True fiction. I saw these two words juxtaposed as the name of a well-known American ‘independent’ film director’s production company. At first I was amused by this juxtaposition but then I became annoyed. Why shouldn’t fiction be true? Why should fiction be false simply because it is theoretically fictitious? Truth and fiction are not opposites so therefore true fiction is not an oxymoron.
I consider myself to be subjective documentarian. I do not make documentaries, which feign objectivity even when they are of course highly subjective.
A friend of mine, after having asked me about the novel of which I had just completed a second draft, wanted to know whether my novel would be read as writing per se or as a documentation or chronicle of a particular community or sub-culture or whatever. I think I understand his question. My friend wasn’t accusing me of being a reporter rather than a legitimate writer. He was curious as to whether historical events forming a time-line within a ‘community,’ actual issues and events and fragmentations within the local queer community of which of course there are actually several and of course many individuals are members of at least more than one, would form a trajectory moving the narrative from point to point. My friend wasn’t asking whether or not my sexual practices had any relevance to whether or not my novel might be worth reading. He wished to know whether truths and chronological events would be a device to problematize assumed boundaries between fiction (invented) and documentary (recorded); in addition to being a means by which the novel could be strategically positioned and then marketed to a ‘community’—here referring to a buying constituency.
Or... was my friend distinguishing between fiction and diary? Is diary a form of documentary? No, it is a form or example of voice-over. Since when is voice-over guarantor of truth? All those seventies film theorists who considered the film noir voice-over to be a clear-cut manifestation of closure were dead wrong. A voice-over is a story. Often there are clues that the voice-over cannot be read as being truthful—it is too theatrical or rococo or stylized. Often the voice-over is contradicted by the picture. The voice is either lying or else deluded—definitely not to be taken at face value.
I have just completed a short story set in ‘suburbia’—my impression of it based on my own memories and/or my adaptation of a particular nuclear family dynamic onto a landscape in which the automobile rules. I have attempted to make this story’s time-frame unspecified; although a couple of drug references place the characters and their little trajectories somewhere between the mid-1960s and the current late 1990s.
It occurs to me that specific dates and actual historically-authenticated or local events might be interpreted by some readers and/or critics as documentarian interventions or examples of ‘faction’ (’Faction’ is a mode or trope of fiction linked by or grounded in ‘facts’.) Many believers in canons and ‘the classics’ might well look down on writings characterized by ‘faction’ and by documentary impulses. Such writings are perhaps not ageless. They have not been invented but, rather, merely recorded. There actually are still painters who scorn photography as a documentative rather than inventive medium, as if photography has never been a process and a result of technological mediations.
Fictional or factional literature perhaps is of either the time executed or the time depicted within its temporal frames and geographical settings. But there are of course many writers and artists who don’t particularly care about their own posthumous reputations- on the grounds that they themselves are unlikely to be around to gauge how they are viewed or read.
I look at the guidelines for submission to a quirky Canadian periodical and I see that one of the magazine’s trademark components is classified as ‘Notes and Dispatches… creative nonfiction of an autobiographical nature’2. Hmmm, I speculate. Is this just a code or a tautology or device for alienating strangers who might wish to submit their writings? There are still, believe it or not, those who believe ‘creative nonfiction’ to be an oxymoron. Yet, I feel that the editors are in fact looking for personal documentary where the acts of seeing and remembering are bodily-driven. They are seeking out works where remembering and then editing are bodily or performative acts that pay no attention to the pseudo-objective pretensions of uncreative nonfiction. Readers can see, hear, smell, and taste the writer as he she or s/he structurally inhabits mental and/or physical spaces- the writer’s decision to act upon observation and/or remembrance is a theatrical or performative gesture and is appreciated by readers and periodical-editors alike
When I used to be a performing (rather than scoring or recording) musician, I used to resent audience demands that one play something which they were already familiar with. If they had already memorized a particular tune, then why couldn’t they just save their money and stay home and play the record? Why did they need to hear something duplicated that was already in duplication? I don’t understand performing musicians who do not rewrite and re-edit and trash that which already exists, unless the focus of their live presentation is strictly visual or theatrical. I feel the same way with writers and writing, if it already exists, why duplicate or repeat? Obviously, promotional agendas enter the picture here—as well as interpretive options and even possible bondings between reader and listener. I have to fight inclinations to rewrite as I read—to stop and exclaim “Jesus! I hate that word!’ and improvise a synonym. When I hear writers doing this, after a few incidences I wish they would go home and do some serious rewriting if they don’t like their product enough to read it verbatim. So, yes the performer in me is an antagonistic opposite of the listener or sponge in me.
