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 worldmags.net

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. 

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