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Poetics Today 22.4 (2001) 867-868
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Matters of Fact: Reading Nonfiction over the Edge
Daniel Lehman, Matters of Fact: Reading Nonfiction over the Edge. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1997. x + 224 pp.
In his book, which deals with nonfictional narrative, Lehman criticizes what he diagnoses as a tendency in the current critical climate, namely, the blurring of meaningful distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. This is usually done nowadays by appeal to some variant of the argument that, since experiences can be approached only through the stories we tell about them and since the construction of these stories depends on relativistic cultural conventions, it is futile to attempt to decide what is really a "true" account of any event. While acknowledging the impossibility of formulating empirical standards of truth with certainty, Lehman still contends that both reading and writing nonfiction are fundamentally different from reading and writing even the most strongly realistic kind of fiction. According to [End Page 867] him, this difference stems from the nature of the communicative situation that obtains between writers and readers, in which both sides are aware that texts defined as nonfiction claim to be linked to actual subjects and events and therefore that the worlds created in them always compete with the lives and events that lie outside them.
Lehman, who himself acquired a rich and varied experience in journalistic writing before starting his academic career, tries to illustrate in his book various ways nonfictional narratives implicate both readers and writers differently than do fictional narratives. He terms it "reading over the edge," the "edge" being the one that separates the "inside" from the "outside" of the narrative, that is, the text itself from the reality that lies outside it.
To flesh out his argument Lehman discusses in some detail texts by Freud, John Reed, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Tim O'Brien. Most of these narratives display an awareness of various kinds of problematics related to their nonfictional status. Lehman acknowledges that, especially in the twentieth century, many nonfictional texts tend to problematize their status but argues that this merely proves that the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction are important and relevant, otherwise their blurring (or transgression) would not result in such highly significant effects. From this point of view the most interesting chapter in the book is its closing one, which deals with O'Brien's stories of his experiences in the Vietnam War. Written in complex hybrid combinations of fiction and nonfiction, these stories may be characterized, paraphrasing a currently popular term, as "metanonfictional."
Eyal Segal, Tel Aviv