Guns, Germs, and Steel: for years, it was the book everyone was talking about. Any intelligent conversation, ranging from politics to philosophy to American History, it all somehow came back to this book. But I resisted reading it — until now — for one simple reason: it was non-fiction. On another occasion, whilst socializing with some writer friends, we were talking books, and one of the writers suggested Virginia Woolf’s landmark treatise A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN, and I heard myself say: “Oh, it’s great, but, you know, it’s non-fiction,” to which several of my friends rightly protested.
As writers, we have two core responsibilities to our craft — to read and to write — along with the supplementary task of experiencing life. I’ve written previously about whether it’s more important to read or write in order to improve your writing, but how does one choose fiction versus non-fiction, or poetry versus prose, or whether these distinctions even matter. Columbia divides its workshops and students — perhaps too dogmatically — into fiction, non-fiction, and poetry — although literary cross-pollination is encouraged. The benefit of this distinction is a sense of community established within each of the three divisions. In my own reading, though, I’ve typically stuck to fiction (or, lately, poetry), whereas I can remember both non-fiction books I’ve voluntarily read in the past 10 years: Jane Meyer’s THE DARK SIDE and James Gleick’s THE INFORMATION, both of which directly contributed to research for my own book DISTRICT OF CAMELOT.
And yet, now, having scoured the 17th Street Housing Works and found a cheap copy of Jared Diamond’s meaty tome, I’ve started reading about the environmental influences of the tribes of Polynesia, and it’s wonderful! It’s like sitting in a lecture with your favorite insane, long-haired hippy professor whose excitement about the most obscure subjects you can’t help but share. Fun, brainy, but will it strengthen my writing? The sentences serve to convey an ordered sequence of arguments and resolutions, to convey information efficiently. Fiction, likewise, communicates a sequence of gestures and arguments, but what’s the difference? Non-fiction can be written artfully: I’m remembering William Styron’s DARKNESS VISIBLE and must add it to the list of non-fiction books I’ve read. And fiction can certainly be written artlessly, so the difference must be in its truth, although this, also, seems completely ridiculous, as non-fiction is just one person’s truth, and many great quotes exist about fiction telling truth that facts obscure, etc. I thought there was a question in here somewhere, but maybe there isn’t. I’m wondering what other writers think about this: should fiction writers read fiction to improve their prose? Should poets listen to lyrics? Should non-fiction writers have robotic chips implanted in their brains? Are the distinctions totally meaningless? Share your thoughts, dear readers.