On Borrowing the Techniques of Nonfiction

January 3, 2011 § Leave a comment


The editorial staff is hunkered down next to the radiators in the Brevity corporate towers this morning, enjoying the bejeebers out of author/editor Philip Graham’s latest, most brilliant blog post.  We are as guilty as anyone of repeating the idea that creative nonfiction writers borrow the techniques of fiction to make truth come alive on the page.  Graham makes clear, however — using the examples of Herodotus, Xenophon, and Cicero — that the exchange goes in the opposite direction, and started well before Talese and Capote.  Here’s a fine except, followed by a link to the whole shimmering shebang:

The attraction for me of Cicero’s Murder Trials is the author’s voice, as alive on the page as could be. Here is an eloquent lawyer (his clients usually went free) making his case, doing his best to characterize his client in the best light, while casting other personalities in the trial into dark shadow, as can be seen in this excerpt from “In Defense of Aulus Cluentius Habitus,” where a mother seduces her daughter’s husband, forcing a divorce, and then promptly marries the man herself:

“She actually gave orders that the identical marriage-bed which she herself had prepared, two years previously, for the wedding of her own daughter should now be got ready and adorned for herself, in the very home from which her daughter had been expelled and hounded out. And so mother-in-law married son-in-law, with no one to declare the omens or give the bride away, amid the gloomiest forebodings from everyone.

“What unbelievably atrocious behavior that woman displayed! Indeed, her conduct must surely be quite unparalleled and unique. Her sexual desires must truly have been insatiable. Even if the might of the gods, the judgment of mankind, did not frighten her, it is strange indeed that she did not feel overawed by the torches, by the threshold of the bridal chamber which contained her own daughter’s bridal bed, by the very walls themselves which had gazed upon that other union. In her sensual frenzy there was no obstacle which she forbore to break through and trample down out of her way. Modesty was overcome by passionate lust, caution by unbridled recklessness, reason by mania uncontrollable.

“Her son Cluentius took it badly.”

Reading this, I imagine I can hear Cicero’s voice, the measured indignation rising before the jurists as he sets the scene of the marriage night, then quieting as he lowballs Cluentius’s reaction to his mother’s appalling behavior. Here, Cicero not only works hard to transform living, breathing people into something like fictional characters who can be efficiently understood and judged, but he spins it all with such an engaging narrative voice that he himself is added to the dramatis personae.

+=+=+=+  Philip Graham’s Blog Post: Cluentius Took it Badly +=+=+=+

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