Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Curtis Sittenfeld (best known, perhaps, for her novel Prep) read and speak at Politics and Prose. Her new novel, Sisterland, is just out. (I haven't read it yet, but I intend to!)
I wanted to blog about her reading for two reasons, one macro and one micro.
First, the macro: her reading was, in my opinion, just what a reading should be... she struck the right tone of being personable (not saccharine on one end or stiff on the other). Her talk had good hooks to it as she addressed what inspired her to write the novel (a very intriguing premise) and then read a section that illustrated character and conflict without giving too much away. After the reading, she took questions, fielding them gracefully. And, while she certainly answered what was asked, her replies were long and digressive and interesting, taking the kernel of the question and expanding on it. So... if you have the chance to hear her read, I highly recommend doing so.
Second, the micro level. Sittenfeld made a number of interesting comments on writing (both her personal practice and on the business side of it). The one that struck me was her comment (she said she was paraphrasing something that she's heard from others) that when you write nonfiction, people pick at it to show how it isn't true and when you write fiction, people comb through it to show how it is true.
I'd never thought of it that way, but immediately felt the accuracy of this statement. Readers of fiction want their fiction to reflect reality; they want it to be possible and credible. This is a tendency that has historical context, I believe, as for a long time novels and other works of fiction were couched as real stories. Somehow, that's the only way that they are worthwhile.
On the other hand, when someone presents a nonfiction book as "the truth" or an interpretation thereof, the instinct is to disagree. Oddly, it is actually the same process as with fiction though: the reader is simply asserting his or her own understanding of what is true.
And of course, where does this leave historical fiction? With the best (or worst, as the case may be) of both worlds!