Obi-Wan Kenobi once told a newly Vaderized Anakin Skywalker that “only a Sith deals in absolutes.” So I approach any proclamation that all writing fits within one container with the wariness due any tug toward the Dark Side.
In one of the freshman composition courses I taught while in grad school, I assigned a textbook titled Everything’s an Argument whose essential premise was that all writing is persuasive—whether an instruction manual (this is how you should program your microwave), a memo to your boss (you should appreciate and reward the excellent work I am doing), a revealing confessional (you should examine your own life and culture through glimpses into mine), or even a stop sign (STOP, obviously).
“We’re out of taco shells,” my wife texts me. Translation: Swing by the grocery store on the way home unless you feel like scooping the fixings up in your hand.
Even informational writing calls for a response, some kind of acknowledgement or reaction, an altered course on the receiving end. This is equally true of fiction, which strives to persuade us to accept this as a truthful portrayal of how human agency should or does operate, or to suspend our disbelief, or at least to partner with the author in the joint project of creating meaning via the interaction between writer, reader, and text.
In a similar vein, back in 1991 professor emeritus Donald M. Murray published an article titled “All Writing Is Autobiography,” and this idea has circulated since and, no doubt, before. As the argument (see?) goes, our use of language is inescapably formed by our experiences, perspective, style, and voice. Our writing, whether academic or poetic, is intrinsically dependent on our own histories, and therefore autobiographical. As writers, we cannot escape ourselves. Murray writes, “I have my own peculiar way of looking at the world and my own way of using language to communicate what I see. My voice is the product of Scottish genes and a Yankee environment, of Baptist sermons and the newspaper city room, of all the language I have heard and spoken.” We are stamped on every word that we write.
“Today will no longer be known as Taco Tuesday,” I text back to my wife. “Today will be known as Freedom Friday, but still on a Tuesday!” A line from The Lego Movie, one of our seven-year-old son’s favorites. My wife knows me, so she knows what the message means. Translation: I will stop for taco shells.
Then there is the truism that all writing is fictional. We are bound by our limited point of view, our personal subjectivity, and all we can really tell is our version of events—our perspective of the hit and run, different from the five other people who witnessed it. A blue car, four-door. No, a green car. A two-door coupe. A convertible. I don’t know, I was reading a text message.
We all know that even the most apparently objective journalism or historical research is heavily filtered. There is no such thing as a neutral observer; Heisenberg pointed out that what we observe we also change. The equation of “nonfiction” with “truth” (and the converse, of “fiction” with “falsehood”) is problematic at a number of levels, not least because facticity—particularly in narrative—is itself a fiction in its very contingency. As countless philosophers have explored, the concrete reality of existence within which we live, read, and write is neither permanent nor immutable.
Even in memoir, supposedly a genre of truthful baring of the soul, the person telling the story is not the author, who always and inevitably exists only outside the pages. Vivian Gornick, in The Situation and the Story, calls this created persona in memoir the “unsurrogated narrator,” a necessary departure from the writer’s own self-interest.
As novelist Keith Ridgway wrote in the New Yorker in 2012, “everything is fiction. When you tell yourself the story of your life, the story of your day, you edit and rewrite and weave a narrative out of a collection of random experiences and events. Your conversations are fiction. Your friends and loved ones—they are characters you have created.”
“Sorry it took so long,” I tell my wife, “but I got in a fist-fight with one of those red hat ladies over the last box of taco shells. They might be a little broken.” Translation: I dropped the box getting out of the car.
Where does this leave us? If all writing is persuasive, and fictional, and autobiographical, what is the point of all the tidily divisive categories and genres? Why have separate sections in the bookstore?
I had the privilege of interviewing National Book Award finalist Aleksandar Hemon last year (see the summer 2015 issue of Studies in the Novel), and he explained to me that in Bosnia there is no distinction between fiction and nonfiction. There are not even words in the language for it, he said. Writing is writing, stories are stories.
The cynical part of me suspects that the real answer to the questions above is “to sell books” and “to make money.” We need things neatly labeled in order to commodify them; we need pat terminology to dissect, analyze, and assign the books; we need taxonomies in order to track, expose, and award. From academia to publishing, our existing systems require genres.
As writers, we can realize it’s not so simple. We are always lying, and always spinning truths. We are unavoidably ourselves and everyone whose voice we adopt. We are constantly persuading, but also mourning, rejoicing, investigating, and sharing.
And, as Obi-Wan sagely observes, all absolutes are tricky things (which, ironically enough, is itself an absolute), so the assertion that all writing fits within any single category can also be rapidly punctured and deflated.
By the way, none of those exchanges with my wife actually happened. I made all of that up.
I do love tacos, though.