Storytelling, Reality, and Documentary Fiction

Recently, Hamish Hamilton Canada announced plans to publish Michael Winter’s forthcoming novel, Minister Without Portfolio, in September 2013. I’m a fan of Winter’s work and will look forward to reading the novel; I found his last novel The Death of Donna Whalen (Penguin, 2010) challenging, disturbing, and engaging. It also prompted me to consider current cultural preoccupations with definitions of reality and fiction, and how and why we rely on narrative and storytelling to determine, or perhaps challenge the idea of ‘truth.’ The Death of Donna Whalen centres on the 1993 murder of Donna Whalen and the trial of her accused boyfriend Sheldon Troke. Winter incorporates trial transcripts and verbatim court testimonies in the work; his publisher described the novel as ‘documentary fiction.’

The practice of incorporating historical or ‘real-life’ events in a fictional work is common. But the term ‘documentary fiction’ isn’t one I’ve often heard applied to a novel. So I Googled it and came up with a New York Times article titled ‘”Documentary” Fiction.’ The article begins: ‘The question of historical fiction has been tremendously threshed over these last months. Very likely there is nothing new left to say about it.’ The article, dated October 12, 1901, goes on to discuss Rudyard Kipling’s work.

Clearly, authors and audiences have a long and complicated relationship with history, storytelling, and ‘the truth.’ Right now, our pop culture is fairly obsessed with the concept of reality. But while celebrity blogs and TV shows like The Only Way is Essex, Geordie Shore, and Made in Chelsea may operate under an overarching premise of reality, they are often purposefully ambiguous regarding what events in their narratives are real or staged. These programmes are very different in their content, message, and intended audience from historical fiction, memoirs, biography, and Winter’s documentary fiction. But perhaps the proliferation of multiple mediums that simultaneously entwine yet differentiate between fiction and fact speaks to a persistent and increasingly fraught cultural preoccupation with one’s ability to identify truth.

On the other hand, maybe an ambiguity between fact and fiction simply contributes to quality of storytelling. We read and write stories to learn about ourselves, others, the world we inhabit. Is there value in attempting to define or identify why and how we blur the categories, or should we embrace E. L. Doctorow’s sentiment that “[t]here is no fiction or nonfiction as we commonly understand the distinction: there is only narrative.”? In choosing to write documentary fiction, Winter may satisfy cultural desires for both fact and story, which in turn allows him to tell Whalen’s story in a way that resonates deeply with his contemporary audience.