I spent several hours debating the fine line between non-fiction and fiction, and what it meant for the search for truth, with HM Naqvi, the novelist, last year. Some of that was late at night. And some was at the Karachi and the Islamabad literature festivals. For both of us, it seemed, our favourite writers were those who played with the line: Novelists who approached their subject like a piece of non-fiction, or non-fiction writers who, erm, broke with convention.
It just so happens that I am currently reading Joseph Mitchell’s Up In The Old Hotel, a beautiful anthology of his New Yorker writings, chronicling life in a now disappeared city. And a new biography suggests those colourful New York characters are actually composites and include essentially distorted anecdotes.
Should I care? It is fantastic writing after all (and I have pondered frequently why I can’t find such characters). Janet Malcolm, in the New York Review of Books, says I shouldn’t, that I should celebrate the inventions that most of us mere journalists cannot even imagine. She riffs on Mitchell’s own statement that writers must retain the reader’s interest, and keep them from the bush and ditches….
Every writer of nonfiction who has struggled with the ditch and the bushes knows what Mitchell is talking about, but few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell. The idea that reporters are constantly resisting the temptation to invent is a laughable one. Reporters don’t invent because they don’t know how to. This is why they are journalists rather than novelists or short-story writers. They depend on the kindness of the strangers they actually meet for the characters in their stories. There are no fictional characters lurking in their imaginations. They couldn’t create a character like Mr. Flood or Cockeye Johnny if you held a gun to their heads. Mitchell’s travels across the line that separates fiction and nonfiction are his singular feat. His impatience with the annoying, boring bits of actuality, his slashings through the underbrush of unreadable facticity, give his pieces their electric force, are why they’re so much more exciting to read than the work of other nonfiction writers of ambition.
Which I think says more about the reverence that Mitchell is held in, and America’s extraordinary literary snobbery, than anything about how a young non-fiction writer should deal with a sceptical editor. “I’m just slashing through the underbrush of unreadable factacity,” is a sentiment I would struggle to use without breaking into giggles. But then everyone assumes that is what all British journalists do anyway.