This question lies at the heart of a recent Guardian essay “The human heart of the matter” by Geoff Dyer. Dyer, himself a novelist, looks at recent books set in Afghanistan and Iraq including David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers and Sebastian Junger’s War and finds that non-fiction has relatively more strength than fiction. And that American journalists, whose companies provide them with real luxury more able than their British counterparts.
It’s not just the money, according to Dyer, but the American journalists benefit from the “all-round flexibility and versatility of American English” while their British cousins struggle inside the language cocoon of class. The sharing of real-life characters in a number of the non-fiction book has Dyer hitting a high note as such ‘real’ characters interconnect into some grand epic as if all these non-fiction were a multi-volume work.
As for past novelists who later wrote about a war they had fought in, Dyer mentions: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. But their timing was all off for our modern, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet world. So only non-fiction can come to grips with the material in the time needed to make a mark.
There is so much wrong with much of what Dyer wrote and implied that it is difficult to know where to start. The essay has the fingerprints of David Shields and his Reality Hunger, an anti-novel screed, all over the essay. Like a lot of other people in publishing, Dyer has drunk the Kool-Aid, nodding that Shields is right about uselessness of reading a Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq war novel. Not, now in 2010.
Donkey is a concept Dyer borrows from one of the non-fiction authors. The characters in the book, drawn from real life, are have referred to as their “donkey” – a real flesh and blood character and like a good vampire, the duty of the non-fiction author is to suck every last noun, adjective and verb out of the victim, assemble them into a pattern, making the donkey seem more or less suitably complex, before moving on to another ‘real life’ character and a new chain of events. Like Shields, Dyer is a convert to the idea books are data dumps, mineshafts from educated miners, who go down the shaft, watching the donkeys rather than looking for the gold. The other seduction is the non-fiction author’s personal journey into the terror zone of war. The implication being that unless your own ass has been on the line in a fire-fight what right do you have to write about one? This is a point of view for sure.
With a little working this idea could be adapted and extended to abolish historical, horror and science fiction. War is organized, state sponsored violence. But, at its core, is the ugly coil of violence, hissing, lunging, fangs showing. Crime is more ad hoc. Perhaps only police reporters should write fiction about crime. Though they might not be as well paid as their foreign correspondent counterparts, but, if American, would speak the lingo of the donkeys running drugs, numbers and prostitutes. The fact is the overwhelming number of crime authors aren’t working or ex-cops, judges, prosecutors and public defenders who see a steady parade of these donkeys and their acts of violence throughout their working day. Most working crime authors come from outside the circle where violence is an organic part of their daily life.
That tells me, that in terms of violence on the micro level, readers value the gift of a vivid and sustained imagination, rooted in reality, rather than demand that the author has undergone a series of similar experiences.
It’s a mistake to cage your imagination and dreams in the razor wire of actual characters and real events of violence. Following an imaginary donkey, won’t win you the non-fiction author’s ‘reality’ cup, but it may be your fictive character’s point of view is more salient and perceptive than any real donkey in the field.
Let’s start with some novels that Dyer doesn’t mention. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is (last time I looked) a novel set in the Vietnam War. The French War. A novel that the State Department might have wished to flip through, taken few notes, had a couple of interior seminars before landing troops. That novel is still in print, read and studied 56 years after it was published. It didn’t take years and years after French defeat to be published either. Neither Graham Greene’s deficiencies (being British) in pay nor the anchor of his upper class, privileged education failed to sabotage The Quiet American and it might be argued because he wasn’t an American that he saw them more clearly than they saw themselves. If Graham Greene had written The Quiet American as a non-fiction account of his time as a journalist covering the war, the cool stuff from the front lines, the deaths, the horror, the boredom, would that have been a better way to handle the material?
Dyer also believes that the professional journalist/author is the best person to tell the non-fiction tale and not the soldiers who, as donkeys, provide the material for their betters. Dyer gives a couple of examples of poor warrior accounts of Iraq. No doubt that many soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan will write their personal accounts and with modern publishing online, those accounts will circulate in a way that wouldn’t have happened in previous wars. A lot of those accounts while of great release and interest for the author, along with his or her family, friends and neighbors, by commercial standards, the writing is repetitive, clumsy, distracting the reader. The quality of any book is the delicate entanglement of story, pacing, turn of phrase, the embedded magical moments when meaning and insight leap like a flame on a dark night from the words of a professional who skillfully lights them. That said, it doesn’t follow that a soldier who isn’t a writer can produce a brilliant war novel. And for the same reason Raymond Chandler, who was an oil company executive, could write powerful novels about crime and violence in Los Angeles without ever being a cop or private investigator.