When I was primarily a musician, I worked with both instrumental and vocal music. My voice—referring to lyrics and to language, was, I felt, not successfully integrated into the music I largely composed but also performed with others (who of course had creative input simply because they were also performing). The voice did not come through the music—it was not an instrument itself. Rather, it was superimposed on top of the music and an intrusion or affectation that bothered many. Sometimes bothering people is the intention, sometimes it is simply irritating and superfluous.
I find that sound is more closely related to or denotative of emotion than verbal language. One can make the sound much more immediately upon feeling an emotion than one can find the word. Sound poets will probably accuse me of a false separation here. So might those who believe in direct communication or ‘simple unaffected language.’ I am a believer in affectation, or pretension, or artifice. Language is phony and that is a compliment. People who feel verbal language is about communication tend to bore me. They also comprise a majority of the population that one must interact with in order to function—to make transactions and a living.
And I feel that emotion is non-verbal—it is primal and guttural and like jazz which is overwhelmingly instrumental. So, why do I write verbally in a conventional enough manner? Why do I link incidents and imply spatial connections between characters—some of whom have immense difficulty interacting with others and some who do so with both inventive fluidity and pedestrian facility? I do feel that plots are more like trajectories—they are devices for moving from Point A to Point B and are they worthwhile or important in themselves? Of course they are; or why use them? Why deal with narrative even as a trajectory device if it is insignificant?
But I do want to express that scream, that anger and that raw happiness, without having to resort to operating strictly in an instrumental mode.
Conversation, at its finest, is not primarily about communication. Or it is of course, but in a rather indirect manner. Conversation, at its most playful, is banter, It is oratory for its own sake and it is witty. Conversation is about killing time with flair and panache. When verbal exchange is concerned with reiterating obvious points of issuing commands in order to feel self-important or simply to pass on functional information there is no place for flourish or affectation or inspired phoniness. I am a chatterbox and a verbal dandy; and I admire and often prefer those for whom conversation is strictly rhetorical. Verbal exchange involves financial exchange or other examples of procuring- sex or drugs or housing.
The conversation I enjoy participating in and listening to is not about truth, it is about artifice and lying. It is not for literal-minded dullards. Words are deployed for their sounds as much as for their socio-political resonance. Meaning is a banality- people who ask what is your point are earnest and without any verbal flair whatsoever. Yet, the majority of the population speaks and listens in this mode of exchange. I do myself when I am expected to be functional as opposed to interesting. The truth is uninteresting, unless it is revolutionary or subjective.
A prominent strain of formative Canadian video art is structurally grounded on a unique hybrid of portrait—photography and performance. The temporal nature of the video medium allows the posture or the portrait to become a moving picture of sorts—narrative can be added as can sequential gestures, spoken and musical audio embellishments and subtexts, and other time-based components. This video art is both self-documentary (in most instances, the videographer and the performer were the same person) and portrait performance. It is not acting in the Stanislavskian or Method senses. If it is acting (pretending) it is in a very non-matrixed mode of acting 3. This mode of self-presentation allows for both autobiography and problemization of ‘the self’. It is both pretending and verité.
Direct address is common to both unencumbered documentary and to the talking portraits. Transitional and directional businesses are redundant. So is a good deal of description—we can see that John lit a cigarette and then exhaled away from the camera’s face. Such details as which way the character exhaled and why can be intrinsically important to narrative and to fiction—they can be revealing as well as strictly a means of moving from point to point. I contemplate omitting such details and leaving them up to readers’ imaginations. That would be a different book than the one I have written a second draft of and a different story than the series of postcards I am working on. My camera is not preset and static as it is in a pure portraitive performance videotape such as many of those from the early seventies (and which are now enjoying some affectionate homage and creative plundering in the late nineties). The fly in most narrative fiction does not remain camouflaged and consistently in one vantage position. The fly simultaneously observes and buzzes.
