hiroshima remains classic CNF.
The ‘creative’ in the genre is a blend of fiction and reportage. I guess what I am groping at is my own unresolved observation that we seem to live in a world where we have to ‘keep it real’ all the time. There is little escape into fictionalized reality and landscapes. Dickens could portray social reality, including the legion of lawyers, without having to remind his readers that people were put in prison for debt. There seems to be something voyeuristic in it all. Television programs are filled with “reality shows” in which viewers, like attendees at a gladiatorial arena, get to see their champion triumph and the opponent humiliated and vanquished; or tune in to see how conniving and duplicitous a person – not an actor – has become to win a coveted title and purse. We applaud it. We revel in it, but yet balk that James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was…gasp…a memoir with fictionalized elements.
The irony is that in all this reality: “…life gets more and more complex every day and moves on its own sweet will, and people get more and more stupid, and get isolated from life in ever-increasing numbers.” Anton Chekhov had written that line, more than 100 years ago. I have watched people on the streets and on the trains read their hand-held devices (Shades of Grey?), while listening to their music on their iPods: I see that and it hits me: that people have become cocooned, cut off from everyone, in their own little worlds of self-referential creations. Does this explain the need for CNF?
All external stimuli is blocked out or controlled with the swipe of a finger, a rotation of a dial, while the living and breathing world around a person continues to swirl, move in and out of focus. I witnessed, as I was coming out of work recently, a young man walk out into a crosswalk, oblivious of the traffic. He never looked. He walked. I thought: if this is not faith in the modern age! I’ll sit on a train and watch people multitasking between music, a Sudoku puzzle, and pilfering through emails, thumbs busier than a Sumerian scribe with a cuneiform tablet. It gives me pause to contemplate how much and to what extremes people will go to keep “reality” at bay, “plugged in,” creating a buffer zone around them, like addicted zombies in their own Matrix. 24-7 electronic high. Are these that market segment that reads CNF because it is realistic and it does not deceive, but yet fabricate reality with self-created worlds of chosen stimuli? Narcissism? Self-absorption? Denial? Lack of empathy.
“Like a patient etherized upon a table”
In this über-culture of instant gratification and contrived sensations I wonder why people don’t read the other repository of creative non-fiction from the past: letters – that archaic passtime before the appearance of e-mail, tweeting, and messaging. It harkens to a time when people took time with their hands and not their thumbs to communicate in meaningful language. It seems that all the grammar needed today is for 140 characters of SMS with abbreviations. I’ve noticed that the majority of people cannot and will not negotiate a complex, subordinated sentence because it is slow reading. Forgotten is Henry James or Thomas Mann; forgotten is the idea that quality of language equals quality of thought.
Read John Keats’s last few letters and see a life lived more passionately than that of most celebrities: “I am, as far as you can guess; – and also a note to my sister – who walks about my imagination like a ghost – she is so like Tom. I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.” John Keats to Charles Brown on 30 November 1820.
Read the thousands of letters of Anton Chekhov. A contradiction of a human being, Chekhov had many mistresses and avoided true intimacy most of his life because of a troubled childhood, but wrote humane, compassionate, and devastating letters to Olga Knipper, who became his wife at the end of his life. People know Chekhov for his plays, for some his short stories, but his letters capture the “reality” of his nation on the cusp of transformation. Chekhov lamented the effects of cholera, famine, and poverty in his native Russia and did something about it. He had braved the long, arduous, brutal journey over the breadth of Russia to report on the conditions on Sakhalin, a notorious penal colony on that island. The television show Survivor has minute dramas that would not survive Chekhov’s blue pencil. The winner of the television show has ten minutes of fame and a cash prize. Chekhov’s journey cost him his life. For his “realistic” plays he has earned his place as one of the most loved Russian authors. So much so that the curtain of the Moscow Art Theatre is decorated with one symbol: a seagull.