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Wideman on Campus, continued

“I tend to react against the notion that I should provide a very clear distinction between fiction and nonfiction, because I don’t think the lines are hard and fast.”

Lorene Cary: You’ve written fiction, nonfiction, and in your fiction the names of your own family members appear. They come back, they double, they redouble, as you interweave family stories and imaginative narrative together. Many of my writing students struggle to understand the relation between their own lives—their own experiences of their autobiographies—and their fictions. I’m hoping that you can talk a little about how you approach that question.

John Wideman: Nothing like a nice straightforward, easy question to begin with. [Laughter] So I’ll start off with a simple answer: Life is fiction, fiction is life. The construction of reality is politics at its most basic level. What constitutes anyone’s reality? Well, it’s what you believe and think is important, and so your reality depends upon; how you’ve been brought up; what culture tells you about yourself; what your friends tell you about yourself—and from all these bits and pieces each of us begins to put together some sense of what counts as real.
    As a fiction writer I tend to react against the notion that I should provide a very clear distinction between fiction and nonfiction, because I don’t think the lines are hard and fast. I think that what we call imaginative reality has just as much place in how we see our ourselves and put ourselves together as material reality—and even those two words material and imaginative are always shifting, always changing. Where is someone when they’re saying a prayer? Where are you when you are thinking about another time or another place than your body happens to be, or when you are addressing a lover, a family member who’s not around? These moments when you’re suspended between worlds or shuttling indiscriminately, seamlessly back and forth, in both at once, are as real as any I’ve ever encountered, and I insist on those being part of what’s designated as reality.
    When we’re told we have to observe certain hard, fast lines, we’re being shunted into a way of apprehending the world. I try to stay conscious of what’s arbitrary or self-interested in the lines other people draw. I’m making the argument that these lines are always problematic, subjective. We make political choices as well as formal choices when we call our writing fiction or nonfiction. Why should I allow someone to sneak in a political agenda when they insist on distinctions between fiction and nonfiction that I don’t believe really matter.

Cary: Something that clearly does matter are the ethical choices made in choice of subject, choice of form. [For instance, the technique of using actual names in your fiction.] All forms require choices. What are some of those choices that you make?

Wideman: To answer that question, I have to look back at 30 years of writing, and my writing has changed, I hope, during that period. My opinions have changed as much as my approach to writing has evolved. Right now, the basic rule I follow to keep straight the ethical and moral dimensions of distinctions between fiction and nonfiction is this: I try as much possible, as clearly as possible, to keep the reader informed of what I think I’m doing—even though I know what I think I’m doing is not always what I’m doing. But at least I attempt to let the people know: “Hey, I’m writing this story about my brother, and it’s based on interviews, but the interviews weren’t transcribed. I carried the interviews away in my head and wrote them down, sometimes a week later, and checked them with my brother, got the substance right to his understanding and mine, but I’m responsible, reader, for the words on the page. These are not exactly my brother’s words, but he sort of gave them the OK.” If the reader is given this kind of info, we’re in good shape.

Cary: [James] Baldwin said that in America we give celebrity to our writers and that it’s ruinous—that celebrity is not the same thing as true appreciation or true admiration but is a different thing that can be corrosive. I’m wondering about how the whole issue of writers and celebrity versus appreciation has affected you? As someone who has been writing for a number of years [and] has managed to keep going—who’s not been a flash in the pan, who produces work that allows himself to be seen growing and maturing and changing through the work—you have much to tell us about that.

Wideman: I’ve been fairly lucky because the acceptance of me by a reading public has been very gradual—it’s still, from my point of view, gradual. I’m not a writer who has ever sold enormous numbers of books. I’m a writer who has a substantial readership among university people, for instance—enough of my books are taught in university classes to keep my publishers vaguely happy. The book that sold most in hardback was Brothers and Keepers, and I’m pretty sure it never sold more than fifty-odd thousand copies. Minor league in terms of what’s expected by publishers for megabooks. No work of fiction has come close to those numbers.
    My first novel was not a big, commercial success. Fine reviews, but they didn’t create the sort of sensation that draws legions of fans waiting in the wings for the next book or critics waiting in the wings to say, “Wideman’s first book was a hit, but this one’s not so good. What’s wrong? Is he washed up?” Dealing with the boom or bust mentality in publishing is terrrible for anybody, but especially for young writers. I’ve had friends wilt under that pressure, friends who wrote a fairly decent first book and then got a huge advance for the second book and it paralyzed them.
    I began slowly, so I had no fear of a great fall. I never expected the big bucks and popular acclaim. Besides, I grew up poor and knew I better have a day job. So I prepared myself to teach in a university, and I’ve taught my whole writing life, so I didn’t have to worry about what happened in terms of sales. On the other hand, I admit part of me still wants it all. I want critical acclaim, I want bestsellers, but of course I realize that doesn’t happen for most people and the instances of it happening grow rarer.

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