In the eighties I wrote a novelette—The Disposables (pub. Art Metropole, 1986, limited edition) that began as a film script (often considered an affront to ‘pure writing’ for its own sake). On Labour Day weekend of 1983 I ingested cheap uppers and wrote out my three-day novel from the script, inserting a lot of business that one is not supposed to include within a screenplay (directorial business). After I did not win the writing contest, I decided to work on this novel as a novel and abandon the film script. The novel is structurally a film noir voice over from the point of view of a rich pop star who expects to be hunted and then arrested for a murder he did not commit but for which he had more than ample motive. Think James M. Cain meets The Picture of Dorian Gray represented by a decomposing Bowie-clone. Not a lot actually happens and much of the novel is from the point-of-view of somebody remembering his own career and making cultural observations in the process. There are two other major characters who are probably pawns in relation to the prime voice-over, rather than fully rounded-out characters. Readers (both professional and social friends) criticized me for this and I thought it was basically a non-issue. In many pulp novels (as well as many novels by French intellectuals such as Robbe-Grillet and Camus who were themselves attracted to American pulp literature) the characters are often quite symbiotic and clearly structural players rather than full-fleshed characters. I’ve often thought that Hollywood betrayed the pulp novels of writers such as Cain, Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, and others by not having all the prime characters played by one actor—these works are at bottom onanistic.
But now I have written on a novel (meaning broadly social) scale I didn’t begin with a concrete plan not to work within a tight frame primarily from the position of one character. My main protagonist is female and I am male-this may or may not have been a means of disguising autobiography or at least moving it beyond any perception of diary. This may have been an acknowledgment that fifty-one percent of the world’s population is female. It may be an indicator that I am now writing about society rather than my self—that characters are members of various social structures themselves itemized and analyzed within the novel’s narrative discourse without self-consciously interrupting the narrative.
Of course, some characters are anti-social in both their thinking and in their actions. Does negative observation restore an uneasy hybrid of solipsism and narcissism? The prime antagonist, rearing his head in the later half of the novel, is male. Perhaps I did have to resort to documenting myself rather than superimposing my observations onto a female character as a device for ‘universalizing’ my personal observations or documentations? It is as if I now need readers- both officially and unofficially critical- to tell me that this is in fact what I did and why I did it.
There are three key characters in my novel-in-progress (Systems and Corridors) who view music as a wildly irrational language. Two of these characters—all young males in their early twenties—see music as a scary language—a language that can express that both best left unsaid and emotionally unspeakable. Sound here is closer to emotional impulse than verbal language—sound is more impulsive than spoken language, unless one chooses to speak in tongues or guttural noises or animal sounds something more elemental than words. Another of these three characters sees the world of music as a deliriously wonderful irrational zone—he is a disc jockey who free-associates and titillates his gleefully impressive crowd of dancers.
The novel’s protagonist is a former musician who has, in her late twenties, resumed her academic education. Is she here escaping or hiding from (or denying ?) a dangerously irrational or anti-logical world ? Perhaps, but not all music is irrational. Music is arguably the most logical art-form—it is so damn mathematical. Rage is not mathematical. This protagonist may well have exited the music world as a means of anger control. Anger either connects with audiences or repels them-it’s in the image and the marketing and the timing and the possibilities of ironic interpretation.
I find myself now strongly preferring instrumental to vocal music. Lyric writing is overwhelmingly about precision and regular verses and symmetry. Emotions and their subsequent actions are generally asymmetrical.
So then. Is my personal trajectory from music to writing another instance of a person rejecting irrational history? Is it another person afraid of chaotic territory and seeking some semblance of linguistic order? I would hope my decision to concentrate upon my writing (in a linear narrative form) is not as simplistic as a movement from the irrational to the rational or logical. I would hope that my attempts to describe what my mind and body sees is more than just a diary or an attempt to describe visual and audio components of some particular picture. I would hope that there are things literally unsaid that are nevertheless stated by implication. I would hope that my documentary is recognized as an intrinsically subjective version of truth that in addition has a resonance beyond that subjectivity to a variety of readers and listeners rather than some sort of constructed ‘public.' I hope that my descriptions and my reasoning and my rationalizations and my guttural emotions all blend into some sort of vehicle that might appeal to other readers and listeners particular blends of maddening rationality and divine chaos.
I recently went to another movie which opened with a directorial statement relating to veracity. I was informed that what I was about to witness was a work of fiction and that it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume.
Copyright Andrew James Paterson
Published Open Letter, Tenth Series, #5, Spring, 1999