Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Because sometimes the Greeks were wrong

Author Jennifer Armstrong has a few words for Aristotle on writing nonfiction over at I.N.K. today:

Drama (or we may say an invented story, i.e. fiction) is superior to history (a narrative of true events, i.e. nonfiction) because drama tells us what may happen, whereas history only tells us what has happened. Thus proposes the central thesis of A's Poetics. Back when I was primarily a fiction writer, I gloated when I was first treated to an exegesis of this foundation of literary criticism. "Aha!" I cried in triumph. "If Mr. Aristotle says so, it must be so!"

But then I found myself writing more and more nonfiction, and I was forced to pick a fight with the great Greek. Hmm. How very reckless of me, trying to go head to head with him! But I do have an argument, and it is this: perhaps this central claim of the Poetics is true if our field of enquiry is limited to human experience. (I say perhaps.) But if we are interested not only in what can happen among people but also in what can and does happen among stars and starfish, we can explore the physical world via nonfiction, and not be second-class literary citizens.

Armstrong has written some excellent nonfiction including Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and the Endurance.

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