There’s far too much conflating of the fictional with the real in nonfiction prose these days.

I keep running across examples of nonfiction writers using fiction as examples or proofs of trends in the real world.  Now there are some occasions when a discussion of aspects of one or more pieces of fiction or works of art can illuminate a real-world trend.  For example, what people are wearing and eating in paintings can reveal a lot about the worlds in which the painters lived.  And there can be no doubt that the themes of novels (at least those not about writers) often reflect the social and economic trends of the moment in which they are written.

What I’m talking about is quite different, however, and involves passing off the fiction as a piece of fact that vitiates the need for supplying real ones.  I talked about one example a few months back in a blog entry on one writer’s attempt to compare the Polanski arrest to a fictional film to blame the 60s for licentiousness in society.

Here are the two recent examples I have run across of this rhetorical device of saying fictions are facts:

First from the feature story on the fact that women are approaching more than 50% of the U.S. workforce titled “Female Power” in the January 2nd-8th issue of The Economist: “A generation ago working women performed menial jobs and were routinely subjected to casual sexism—as “Mad Men,” a television drama about advertising executives in the early 1960s, demonstrates brilliantly.”

Let’s not argue over if it’s true or not that women performed menial jobs and encountered sexism in the early 60s.  It’s true.  But “Mad Men” does not “demonstrate” the sexism, rather it does what art is supposed to do, reflect it and exaggerate it. 

To use fiction to demonstrate sexism and glass ceilings existed in the early 1960s, you would have to give the example of many fictions, all of that age although not necessarily just about that age.  In the case of the role of women in the workforce, you might start with movies from 1955-1965 starring Jack Lemmon.  Better yet would be to point to surveys and studies or accumulate newspaper articles from that time. 

My second example is on page 64 of James McManus’ Cowboys Full.  I won’t bore you with the entire paragraph.  It’s an assertion that there was a lot of money floating around riverboats in the pre-Civil War South that card sharpies were only too happy to take in card games, typically from ultra-wealthy plantation owners.  McManus is probably right, but his sole proof are two fictional characters from a novel about the “Old South” written decades later in the industrialized society of the 1920s.  The novel is Gone with the Wind and the characters are Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara’s father.

McManus makes exactly the same mistake as The Economist does, for not only are his examples fictional only, but they are fictions created in a later age, and without doubt reflecting that later age’s attitudes more than they reflect the age under discussion.

I don’t think those who use this false rhetorical device are trying to be devious.  Rather, they are merely thinking and writing in a sloppy fashion.

UPDATE: A January 19 National Public Radio story on women in the workforce stated (correctly, I think) that women wanting to join the workforce in the 60s and early 70s faced resistance from many men. But instead of quoting a survey or study, or even providing a number of mass culture manifestations of this attitude, the reporter instead gives a 10-second snippet of dialogue from the situation comedy, “All in the Family.” At least the reporter selected something from the age under discussion, but what she selected was a satire of the very attitudes she said were prevalent, which begs the question: does a satire in mainstream programming demonstrate that the attitudes existed or that the attitudes were dying? Only an accumulation of detail (which occurs in a good study) could answer the question.


5 thoughts on “There’s far too much conflating of the fictional with the real in nonfiction prose these days.

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  2. The Economist clearly used the wrong word – “portrayed” seems more appropriate. Who knows if it was simply bad writing or sloppy thinking (although they do tend to go together). I don’t have the text for McManus, so I can’t be sure what he claims from GWTW. Are his seven other sources referenced in his book? His point that you concede that the assertion may be right has nothing whatsoever to do with your point, which is one about accuracy within the context of his text. Ah, maybe I need to point McManus to my blog to really give him something to complain about.

  3. “McManus is probably right, but his sole proof are two fictional characters from a novel about the “Old South” written decades later in the industrialized society of the 1920s.”

    My “sole” proof? At least seven other sources support the point that even you concede is probably right. If the most famous (and famously well-researched) novel about the period ALSO supports the thesis, only a writer bent on obscurity would fail to quote it. But what you don’t understand about how factual and fictional literature have always worked hand-in-hand is enough to stun an ox. And of course that’s why you have a blog like this: no editor, no real audience, just you by your lonesome, proudly pontificating, refusing to post opinions that disagree with yours. Better stick to being a flack, a job widely and justly held in contempt for its cynical, moneygrubbing devotion to self-interested falsehood.

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