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Cat's Cradle: The art of nonfiction

The genre of nonfiction is a complex subject to discuss. Nonfiction doesn’t denote the genre. Rather, it presents something “without” fiction, which is not true. Instead, nonfiction is facts presented in creative ways. Nonfiction is shaped and defined by the ways creators work within this format of “creative fact.” 

One of America’s greatest nonfiction novels “The Souls of Black Folk” is a series of collected essays and personal narratives that proposes the theory “double consciousness.” W.E.B. Du Bois uses the novel format to present something that exists as both personal and analytical. He achieves this through the juxtaposition of personal narrative to theory. 

Each chapter opens with a selection from a poem and a “spiritual,” the ladder presented as an excerpt of sheet music. Drawing from African American culture and history, the novel presents something to engage readers on several levels of analysis. While Du Bois masterfully constructs an argument on the double consciousness. 

Similarly in film, specifically documentaries, the goal is to sway an audience. Films like “The Act of Killing” or “Super Size Me” are narratives presented in a biased format. Specifically, documentaries seek to shift the views of an audience. 

Hearts and Minds” is about the Vietnam War. It’s constructed from interviews of soldiers, historians and residents, as well as PSAs and newsreels. “Lynzee Klingman” and “Susan Martin” head the editing behind the picture which match-cuts scenes for ironic and shock value. Derided as either overtly political, honest or a mixture of both, Peter Davis’ film shows an element to nonfiction that is a part of the format: opinion.

Everyone has a stance or develops a stance based upon the input of others. What angle a story is told from gives a narrative it’s power. This leads to the graphic-narrative memoirs like “Fun Home,” “Persepolis” and “Maus.”

Each graphic novel presents narrative against image, directly contrasting or enhancing the prose. Here we have rhyming actions in Modernist novels and the lives of Bechdels family; the evolution of Satrapi’s art from childish, geometric to the fluid, human figure; and Spiegleman’s use of anthropomorphic characters to re-tell trauma. 

In this way we have an abstraction of ideas. Each graphic novel is based on true stories and adapts those stories. However, the way they are portrayed or the order of events may differ from historical fact. This brings us to the final aspect of nonfiction, and the most common element across media: creativity. 

Here we have Du Bois multi-media approach to writing his essays. The sharp editing of Klingman and Martin to match emotions and visuals. The use of black-and-whites in graphic memoirs to convey a “simple story.”

Quammen’s “Monster of God,” a novel that details the history and study into the apex predators, uses the “xenomorph” as a metaphor for new viral infections; the role the dangerous animals play into a larger ecosystem. Cousteau's narrative-history on the invention of the SCUBA device in “The Silent World” employs photos taken underwater. These images serve as a narrative break and visual representation. 

The genre needs to be rethought by readers and fledgling creators alike. Facts, fiction and personal narrative can and should blend together. Stories are not separated from the songs, the images, the opinions or the creativity of it’s creator, and art should reflect that. 

Nonfiction is a composite of these elements. It’s a recreation of external factors that defines the author and helps re-shape a reader’s viewpoint. Through nonfiction we can learn, create and explore new life experiences. Nonfiction is not limited by fact or medium, but by the way we portray it. 

Benjamin Ervin is a senior studying English literature and writing at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Benjamin know by emailing him

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