Lazy Luddite Log

29.7.18

Descriptive Fiction Versus Creative Non-Fiction

Sometimes working as a note-taker for special needs students in tertiary institutions can be educational. I get exposed to all sort of information that I may never have come across otherwise. And sometimes that info puts names to things I am only somewhat aware of.

In one case I was informed of something called 'creative non-fiction'. In creative non-fiction a journalist presents facts-based news utilizing narrative forms. I realized that I had read many such items. They often follow the format of a sort of 'news sandwich in anecdotal bread'. The piece will start and end with describing the experience of a person facing a particular issue. In between these the substantive content describing the issue itself will be given. This is supposed to draw the reader in by making the information more personal. It is something they can better relate to than just arguments and statistics. It allows them to connect with those facing the problems arising from the issue under discussion.

Personally I find this frustrating. I simply want to be given the substantive information right away. I would prefer if the anecdote was presented as a case study in a separate text box. I can apply the information to human experience myself thanks very much.

Becoming aware of creative non-fiction suddenly got me thinking of another mode of writing that reverses its characteristics and that I have long been a fan of. I shall call it 'descriptive fiction'. It presents imaginary persons and scenarios but in an detached and academic way. There are plenty of instances of this and I will enthuse over just two.

One is the Appendices in The Lord Of The Rings (1955) which are a fantastic example of descriptive fiction. One of the appeals of Middle Earth has always been the sense that it is a complete world that exists well beyond the confines of the narrative itself. The appendices bolster this by providing scholarly discussion of the history, culture and language of the setting and its inhabitants. You have to be in the right mood for it but sometimes I am and it can be fascinating. This was influential and definitely affected how I went onto describe my own fantasy setting.

The other is the science fiction art compilations edited by Stewart Cowley (aka Steven Caldwell) that attach the work of several artists to the one setting of the Terran Trade Authority and Galactic Encounters (1978-1980) books. The texts describe the growth of a stellar confederation in our local cluster. They are written as guidebooks and in childhood I found this a persuasive way to present a fantastic future. Mind you even then I could tell that something was amiss. The text would apply the name of a particular alien species to two artworks depicting beings that were only vaguely similar. Like a 'jukebox musical' the editor did his best to make a jigsaw fit with a hammer. These books are worth it however for the pulp art. They present space tech as full of colour and curves. Movies and television at the time focused on grey-scale tones and utilitarian shapes. It took over a decade for innovative shows like Babylon-5 (1994-1997) to bring a more lurid and sensual look into science fiction multi-media.

I have my preferences but both these hybridized forms of writing serve a purpose and connect with different audience temperaments. I'm happy to now have names for both creative non-fiction and descriptive fiction.

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