In Praise of “Fictiony” Nonfiction


If I am writing something and I’m not sure if it is at all interesting or even a story, I ask, could this pass for fiction? If I were reading this is and I had no idea of its genre, would I still want to read it? In one of the classes I teach, we talked about something called “the Autobiographical Pact,” which is basically the idea that by calling something nonfiction, an author enters into a kind of contract with the reader. However, it is too easy, as Sven Birkerts argues, to simply then use that “pact” as a shield–armor against criticism, or against experimentation, or against having to think too much about what you are writing.

Joanne Beard’s work is a study in how to write what I unelegantly refer to in my classes as “fictiony nonfiction.” There’s a bunch of stuff in there that she wasn’t there to witness and didn’t see, but she makes it perfectly clear that she wasn’t there and didn’t see it, and her scenes are all the more riveting for it. Many advertisers (and even some critics) have labeled this a “collection of short stories” for that reason. For example, one of her best-known pieces begins as she and  her cousin are in the womb, floating, and ends with the death of her mother, the cousins looking on and the aunt at her side.

It makes you feel as though you have only just begun to figure out the many ways to tell your story.


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