Cliches and Biases in Nonfiction and Fiction

I've just finished reading the August 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine, and as usual, I pay special attention to the fiction. In this issue, too, there's a memoir, and in these two pieces I see a difference in style based, I suspect, on reader expectation.

Imagesimage via

The memoir, "Summer People," by Justin Kaplan, involves the author's reflections of Russian emigires settled into the northeast U.S., along the Atlantic coast. His story, about the way class distinctions remained for these emigires, despite their new egalitarian environment, is told totally in narrative. True, the depiction of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's daughter scrubbing floors, works perfectly in narrative as an example of the incongruencies of these Russian transplants' new life in the U.S.

But a rather snobbish reaction by some of these people to motorcycles roaring through the nearby woods, compelled the author to put the segment in quotes, a segment that might have worked even better as a scene with proper dialogue.

This is, I think, a bias of nonfiction – that the distancing effect of narrative is the proper conveyance for such reflections, particularly memoir.

Compare that, then, to Bonnie Nadzam's short story, "The Losing End," which, after a few paragraphs of narrative, drops into the moment-by-moment effect of scenic dialogue until near the end. Nazdam's story is part of a novel being written, so it's somewhat unfair to critique it by itself, but the main character, Lamb, acts oddly toward a trollop-girl. Admittedly, the style here is of the page-turner sort, waiting paragraph after paragraph to understand Lamb.

We do understand him by story's end, by inference, but I always wonder what I've missed in such inferences. A couple of "drop-backs" into narrative during this poignant scenic story might've dispelled that concern. But the scene is the staple of modern story, as it attempts to mime cinema.

In the story's case, as well as the memoir, we expect certain cliched styles, and both authors were astute enough to give us that. 


Fiction’s Precipice

A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, by Ron Hansen


Here’s one thing I’ve learned from several years of reading, analyzing (and enjoying) historical fiction: while it should lean heavily on the story’s real-life history, the story will read best when it adheres to one of the structures of good fiction. Hansen has always been amazingly good at creating vivid storylines (witness his books adapted to other creative media: Atticus and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as cinema, and Mariette in Ecstasy as staged drama). Thus the writing of this underappreciated novelist has made me one of his most ardent fans. But I’m beginning to feel that over the last two books he’s losing his mojo. A look at Guilty Passion will give you an idea why.


This real life drama comes from the intersection of the lives of corset salesman Henry Judd Gray and married hottie, Ruth Brown Snyder. Judd and Ruth meet casually through a mutual friend, and soon sexy sparks are flying. But their liaison is more than sexual heat – Ruth is grooming Judd to be the murderer of her abusive, drunken husband, Albert.

Both Ruth and Judd are stuck in loveless marriages, and while Ruth has ample reason to escape her marriage to Albert, Judd’s is simply common, boring, and sexless.

In Hansen’s hands, Judd and Ruth achieve a level of eroticism and emotional refuge perhaps uncommon in the 1920s. As it becomes clear that Ruth is moving Judd to at least assist in killing Albert (she admits to several failed attempts at killing her husband), Judd becomes the passively moral force in their murder plans, while Ruth becomes the amoral schemer. Here, in the middle section of the book is where Hansen’s novelistic skills shine. This is where fiction can take the reader in a new, intimate direction, as Hansen did in Hitler’s Niece, while adhering to the spirit of historical fact.

What fails this reader are the book's first few pages, and the last three chapters, in which the author resorts to paraphrasing research information on their intersected lives and the resulting crime. All right, it is non-fiction in fictive clothing, so what’s the problem? Primarily the ending, where Hansen resorts to a distancing journalistic style. There are many unanswered questions concerning Ruth and Judd’s romantic entanglement, questions that can chase such intimacy in different novelistic directions. Here, the primary one offered is: How did Judd and Ruth really feel about one another? i.e. had the murder gone unsolved, would their sexual connection have resulted in some enduring form of love?

The value of superimposing fiction over real life is to give a deeply intimate view of historical events and characters, a view that historical fact rarely offers. In Guilty Passion, Hansen takes us to the answer’s precipice, but he doesn’t allow us to peer over it.

