Fiction, Nonfiction, and Creative Nonfiction

There has been a vogue, in recent times, for a type of memoir known as “creative nonfiction,” which appears to mean inventing or altering facts in order to “make a better story.” I don’t know why anyone would bother doing this. If you need to fictionalize a story in order to make it appealing, why not just write a novel?

If you’re going write a memoir or a history, you have to do so in the faith that the story is already there. It’s in the actual events. It’s real. Your job is not to create the story but to discover it, because in nonfiction “story” is not something you impose upon the facts; it’s something you reveal through the facts.

To put in another way, in a work of fiction, the facts don’t have to be true, they just have to be plausible. In a memoir or a history, the facts don’t have to be plausible, they just have to be true.

And that’s the glory of it.

I’m thinking of the history I have just written, Games Without Rules, The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan. If this were a novel, I could never get away with having British envoy William McNaughton report to his superiors, in 1841, that all was “quiet from Dar to Beersheba” in Afghanistan, only one month before his chief aide Alexander Burnes was killed by a mob surrounding his house, and only two months before MacNaughten himself was beheaded by Afghans.

And if I got away with that, I couldn’t pile absurdity on absurdity by writing that the entire British community of 16,000 then panicked and instead of trying to reach the safety of a fortified palace on the other side of the city, they tried to escape the country on foot over the Hindu Kush mountains in winter!

And I certainly couldn’t write that forty years later, almost to the day, British envoy Louis Napoleon Cavagnari made virtually the same mistakes. He issued almost exactly the same statement as Macnaghten, in the same city, and in the same circumstances–just two days before he was killed by a mob surrounding his residence. It just wouldn’t be plausible.

But it’s all true, so I could put it into my book.

As a novelist, I could never create the terrifying late-19th century Afghan king Abdu’rahman—the Iron Amir!—and then give him a wife who had her own corps of bodyguards consisting of women warriors. In 19th century Afghanistan? It’s just not credible.

And I couldn’t have the 20th century Communist president Taraki plot to assassinate his own vice-president by strapping a bomb to the toilet and inviting the guy over for lunch. I mean really! Who could believe such a story? And to have the episode end with the president and the vice-president of the country chasing through the palace, firing at each other with handguns? You couldn’t put that in a novel unless you were writing an absurdist black comedy. Otherwise, it’s just bad Hollywood.

Except that it really happened. So I can put it in my nonfiction book.

When one writes fiction, by contrast, one begins with the narrative arc and then assembles the facts necessary to give it flesh. In fiction it is never permissible to justify an implausible event by saying, “But something like that really happened!” Doesn’t matter that it happened. It has to seem like it happened. Indeed, within the terms of the fiction, it has to seem not just plausible but inevitable.