Thursday, July 7, 2011

Soapbox Series #4 (or Reading, 'Riting, Ranting) -- "Nonfiction is True, Fiction is False.""

In days of yore, I worked at the public library. One day, an odd young man came in (he had, on a previous visit, used the library phone [small town, long time ago] to cold-call a dude ranch and blurt, "Can I get a job there?" which had caused me to flee the circulation desk and hide in the stacks to laugh), pointed to the A-Z shelves and asked, "Um, fiction...that's fake, right?"

I don't remember exactly what I said. I do remember that laughter, unless maniacal, was not one of the responses I considered. I also remember that, being in my place of employment here, I kept my mouth shut for several beats. No Mount Vesuvius of righteous indignation. I suppose it's possible I said "WHAT?" although not that loudly. Eventually, I did manage to burble that yes, nonfiction was the factual stuff with the Dewey decimal numbers on the spines, and fiction was imaginative story, invented by the writer.

I don't really want to segue into discussing the worth of fiction, as suggested by questions and comments we've all probably heard: "How am I supposed to get anything out of stuff that isn't real?" "Fiction is all lies." (For the record, I can't stand when writers say fiction is lies.) "Fiction is just made up, it's indulgence, not worth my time." I want to stick to the definitions. IS fiction lies, fake, false, untrue? IS nonfiction anything that's 100% factual, or "happened just that way"?

It ain't that simple.

I've seen stories that use characters, conflict, plot, and dialogue, accompanied by a note saying the whole incident happened "just like this," so it's nonfiction. Nope. To any editor or reader seeing it, it's fiction based on a real event, and could probably use some changes (fictionalizing) to make it an even better story. Unless you have clearly signaled that this is a personal experience essay, say, or an anecdote meant to illustrate a point you're going to discuss, this "true story" material wants to be, and is, fiction.

I've seen articles that use characters, conflict, plot, and dialogue to teach history or nature lessons, in which kids ask questions like "So why is the sky blue, Mr. Jones?" and Mr. Jones answers, "Why, Billy, the sky is blue because of the way Earth's atmosphere scatters sunlight," accompanied by a note saying this is fiction. Nope. There's no dramatic or emotional arc. This is a presentation of factual material about how the Earth's atmosphere interacts with light. The goal is to inform. Though it's not written in a style likely to sell today, it's nonfiction.

Is fiction false? Never -- not so long as it puts its finger on the way life and relationships work, the way actions have consequences, the way emotional journeys and character growth come about. Is fiction "made up"? Not all of it. Plenty of events and places occur in fiction that were drawn from real life.

Is nonfiction true? Not if it contains errors. Not if it's simply the best understanding of the day, liable to be proved wrong 10 or 100 years from now. Not if it's solely the opinion of an op-ed writer. Like fiction, nonfiction is filtered through writers who have a particular world view, and that makes a difference. Is nonfiction factual? Yes -- to the best of our knowledge and belief. But if it's found not to be factual, does that make it fiction? No. It makes it bad nonfiction.

One of my favorite quotes on this subject goes like this: "Nonfiction is facts; fiction is truth." But fiction not only has truth in it; fiction has facts in it. Often lots of them. Historical fiction may spring first to mind. But plenty of contemporary fiction, from legal thrillers to police procedurals to books that delve heavily into any pursuit (horse racing, the space program, zookeeping, fashion, whatever) are filled with facts that make the story plausible. Just as you can learn a lot, often painlessly, by simply living and being exposed to this or that, you can learn a lot, often painlessly, by entering a good piece of fiction and being exposed to this or that.

Fiction presents a character with a weakness, a need, and a conflict, and takes him or her through struggles to a decisive battle and an outcome, saying something about life in the process. Nonfiction is (usually) direct writer-to-reader attempt to teach, inform, express, inspire, or persuade.

Good nonfiction, and good fiction, are both true.


Laura Pauling said...

So true. There are so many truths in fiction - I think that's why we read it!

Elouise82 said...

Lloyd Alexander once said "Fantasy is not an escape from reality, it is a way to understand reality." I think that hold true to most (good) fiction as well - it helps us understand ourselves, our fellow human beings, and the world around us more clearly. And I know I have learned a lot of facts from reading fiction - they stick in my mind far better than they do coming from nonfiction!

Andrea Mack said...

I have learned a lot from reading fiction, probably more than I've learned from reading non-fiction.

Marcia said...

Laura -- I agree, and the emotional truth is probably the most powerful of all.

Elouise and Andrea -- I think story makes things stick in our heads somewhat the way song does. Story is so powerful because of the way it absorbs people.

Kim Kasch said...

I like to write both fiction and nonfiction. The nonfiction usually has some link to my real life and so does the fiction ;)

Christina Farley said...

Very interesting post. I like your twist on how both tell the truth. That said, even non-fiction has a bias to it and can have only certain facts be highlighted. It's all based on the author's POV and world view.

Vijaya said...

Great post. I remember Patti Gauch saying that there can be no fiction without facts.

Anne Spollen said...

I think fiction is more emotionally true, if that makes sense.

Jeff King said...

Great post...

Bish Denham said...

Here,here. I'll toast to that!

And just think of all the mythologies from all over the world. Are they fiction? Or are they rather stories that explain human and natural phenomena? And how dull our literary world would be without them.

Marcia said...

Kim -- Though I prefer fiction, I've written both, and both come out of me somehow -- if that sounds okay. :)

Christina -- Yes, nonfiction is certainly influenced by one's bias and worldview. Sometimes I find it scary that we don't REALLY know what happened before we were born and can only trust the words of others. Makes our job very important.

Vijaya -- So true. Even if we can make up a world that's nothing like ours, it will have facts of its own if it's at all believable.

Anne -- It makes perfect sense. You're jiggling my memory about a writing quote. Something to the effect that emotion is the currency (maybe the coin?) of fiction.

Jeff -- Thanks!

Bish -- It's great to see you back in the blogosphere. You make a great point about myth. The word doesn't mean "false" or "untrue." As you said, a myth is a story people use to explain the world to themselves. Are most myths factually untrue? Undoubtedly. But there's room for truth in myth, which is how CS Lewis arrived at his statement that Christianity is a true myth.

Mary Witzl said...

There is so much food for thought here. I've learned loads of things reading books that are entirely fiction, and yet until I read this post I'd never even considered that.