So it's noon at the Jundt Auditorium at Gonzaga and the panel discussion I'm sitting in on is entitled "The Roles of Non-Fiction." And onstage are: A) a journalist, B) a personal essayist, C) a fiction writer/memoirist and D) someone who might try to punch me in the face if I had the audacity to label the work she does.
(And if this sounds like I'm setting up a punch line, it's because I kinda am.)
So then the moderator asks, slow pitch softball style, (paraphrasing) "sooooooo, what IS the role of non-fiction?"
D), who is Sallie Tisdale, is disdainful of giving things roles and seemingly of the word "role" itself. Non-fiction is art, and "art should be good for nothing." It is a good unto itself. Attempts to externalize the good of art — and therefore to give art a role — are stupid. I assume, though I didn't ask her, that this means Tisdale hates things like Picasso's Guernica but loves Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
The question is doubly daft to Tisdale because "no one has ever come up with a definition [of non-fiction] that's satisfying." And since no one's ever been able to categorize it, she asserts, how can you assign it a role?
To Tisdale, non-fiction as a genre is like indie rock — a loose collection of things that don't fit into easier categories.---
Other panelists are more game to play ball. Kevin Sampsell, the novelist/memoirist, responds that non-fiction should, "shine a light on something in a way [the reader, the public, the world] hasn't seen before."
Diana Joseph, the personal essayist, says she's going to disagree with Tisdale, and I'm expecting authorial fisticuffs, but she just ends up saying that non-fiction's only role is to answer the question, "So what?" There's a ton of life that happens all the time; the only duty of a non-fiction-ist is to chronicle an event (or non-event) and explain the significance.
Lynda Mapes, the journalist, says the purpose is to create a "connection between us [meaning humanity as a whole] and across space and time." Taking those things that are remote from each other, either by physical difference or differences of time or worldview, etc, and bringing them together.
I like that answer the best, personally, which is probably just me showing my bias for journalism and journalists.
Her personal role, she says poignantly, is to be the water-bearer. People give her their stories, she says, and "it's my job to carry it to someone else without spilling a drop."It was an awesome talk. That was just the first question. You should have been there.