I am ashamed to admit that it really does matter to me whether or not a book is true

coverWhenever there’s a scandal in which it is revealed that a popular memoir is largely fabricated, I like to sneer and say, “Well, what does it matter, so long as it’s a good story?”

It feels good to affirm the essential fictiveness of the world. It’s all just stories, man. Some stories can be pinned down a bit more than others, but when we attach narrative to something, we falsify it, dude. All memoirs are fiction and all fictions are memoirs.

Except that’s completely not true. It does matter whether a story is true or not. If a story is true, it’s allowed to be odd, inchoate, and irresolute. Whereas if it’s fiction, it’s got to be something more. I give the truth much more slack than I do to fiction. Because whereas fiction has to constantly assert its truthiness, nonfiction is allowed to be a little more sly–it’s allowed to revel in the parts of itself that are not storylike at all. There’s no better example of this than the book I’m currently reading: Novels in Three Lines, by the French anarchist Félix Fénéon. This is a book that’s composed entirely of little squibs like the following:

Again and again Mme Couderc, of Saint-Ouen, was prevented from hanging herself from her window bolt. Exasperated, she fled across the fields.

When I first picked up the book, I thought all of these stories were fictions. And I was profoundly uninterested. I mean, I could do better than this stuff. I mean, these were barely even vignettes.

But then I read the cover more closely and realized that these were all true. They were unsigned news items that originally ran in a Paris newspaper in 1906 (exactly the same as the filler items that are in the margins of today’s magazines, except these ones were written by a semi-famous man of letters [and revolutionary]). Immediately, I was gripped by them. You’d think that reading a thousand of these would get old, but, so far, it has not. There’s so much life and so much reality spilling out from these pages.

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