Saturday, June 13, 2020

Fiction vs. Non-Fiction ~ by Humphrey Hawksley

This month we mark the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens, author of fifteen novels and numerous short stories, essays and pieces of journalism. Dickens was one of the most powerful voices in Victorian Britain, writing, performing and publishing with endless energy and exposing social hypocrisy. It is through Dickens’ characters of the hungry work house boy Oliver Twist and the petty criminal Fagin who ran gangs of street children that we learn about the underbelly of Victorian society.


In American Notes, Dickens is similarly scathing about American society, significantly failing to understand how any country could declare the ‘pursuit of happiness’ as a constitutional right while citizens were lawfully able to buy and sell ‘Negros’ as property.

Dickens brings to mind a discussion I often fall into about fiction versus non-fiction and which has most impact. Which has more power in conveying a message? Which resonates more within a community? For those who only read one or the other, are they missing out on something?

Dickens wrote both, using his journalism to underpin credibility and feeding his vivid imagination to create his stories. Many of today’s fiction writers, whether they be journalists, lawyers, cops, soldiers or pathologists do the same. I have been a correspondent for the BBC since the late 1980s and have published fiction and non-fiction, together with a genre of fact-based scenarios known as future history.

The best-selling book of all time is The Bible on which there is no universal agreement as to whether it is fiction or non-fiction. Many Christians view the Old Testament as fiction, but Jewish and Roman writers have corroborated the figure of Jesus and his political impact as portrayed in the New Testament, albeit not the Christian view of his status and his resurrection.

The key point here is that the story-telling within The Bible has proved to be enough of a force on which to build the enduring and powerful global Christian movement, now two thousand years old. Whether animal lives being saved in Noah’s Ark or the emotional tension between Jesus and Judas, there is nothing to match it for sheer dramatic narrative.

On my bookshelf, I am looking at the autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and I have reported from India for many years. Yet the most captivating book I have read on India is Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance that shows the cruelty and humanity of that society.

Jung Chang’s Wild Swans gave us a similar insight into China taking us through the brutality of Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution. Hong Ying’s Daughter of the River a few years later gave us a deeper view from a poorer section of Chinese society.

Yet these were non-fiction. Perhaps the untrammeled imaginations of a billion individual voices in India are better suited to fiction than the forced homogeny experienced by those growing up in Communist China.

As a schoolboy, my history lessons covered the American civil war, the Tudor and Stuart monarchies, Britain’s colonial past, and so on.

But my understanding of these issues came to life only when I saw America through the eyes of Mark Twain, read Leon Uris’s Exodus on the creation of Israel or Robert Ruark on the 1960s anti-British Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. Hilary Mantel’s fictionally-minded but deeply researched Wolf Hall trilogy has brought Tudor England to life for millions in a way that a non-fiction account never has.

Some genres, however, may turn the other way. Publishers tend to view financial thrillers as a kiss of death.

But non-fiction accounts of financial drama have become bestsellers such as Michael Lewis’s string of stories including The Big Short. Wolf of Wall Street, based on the autobiography of stock-broker Jordan Belfort became a Martin Scorsese-directed Hollywood blockbuster. There is also the hugely successful The Lehman Trilogy play on the 2008 financial crash. All of this is non-fiction.

Then there are the New Journalism authors, such as Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe who pioneered a technique of reporting factual events as if writing a novel. Thompson took us into the heart of biker culture with Hell’s Angels and Tom Wolfe into the American space program with The Right Stuff.

Some of the finest story-telling comes from war, both in fiction and non-fiction. Robert Graves' non-fiction Goodbye To All That became required reading on trench life of the First World War, as did Erich Maria Remarque's anti-war novel All Quite on the Western Front which was banned by the Nazis for being anti-German.

Of the many books spawned from Vietnam, two that stand out are Graham Greene’s fictional The Quiet American and the non-fiction Dispatches by Michael Herr, a New Journalism writer, who went on to work on the great Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now which, in turn, drew on Joseph Conrad’s fictional Heart of Darkness.

Publishers are currently scouting for the great books to come on Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests. My guess is that the book everyone remembers fifty years from now will be fiction, but I may be wrong because its power will lie in the story-telling.

As Charles Dickens explained in his non-fiction The Uncommercial Traveler, he was “always wandering here and there…seeing many little things, and some great things, which, because they interest me, I think may interest others.”

A tip from one of the world’s greatest storytellers.

Humphrey Hawksley is an author and journalist. His latest non-fiction book is Asian Waters, the Struggle Over the Indo-Pacific and the Challenge to American Power. His latest fiction in Man on Edge, an espionage action thriller based in Russia and the U.S. 

Listen to Humphrey Hawksley's podcast episodes here and here.

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