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Realism in literature reflects logic of non-fiction

By Gao Yu, Xie Yuanyuan | 2016-01-08 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Chinese-Tibetan author A Lai’s latest non-fiction book, Zhan Dui: Finally Melted Iron Lump: Two Hundred Years of Khan Legend, has been a big hit in the Chinese literature market.


As a literary form, non-fiction novels often prompt critics to think about the positioning of factual and fictional accounts.

Since the second issue of People’s Literature in 2010, the magazine has included a non-fiction column and published a series of works, such as Working Outside Liang Village and China in the Liang Village by Liang Hong, Zhan Dui by A Lai, and Strange Stones by Peter Hessler. Moreover, Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich has been awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for her non-fiction narratives based on interviews with witnesses.

However, the standards for non-fiction novels have yet to be established. There are no clear-cut boundaries with other genres, and writing techniques are still being explored. On one hand, it is a broader form of writing than reporting or documentary literature. On the other, it cannot be regarded as equivalent to real stories. In the end, it stirs up a debate among literary critics about how “real” the genre should be.


Authors’ perspectives
There is a range of forms of non-fiction, but generally it is divided into realistic non-fiction and historical non-fiction based on the facts it relies on. The former refers to the reality in the modern sense, while the latter deals with history.

The editor’s note in the ninth issue of People’s Literature in 2010 posed the question: “Does the countryside remembered and beautifully described by intellectuals in the modern context still exist? Are we sure our imagination, knowledge and judgment of the countryside are built on real-life experience, not from television or books?” In other words, the goal of non-fiction narratives is to give readers access to the real daily experience without ungrounded hearsay.

Realistic non-fiction usually focuses on the current affairs of daily life, so writers are more like journalists, recording the changes and human feelings in contemporary times. To a great extent, the “reality” here is in fact the voice of the narrator. That is to say, the “reality” the genre pursues is constructed from the author’s perspective. As Hong Zicheng, an expert on contemporary Chinese literature, put it, when a book says something happened, it expects readers to be its witness and believe that event did indeed occur.

Compared to realistic non-fiction, historical non-fiction is rare. Such a concept has been the subject of constant debate since the 1970s and 1980s.

In recent years, non-fiction novels, represented by Zhan Dui by A Lai, have even become like an alien presence in the Chinese literature market. In his book, A Lai tries to describe the history of Zhan Dui, a Khan Tibetan habitat in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province, during the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). All the textual materials in the novel are documented facts, including the verifiable times, places, figures and events in history. The documents it utilizes contain official records as well as folk materials, such as oral accounts based on field research, private letters and local chronicles.

These documents are often marginal narratives of the grand history. As a supplement to official records, they are more down to earth. People can relate to them and gain a better understanding of reality.


Historical materials
In essence, non-fiction novels cannot entirely discard fictitious elements. The simplest way to tell is that non-fiction can only be read as narratives, not as evidence for academic research.


To start with, given the vast amount of historical materials, writers can only pick a small part, meaning they frame the context. More importantly, they care about conveying meaning in the narration rather than discovering the historical reality. As a consequence, the first step—the selection and editing of historical materials—already creates a certain level of fiction in the texts, whereas writers put down their emotions, preference and position in the narration, further deconstructing history bit by bit.

To some degree, such a practice can offer a heterogeneous critical voice, but it usually fails to present an objective and fair conversation.

Second, the target audiences of non-fiction novels are still literature lovers or literary researchers. As A Lai once said: When one delivers a text, they unintentionally or not will make up a few things, such as adding a detail or altering a dialogue, or in particular, exaggerating marvelous plots. Reality gradually fades away and miracles occur more frequently so that stories are imbued with more romantic, beautiful and shocking emotional power. Thus, history becomes a legend.

Writers here adopt the “text” concept. In the post-modern context, a text can only be called a piece of literature when readers read it. Therefore, the “truth” lies not in the distance between literature and reality, but in language and readers’ expectations.

People build connections through words and texts while creating the world. It can also be said that the world conveys “reality” via language and symbols. It is evident that there is a complex relationship between ideal and reality. In this light, the historical and objective reality that non-fiction novels strive to present will not sustain itself, and fictitious elements will eventually surface.


Balance of history, narratives
For a long time, we have upheld the strong literary tradition of realism with a deep understanding of and extraordinary dedication to history. Somehow, the literary dimension of imagination has been abandoned. In the contemporary era and this ever-changing society, the stimulation and gratification gained from reading news is more instantaneous and intense than reading classics.


There is a saying that when some ask for reality from the perspective of a journalist, while others ask for reality from the perspective of an author, we cannot expect miracles in literature. Though a bit extreme, it is quite the dilemma for non-fiction novels.

For what it’s worth, realism in literature should not be a completely accurate description of the outside world. Literature should not be fettered by forms. Rather, it should be an introverted tension. When writers are able to resolve the tension with reality, they should follow their hearts without compromise or confrontation. 

As Chinese writer Yu Hua said, “I am drowned in imagination, but I am also gripped by reality.” If writers can break the confinement of history and reality in literary creation, a broader and deeper connotation will bestow the “reality” upon literature.

The “reality” in literature is not a self-evident concept. In a different historical context, it has different meanings. However, it is certain that the “reality” in literature is not an everyday or physical concept. It is an artistic and philosophical one. Spiritual in nature, it does not make judgments in accordance with the appearance of the world order, but the inner logic of human beings. Such a definition may seem a little unreal, but it provides craftsmen a massive platform to generate remarkable works of art that are totally different from the era it copies in the first place.

Though non-fiction novels are categorized as serious literature, sales can hardly match their fictional counterparts. While offering an individualized voice, it is easily covered by all sorts of statements. While critics seriously reflect on the genre, they are constantly interrupted by entertaining fantasy writing.

However, the efforts of non-fiction novels to achieve a balance between history and narratives are indispensable—however tortuous they may appear to be.

Writers are not journalists, politicians or historians. Their primary goal is to tell readers what they see, hear, think and feel in stories. Historical documents can be used, but with some strings attached. It requires a massive reading of historical materials and classics as well as the determination to break through reality and history without jeopardizing the readability and literary nature of works in the pursuit of “reality” in the literary sense. 


Gao Yu and Xie Yuanyuan are from the College of Humanities at Zhejiang Normal University.