Truth is Strange

A man standing, holding a murder weaponLet me tell you about S-Town. It’s a podcast that came out a couple of months ago. It’s complete at seven episodes, and it’s about this antique clock restorer, John, who says he lives in “Shittown, Alabama,” where a murder occurred that nobody is investigating. The podcast grows from there into a meditative long-form portrait of a man and his town and the creepy things going on. It’s cool, and you should totally give it a try.

Sadly, this is not a blog post about S-Town. It’s too hard to talk about without spoilers.

But listening to S-Town crystallized something I’d been noticing for a while: that the way I experience nonfiction narratives is completely different from the way I experience fiction.

Let me pick apart how odd that is. I’m saying I could read word-for-word the same story, but having it framed as fiction versus non-fiction gives me an entirely different experience. It’s not as if they’re unrelated art forms, right? Compelling stories–fictional or not–mostly follow the same rules: Give strong images and good dialogue. Escalate the tension until you reach a moment of climax or clarity that changes everything. Pick and choose only the most important moments. Start late and get out early. Show, don’t tell.

But it’s entirely different. I swear, as closely as it’s related, it’s not related at all.

When I’m reading fiction, I’m having a conversation with an author whose narrative choices delineate a view of the world. It’s all Aesop’s fables, blown huge. If the narrative says “Alice did this,” I’m asking myself, “Okay, what does it mean that the author chose to have Alice do that? What is the author saying about people like Alice? What is the author’s view of humanity? What does this thematically represent?”

In nonfiction, I assume Alice actually did the thing the author says Alice did, so I’m asking different questions. Like: “Why did Alice do that?” or “Is the author relaying Alice’s motivations and circumstances accurately? What are the author’s biases–what could they have missed?” And I’m allowing the story to add to the things in the world that I consider true: “Oh, that really happened to somebody? I never knew that was possible!”

In fiction I expect climax and payoff and promises kept. Nonfiction gets more leeway. It needs to conclude somewhere meaningful–otherwise, why tell it?–but I assume some messiness and murkiness and untied threads. It’s a different kind of suspense, wondering about real people. Not “What could happen?” but “What did happen?” I don’t need big thrills, but I want to end knowing something I never knew before. (Seriously, go listen to S-Town.)

But that’s really damn weird, right? Nonfiction isn’t necessarily truer than fiction, we just pretend it is. A writer’s biases loom just as large when they’re relating real events as when they’re making them up. Non-fiction is just as curated, just as processed and interpreted, and just as distorted by personal biases as fiction. Sometimes, writers even lie. And yet, the distinction completely changes how I react to it.

I love fiction. It’s most of what I read and all of what I write. But fictionalized, a story like S-Town would lose something. The gravity would be less grave. The impact would be a different impact, from a different direction. I can’t help thinking it would be a less profound one.

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