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Friday, January 4, 2008 12:08 pm
Fiction vs. Nonfiction Factionalism
Posted by: Keir Graff

I’ve been enjoying the posts at Book Group Buzz. Yesterday, Misha Stone’s “When Fiction and Reality Collide” addressed–well, you’re probably one step ahead of me on that one. Says Stone:

As a Fiction Librarian, I often get a little annoyed when patrons distinguish the difference between fiction and non-fiction as "fake" versus "real."

As a fiction reviewer, writer, and made-up person, I, too, get annoyed when I meet someone (usually at a cocktail party where the non-profit and for-profit worlds collide) who informs me that they don’t like to read novels because they like to “learn things.” Nothing wrong with simply preferring nonfiction to fiction, of course, but those who dismiss fiction out-of-hand usually strike me as being people who don’t know what to do with the facts they have. Facts are important, but what good are facts without insight? Fiction plays free with the facts in order to investigate even deeper matters.

This topic must be in the Booklist zeitgeist, as Joyce Saricks’ soon-to-be-published column, “Reading to Learn and Learning as We Read,” confirms. She begins:

A few months ago, I came across a comment that got me thinking: readers read nonfiction to learn something. Though seemingly innocuous, the remark, in context, implied that one doesn’t learn from fiction. I confess it got my dander up: Is nonfiction essentially superior because it offers information, the opportunity to learn something? And is it true that we don’t learn from fiction? 

How does she conclude? I’ll add a link on Monday, when her column goes live, so you can read for yourself.

This is all to say nothing of the real-versus-fake issue facing memoir, about which enough has been said already to last us until 2009.

(Unless I think of something really, really clever. Then I won’t be able to help myself.)

Update: Here’s the link to Joyce Saricks’ latest column, “Reading to Learn and Learning as We Read.”

13 Responses to “Fiction vs. Nonfiction Factionalism”
  1. Carol Kania Says:

    Here’s an even more basic problem: I know many learned (or to be more precise: well-educated)people who simply cannot remember the difference between fiction and nonfiction. They get hung up on the “non” part, as their brains want the negation to be associated with what’s not there — which would be the “truth.”

    As for me, I can’t wait until we get rid of these labels. Fiction is sometimes truer than fact, and nonfiction (especially in many autobiographies) can be very far from reality.

  2. Keir Says:

    Great comment, Carol (and fast!). I agree that the labels aren’t very helpful. I sometimes take issue with memoirists who lie a lot–but only when they insist that people take them seriously. I was going to write that we’d all do well to remember that there are a lot of untruths in nonfiction and there’s a lot of truth in fiction–but I like the way you said it better.

  3. Carol Kania Says:

    I’d like to say that I sit at the ready waiting for you to post…but that would be fiction…(seriously, I do enjoy your blog!)

  4. misha Says:

    Thanks for the cross-post, Keir. I am so often in the business of defending fiction–and also find myself doing so at parties! I also can’t wait for Joyce’s article!

  5. maggie Says:

    In the orientation classes I lead, I like to ask the students the difference between fiction and non-fiction. As you can guess, I get a version of real/made-up. Then I ask them, “Now class, where will I find books on ghosts, goblins, aliens, UFOs, etc.? :D

  6. Keir Says:

    That’s hilarious. Thanks, Maggie!

  7. Susan Says:

    Oddly enough, I’m a non-fiction fan who’s always felt a bit intimidated and non-literary when people start talking about fiction. It never dawned on me that fiction would even need defending. There are fiction books and writers that I adore, but when I really need chewing gum for the mind, oddly enough nothing satisfies it for me better than a good book on epidemic disease or evolution. Fiction has to be really good to grab and keep me, and there’s an awful lot of formulaic fiction out there that just leaves me cold. (Yes, I realize there’s a lot of bad non-fiction, too!) I guess it just sort of amazes me that there even would be an argument as to which is best.

  8. Nicole Says:

    Thanks for this post. I used to run a book group as part of my young professionals group and people would always say how they had no interest in fiction. One person said that he only read business material, implying that reading was only meaningful if it could help him with his job. There’s also the issue of time being looked upon as a commodity which means that people don’t understand why they should bother to read fiction as opposed to watching a movie.

    This is unfortunate, because even though it’s not factual, fiction can still teach you things. It can broaden your vocabulary and you can learn from the events that take place in the book.

    A Guardian article discusses how in the UK reading has been used to help heal sick people — specifically fiction like Shakespeare, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Rebecca, Great Expectations, Adam Bede, Jane Eyre and Of Mice and Men. These books seem to help people as much as self-help books.

  9. Jonathan Says:

    While many people say that non-fiction is factual, the truth is that a very large portion of non-fiction is composed of opinions, not facts.
    You can always find one book that contradicts the interpretations of another.

    Some fiction can show truth by presenting life in its most concrete sense. A very well written work of fiction (which is rare)shows us life as it is actually lived. It puts experience into the proper context. The world is seen through the eyes of a particular person, in a particular place, at a particular time. All aspects of real life, emotional and intellectual are presented together in an evokation of genuine human experience.

    Gray’s Anatomy shows you what a human being is like; Anna Karenina shows you what is it like to be a human being.

  10. Jennie Says:

    In the words of Officer Bill Gannon (Dragnet): “Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.” —No, not really.
    When I am teaching my middle school students I tell them to remember Nonfiction=numbers. We then discuss details like “When is a fairy tale retelling fiction and when is it in the 300s?” The lines start to blur and the children learn—fact vs. fiction or nonfiction vs. fiction. As a true “life time learner”, I have learned more history from reading well-researched fiction than I ever did in history class, but that is my preference and my learning style. I am also the mother of three boys. Two of the three read only non-fiction. They do not want to analyze interpersonal relationships; they want the facts. A while back there was a research report about teenage boys and their inability to decode social cues and facial expressions and how this impacts their behavior in social situations. At the risk of sounding sexist, lets just say that some people are able to understand social cues better than others. I would like to see this study expanded to written descriptions. How difficult is it for some students to sit in an English class and actually draw conclusions from the written word when they have difficulty understanding when they themselves are in the social situation? My son’s English teacher once shared her dismay at my son’s answer to her question, “Why do you think Gatsby is described as having a great smile?” My son answered, “Maybe he had good teeth!” It wasn’t a smart aleck comment. My son had just had his brace remove and did indeed have a beautiful smile! In his mind smiles were about teeth. I think what we read for pleasure has more to do with our individual brains than our search for knowledge. Read whatever you want in whatever form you prefer. In fact, maybe you prefer to listen…or view…or?

  11. Keir Says:

    Nicole, the Guardian article was very interesting, especially this:

    “If books are to be therapeutic, it seems, it’s because they take us to dark places rather than bright ones.”

    Thanks for the link!

  12. zfelder Says:

    In your comment –
    Is there a word left out of the last sentence – “Fiction plays free with the facts in order to _______even deeper matters.”? Please let me know. I’m really interested in this topic.

    Thanks!

  13. Keir Says:

    Why, yes, there was a word left out. Of course, now I don’t remember what word I intended to use, so I’ll say it was “investigate.” (Post duly amended.) Good catch!


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