Incidentally, if you want a camera-eye look at Ruth and Judd, GOOGLE them – their photos exist. 


My rating: 15 of 20 stars




The Good and the Sad

A couple of days ago, I received notice from the website of the band, America, that they'd just released a new album, Back Pages, a compilation of covers of some of their favorite artists, including oldies Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and Mark Knopfler, as well as some relative newbies such as Fountains of Wayne, New Radicals, and Gin Blossoms.

I gave it a listen as I trudged through my three-mile walk today, and I was amazed. I'd never thought of America as studio artists in the same vein as Brian Wilson, but the arrangements were enough to have made George Martin proud.

As the music downloaded, I checked their website, and was dismayed to see a posting that former member of the band, Dad Peek, had died this week, peacefully, in his sleep. Peek, by his own admission was the "bad boy" of the group, living the rock 'n' roll lifestyle to the hilt. But somewhere around the group's fifth album, Peek left, and his life went in the opposite direction. 


I've always wondered about such gear shifting. The only thing I can rationalize is that extreme people go to extremes, whatever the direction. But you'd never know that about Peek by his music. Songs such as "Don't Cross the River," "Lonely People," and "Willow Tree Lullaby" were some of the sweetest, most beautiful pop songs of that era.

Well. R.I.P, Dan, and thanks for your music. My most sincere sympathies to his wife, Catherine, and their family. 

Settling the Voice

Following my concern over voice in a previous post, I settled in to toy with the story in question, which was largely in narrative – by my principal character. This person, while not as articulate as my normal narrator, is perceptive enough to cast his voice as he would speak. Problem solved!


image via

BTW, this is one of a series of connected short stories, which takes place in and around a fictional Alabama pool hall.  I hope to have the collection published sometime around year's end. As of now, I have a verbal commitment from the publisher. Stay tuned.

Solzhenitsyn’s Last Stories |

A collection of nine short stories by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, described by scholars as ranking alongside his best work, is to be published in English for the first time. In one of the publishing events of the autumn, the collection will appear under the title Apricot Jam and Other Stories, fulfilling a long-held desire of the author that the work be available to the English-speaking world.



Primitive Peace within a World at War

Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff


image via

Mitchell Zuckoff has unearthed a compelling story of a lost world amid the global conflagration of WWII. Under his hand, however, the story’s facts aren’t given their just deserts. Here’s the story, writ small:

A group of American army types stationed in New Guinea as Allied forces push relentlessly toward Japan decide to take a military version of a tourist flight to see an unspoiled area of this primitive island. The plane crashes (due to pilot error?) and only three survive: Corporal Margaret Hastings, Tech Sergeant Kenneth Decker, and Lieutenant John McCollom. McCollom survived with minimal injuries, but Decker and Hastings were severely injured.

Luckily, the USAAF is able to locate the three, send paratroopers and parachuting medics to help them and feed them until a method can be devised to rescue the three. Meanwhile, the hapless survivors – and their ad hoc rescuers – are confronted with New Guinea tribesmen, and these lost people from a lost world and American military personnel form emotional bonds of sorts. In the end, the rescue is an exotic one: a glider is guided into the area, and those on the ground snared on a cable by an Air Force plane. 

The story’s details, as depicted by Zuckoff, are all too brief to make a full length book, and it seems to this reader that, no doubt at the urging of agent or editor, he added a lot of fluff to fill out the story. A book that could have been a suspenseful page-turner – coupled with this encounter with lost people – seems diluted with minutiae about the primary characters, their families, even that of peripheral characters.

One of the skills of both fiction and non-fiction writing is parceling the story out in ways that keep the story’s energy building – until its climax and denouement. I’ve always been one, whether reviewing a finished book or critiquing one in progress, to honor the author’s strategy in orchestrating a story, in unwrapping the characters, both amid a vivid scenic background. With Zuckoff’s story, I’m fatally tempted to critique, but, alas, I won't.

I don’t want to say that the author is a poor writer. To the contrary, his research was formidable and thorough. There are moments of great prose here, and moments of elation, pathos and whimsy – enough to enthrall readers despite the roadblocks thrown in their way. Despite the telling, this is a great story, and readers will both learn and enjoy its passage.


My rating: 15 of 20 stars