Wednesday, June 3, 2009


The Poetry of Information

What we really read?

One of the most prominent contemporary Czech writers, Ludvík Vaculík, has said: "I read belles-lettres infrequently. I like to read vocabularies of foreign languages; it's my escape reading." Jaroslav Hašek, the author of the famous Czech satire, The Good Soldier Švejk, once said that to relax he read encyclopedias or children's books. If Ernest Hemmingway had writer's block, he reached for a pile of magazines. Other professional writers take their minds off their work by reading cookbooks.

Modern people, especially those in cities, like to utilize their time as effectively as possible. This is the main appeal of non-fiction, for while it can include stories, it suggests a concentration of practical information with which people believe they can answer their own material exigencies.

The editor of what is considered top-quality fiction at a well-known Prague publishing house has said: "I'm sick of going through somebody's intestines in fiction. I want to read something useful to me, not primarily conceived for somebody else's intellectual masturbation."

Increasingly, in the work of contemporary poets, we run across facts or ideas from the worlds of science and technology. One example is the Czech poet and immunologist, Miroslav Holub, who sprinkles his verse with specialized terms from modern medicine. Likewise, more and more poets' résumés show them working full-time in professions that most people would hardly describe as poetic. The Czech poet Miroslav Huptych, for example, is a nurse in psychiatric clinic. The American poet Wallace Stevens was a senior executive of the Hartford Insurance Agency in Hartford, Connecticut. The Portuguese poet, Casimiro de Brito, is the director of a profitable bank in Lisbon. His famous predecessor French poet Guillaume Apollinaire was only a clerk in bank. Nowadays many followers, like the Estonian poet Karl Martin Sinijärv, are copywriters at respectable advertising companies (in Sinijärv's case, Sacchi & Sacchi).

Likewise, more and more writers are primarily either full-time professional scientists, or have some sort of technical background. From other side those educated in natural sciences are coming with new ideas perfectly fitting into non-fiction frame. Best-selling examples include doctor of the medicine Lewis Thomas, the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, the astrophysicist Alan Lightman, the surgeon Richard Selzer and the cosmologist Carl Sagan. Isaac Asimov, with an incredible output of 400 sci-fi books, was a professor of biochemistry at Berkeley.

Nowadays also authors of serious fiction are established in areas that were once considered the milieu of "pop-literature" -- i.e. non-fiction. Remember Norman Mailer and his The Executioner's Song about the murderer Gary Gilmore, described as a "fully-realized synthesis of fiction and non-fiction" (The Times Literary Supplement, October 16, 1998). Mailer also wrote Of A Fire on the Moon about the 1969 Apollo space launch that put the first man on the moon--a highly technical book that seems to be a mid-step between serious fiction and the technical novels of bestselling writer Tom Clancy a decade later. In Frederick Forsythe's bestseller, The Day of the Jackal, information is compiled with such perfection that one wonders if one isn't reading a historical account. In the 1980s, the success of Arthur Hailey's novels may be likewise attributed to the public's appetite for information. These books are scarcely more than detailed brochures of various service industries and high-powered professions (Airport, Hotel, Wheels, Reporter, Money, Cure, Last Diagnosis, etc.) dressed up with makeshift plots to make them read like novels. Danish author Peter Hoeg used in his bestselling novel "Sense of Ms. Smilla for snow" citations from serious scientific papers about ice. Joseph Heller in one of his last books described his own experience with serious illness called Guillain-Barré with many information from basic medicine. Yet the international successes of these books suggest that we can no longer live in intellectual isolation anywhere. Holes in the ozone layer, for example, bring people from around the world together in their anxiety of how to deal with such a potentially catastrophic problem.

At the end of last century we may see attempt to combine fiction and non-fiction with hope that this combination will save best from both. Story and facts. The results is called Creative Non-fiction and had its own magazine led by Lee Gutkind who wrote in 1998: "We are writing true stories - and this is a base for creative non-fiction - but without interventions to privacy and honesty of others."

Ryszard Kapuściński's cannot be counted as fiction writer, however his best-selling book Emperor is more than non-fiction. Main hero of the book the Ethiopian monarch, Hailie Selassie, is long time dead and his role is almost forgotten. But his portrait is drawn by Kapuściński with the vividness of a well-crafted work of fiction, or like stories told hundreds of years ago by travelers of foreign lands. And this is a good, optimistic news. The story, as a messenger of information, will never die, whether we call it fiction, non-fiction or new offspring - creative non-fiction.

(The End)

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