Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Fictional Reportage

Most people are familiar with the non-fiction writing style known as creative non-fiction. It has also been referred to as the new journalism or literary non-fiction. The idea is fairly simple: non-fiction in which many techniques more commonly associated with fiction are utilized. Scenes are reconstructed using dialogue, characters are fleshed out, and themes are developed. The result is a much more emotional and engaging reading experience. People may disagree on what exactly qualifies as creative non-fiction, though one of the determining factors seems to be that the quality of writing is exceptional.

Creative Non-Fiction Classics

Some creative non-fiction classics are Hiroshima by John Hersey, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer. Another lesser known but superbly written example of creative non-fiction is Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land by David K. Shipler. All of these examples focus on either war or crime, though those topics are certainly not the only ones which have yielded fantastic results in the right hands.

Hiroshima by John Hersey
Compared to creative non-fiction, writing which simply delivers the facts can be bland and unreadable. Of course, books dense with citations and few evocative descriptions of real-life characters or settings can be enjoyable and informative in their own way, but are usually not as appealing to the average reader as creative non-fiction.

Critics of the style exist. No doubt the word "creative" suggests embellishment to some people. I would argue that believability is at the core of all criticism of non-fiction writing. Every writer is susceptible to bias, editorializing and in extreme cases, brazenly misleading readers. Of course, some of the best creative non-fiction is completely absent any editorializing whatsoever and instead relies on the "camera as reporter" style of writing which many people believe is the closest thing to objectivity. And yet, critical thinkers will point out, accurately, that the details a writer chooses to focus on is a form of editorializing.

Fictional Reportage

The flip side of creative non-fiction is a writing style I call "fictional reportage." It is fiction that reads like non-fiction. Or, more accurately, fiction that reads like creative non-fiction. One example is Bomber, by Len Deighton. It's the story of a British bomber flying its last flight over Germany during the Second World War. It spans a period of 24 hours and includes time stamps for many of the chapters. The book still contains plenty of dialogue, but something in the moment by moment action and descriptions has the feel, at times, of well-written creative non-fiction.

Bangkok Filth by Ken Austin
Bangkok Filth also contains many stories that qualify as fictional reportage. Like most people who write fiction, I had previously written countless hundreds of thousands of words of non-fiction, including essays, political rants, travel writing and book reviews. Yet I found myself wanting to insert made-up passages into non-fiction pieces for no other reason than the desire to try something different. The results were mixed, but I always found the fictional reportage mindset made the writing easier than when I wrote more traditional fiction.

Do works of non-fiction that turn out to be largely fabricated qualify as fictional reportage (think A Million Little Pieces by James Frey)? I suppose they do, at least the fabricated sections. The point is, a certain writing style has to be maintained throughout the book. The author has consciously done something to give those made up a passages a certain feel he may not have brought to his other fiction writing. As mentioned, the question of authenticity has always plagued non-fiction writers, and some take more liberties than others. Of course, most fiction will inevitably contain some scenes cribbed from the writers' lives, though there is normally little outrage, even if easily recognizable characters are obviously real people plucked from the author's life.

So what exactly is the criteria for classifying writing as fictional reportage? Just as with creative non-fiction, the definition is subjective. It's more about degrees. For my own fictional reportage, detailed descriptions of places that exist in the real world interwoven with fictional characters and storylines are the most common features. Authorial asides, or passages that have that feel, may also show up in fictional reportage. Not surprisingly, sometimes fictional reportage will feature writing that employs turns of phrase or methods more common in newspaper reporting. But as with creative non-fiction, the determination about what qualifies as fictional reportage will often be up to the reader. Fictional reportage will hopefully hit readers differently than other fiction, and may even make them question whether what they are reading is factual or not.

I urge writers with a lot of non-fiction writing under their belts, but who want to try fiction, to consider consciously approaching their first fiction writing project with this frame of reference. You may find it easier to get the words flowing, and in the process you might embrace a writing style that works for both you and your readers.


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