Fiction and Nonfiction: A Line of Friction

Teaching in public high schools, I am sometimes still surprised by the confusion some juniors and seniors may have concerning the terms “fiction” and “nonfiction.”

I’ve always taken for granted the obvious definition: Fiction is for stories, and nonfiction is for real life stuff. And I knew this as long as I remember knowing libraries.

maxresdefaultMuch has been said by many about the trouble that comes in drawing the line between fiction and non-fiction. How much are some fictional stories based on real life? How much of a true story is made up? Do these dividing lines in libraries and bookstores represent reality (and unreality)?

While this may be a conversation often reserved for ivory tower scholars, it’s certainly one for the common reader as well. Could it be that part of the reason many folks have to ask which one is which is more than a mere ignorance of the terminology? Could it be that even the most basic readers have a more nuanced understanding of the truth to narratives than our catalogue system?

“What do you mean there’s two categories? Either everything is fact or everything is false?”

After all, our categorization isn’t based on how true things are, but what genre is expected of them. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces sold once as a memoir, but is now regarded as a novel based on a true story. After promoting his novel, and then confronting his lies, Oprah Winfrey went on to declare that the truthfulness of the so-called memoir was not as important as the truth of it’s message, begging millions of readers to question what it means for something to be true or not true in a story. How can we trust so-called nonfiction to bring us the truth?

Gonzo journalism purposefully shrugs off the objectivity of reporting “just the facts” and instead includes the reporter’s own opinions with the goal of reaching a greater truth of experience. A good work of historical fiction will synthesize endless hours of research into a pretend story set in a reenactment of history so accurate it speaks more truth than many texts on the same subject.

And let’s not ignore the semantically tilted nomenclature of the two terms: Rather than the factual being the norm, it is the imaginary.

The categories, you’d think, should be factual and non-factual. The standard for telling a story is that it’s real. The margin, the periphery, the other side—that’s pretend, lies, and alternatives to the truth. But in between lies a spectrum of categories, such as “creative nonfiction” and “nonfiction novel.”

As a public school English teacher, I take for granted the assumption that I teach Literature, and what we tend to call “literature” is mostly composed of fake stories. We read the fake, and sometimes we pair it with the un-fake. That is what we mean by fiction and non-fiction. There have been students who have questioned why we read so many fake stories, a question I never bothered to ask.

Even in truth the slightest metaphor or hyperbole presents a slight aspect of untruth. Even in the strangest, most outlandish fictional tale some here-and-now element of truth lurks firm and familiar. To say that the sun kisses the earth is fictional, yet to tell of an empire a long time ago in a galaxy far far away being defeated by rebellion mirrors a perpetual truth in our history. As William Faulkner once said, “fiction is often the best fact.”

I wonder if our categories should be revised. Maybe it’s too late for that in our language. Instead, the terms may remain the same for a long time, while the attributes of these categories will shift as they already do. There is no doubt that some barrier between truth and fiction must always exist, but it would be naive of us to think that such a line is always fine and firm. In a way, most narratives are a blend of some fact and fiction, and the blurred line will be explored with every story told, what we perceive of our words compared continually to what we perceive of our world.

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