In the 1954 film The Barefoot Contessa, Harry Dawes, a screenwriter and director played by Humphrey Bogart, summarizes the difference between a movie script and real life. “A script has to make sense. Life doesn’t.” The comment explains why some people prefer fiction over nonfiction in literature, films and other forms of storytelling. The fans of fiction like their stories to make sense. The sequences of events, if not predictable in advance, at least are explicable in retrospect. The conclusion grows out of what came before.
Larry McMurtry in his non-fictional book “In a Narrow Grave” relates that it takes a different writer with different skills and perspectives to write non-fiction, which focuses on facts and the accuracy of those facts, and therefore deals more often with “great” people (whether good or bad, at least notable) and their acts that made them noteworthy, and is thus objective; while fiction deals more often with everyday people in mundane situations, the writer’s task being to create vivid, believable characters, exploring their emotions and motivations in settings memorably detailed, thus more subjective. McMurtry claims he likes writing fiction over nonfiction, because it is “easier” [my words not his, because my copy of his book is at the office]; the use of created dialogue being one of his tools, of which, to my eye and ear, he is masterful as well displayed in his epic “Lonesome Dove” tetralogy.
Curiously, as greatly acclaimed and monetarily rewarding to its author and publisher as “Lonesome Dove” was, his critics, as I recall, claimed McMurtry borrowed too heavily from J. Evetts Haley’s biography of Charles Goodnight, which itself was praised for its detail and vivid description of the man, his times, and his environment.
Philosophers like Camu and Sartre found their novels as efficient vessels for their philosophical ideas. Homer’s “The Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Shakespearean plays still bequeath plots to modern day novelists, playwrights and video game creators.
So I join with McMurtry in believing we need worthy writers of both fiction and nonfiction in this world, and we are all better for both.
My counter to Prof. Brands point that “Messy stories-the stuff of real life-can be fascinating, but they can’t carry a tune” is that just because historians write of facts and strive for accuracy in recounting those facts does not mean that cannot be done with words well-stated and sentences well-formed. I have read many of Prof. Brands books and hopefully some of my money for those books has found its way into his pocket without being syphoned off by publishers and booksellers. I certainly think my money was well spent from the value I received in return. The reason I read his books is because I like the way he writes them, which I can only say about the output of a very small minority of historical writers still pounding their keypads. Truth be told, some of those I like the best still write (or wrote) their manuscripts by hand.
So historians may not be able to write stories that “carry a tune,” but those stories can be written so that we remember the lyrics.
"Yet fiction lends the illusion that life is simple. This is precisely its appeal. A typical novel has a protagonist who encounters a conflict over something important; the conflict is resolved, and the protagonist is changed by the experience. And so is the reader vicariously."
Yes, I would agree SOMETIMES. This is certainly true of romances, movies and TV shows and lesser fiction.
But some fiction shows, in fact, how incomprehensible and uncertain life is. Think of Russian novels, All Quiet on the Western Front, The First Circle, For Whom the Bell Tolls, MacBeth, King Lear, TItus Andronicus just to name a few. History and non-fiction of course are there to teach you, as far as the author can tell, facts and truth of issues big and small.
Literature comes CLOSER to the PERSONAL LIFE of love won or lost and unrequited. Of friendship betrayed and tragic early deaths and illness. I think two great books of WW2 are probably fiction: KAPUTT by Curzio Malaparte and Schindler's List by Keneally. Only novels could come close to the truth of individual human suffering in the Holocaust and on the Russian Front.
So we need songs and poems, stories and novels as well as biographies and history to try to gain wisdom and understanding of the human experience in peace and war. All of these human artifacts illuminate people, places and events.