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Fiction and Nonfiction


Muirhead Bone, World War I reportage sketch, 1918 (source)
Here's a philosophical question for discussion:

We divide writing into fiction and non-fiction. Why don't we divide art that way?

The answer seems obvious at first. Art is fictive because the images are created, not recorded.

We might regard photography as the non-fiction equivalent of art, since photography appears to capture reality without substantial human intervention. Compared to artwork made by hand, photographs seem more objective, more "true."

Yet photography involves innumerable aesthetic choices. And in the era of Photoshop and CGI, the boundary between art and photography has been blurred. Photography no longer holds the privileged position as a record of fact or truth.

Beatrix Potter, 'Studies of nine beetles' watercolor ©Warne&Co.
But supposing we stay just within the realm of handmade visual art. Can't we regard some art genres as non-fiction? Surely reportage on the battlefield or in the courtroom presents itself as a witness to true events just as much as the courtroom reporter with a notepad does. And natural history illustration presents scientific understandings with more saliency and truth than a photograph can do.

Isn't the artist dealing more in the world of truth than the writer? Art is nature filtered through a human temperament, but so is writing. By its very nature, writing is highly abstracted from reality. A journalistic reporter must convert observations into symbols that are far removed from sensory experience.

We can hardly think of writing without facing the division of fiction and nonfiction. Walk into any library or bookstore, and the demarcation is very evident. In film, the line is usually drawn between movies and documentaries.

In recent decades, there have been more and more works in film and literature that explore the boundary line of the two existing categories, such as historical fiction, novels based on real events, and biopics. Oddly enough, the library classifies books on elves, faeries, folklore, and mythology in the nonfiction section. My own book, Dinotopia deliberately blurs the boundary by presenting a fantasy world as if it were non-fiction.

At its most objective, the art of painting can bring us to an experience of the world that is closer to pure objectivity than writing can do, while forms of art can be placed on a gradient taking us into realms of pure subjectivity and invention.

I'm not saying that we should invent new categories for art, nor am I proposing that we should do away with them in writing. But I believe it's helpful to remind ourselves that the conception of fiction and nonfiction in writing is an arbitrary and inconsistent social construct. In the same way, the divisions of literature into categories of children's, young adult, and adult strikes me as arbitrary and misleading.

Devdutt Pattanaik said, "Nobody knows why we're alive; so we all create stories based on our imagination of the world; and as a community, we believe in the same story. In India, every person believes his/ her own mythosphere to be real. Indian thought is obsessed with subjectivity; Greek thought with objectivity."

If you have thoughts about this, I welcome them in the comments.


This post first appeared on Gurney Journey, please read the originial post: here

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Fiction and Nonfiction

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