Try reading, for example, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam by Bao Ninh. It is hard to believe that a professional journalist at the top of his game could have written a non-fiction account as powerful and moving as this novel. Bao Ninh shows the fundamental weakness of the David Shields cult. Lurking behind the reality, the shadows beyond the donkeys, are the larger truths of what does to people, their hearts, expectations, and attitudes.
The more daunting task is for an author’s to use introspection and insight to make sense of the reality of the mess, the hopelessness, fear and despair spawned by violence. That is also the goal in a non-fiction war book. Read Bao Ninh’s novel about his Vietnam War and ask yourself if this soldier’s story would have been more effective as a non-fiction book. The non-fiction book, should take over the literary war scene by bringing in some of these novelistic techniques to explain the futility and mess of murder. There is the heat of battle and there are the long nights of doubt and reflection. Dyer is on the side of non-fiction authors who wish to occupy this high ground alone. I wouldn’t bet all of my money on non-fiction of war to satisfy my literary need.
George Orwell wrote the splendid Homage to Catalonia, a non-fiction account of his Spanish Civil War experience in Barcelona. I suspect most people have forgotten about this book if they ever had heard about it in the first place. But mention 1984 or Animal Farm—novels that, may in their own way have absurdity of war and violence as a theme—and most people would heard about these books. Orwell’s essays are also still read and studied around the world. But Dyer’s essay is about non-fiction books about war; and on that score, Homage to Catalonia, a first hand account of the politics, personalities, ideologies, and combat, written shortly after the events, has almost no modern audience.
Emotional choices matter as does the collateral damage that spreads far beyond the immediate wounds and sudden deaths. Certainly non-fiction war accounts do and have charted the deep psychological and emotional issues arising out of combat. But is a non-fiction account the best vehicle to satisfy this hunger? Or does fiction allow for a much deeper explanation of the mental make up of the donkey reality on the battlefield? The hunger is to understand how men in war are all of us under great stress that comes with being shot at.
The answer to the above questions is: it depends. Graham Greene and Bao Ninh are powerful examples against the Reality Hunger fundamentalism. Another example is William E. Holland, a helicopter fighter pilot, Ph.D. English Literature Stanford University, Rhodes Scholar, and author, wrote a Vietnam war book: Let A Soldier Die. This was one of the first Vietnam novels published in the States and by someone who becme a professional author. Holland served as a combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Holland demonstrates you can, if lucky, read about a reality donkey in combat written by such donkey. There were many Vietnam War novels but Holland’s Vietnam War was one of the first that filtered the reality of combat through a novelistic sensibility that heightened the impact of violence and unrivaled the coded language of men at war.
This website is called The International Crime Authos Reality Check, which means we take ‘reality’ seriously, and we take it seriously within the context of crime fiction that we create. If Dyer’s analysis is correct, we have no business writing about violence. Though given our backgrounds, a number of us have been near or in battle zones only means we should be using those experiences to write non-fiction books.
Novels (and to call them non-fiction novels is like calling a ladyboy a girl.) I come down on the side that writing off the war novel as inferior doesn’t square with the past, and I don’t think that present non-fiction authors have seized the high ground for their exclusive use. There will always be a Graham Greene, Bao Ninh, George Orwell and William E. Holland who bring us the experience of war that we can never forget, and one that will live when much of their non-fiction accounts set in Afghanistan and Iraq is food for worms. Or compost for new sources of oil millions of years into the future, providing the basis for yet more wars, more accounts, and more forgetting. It’s not witnessing the violence and mess, it is writing a framework where the meaning of ruined lives, destroyed lives can be redeemed. Fiction or non-fiction, the hardest connection is the link between that literary ‘there, there’ aspect of a character’s mind with that part of your reader’s mind and heart, the place where you quietly puzzle together the nature of suffering and loss.