fiction vs. non

I’ve talked a few times recently here at pagesofjulia about fiction and nonfiction. (See for example my discussion of the value of fiction.) Most recently, in my review of In Cold Blood, I ponder the fine line between the two. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell. How do we draw the line? Here at the library, for cataloging purposes, I use OCLC’s bibliographic record; but there is often room for debate. Ernest Hemingway (obviously) is my go-to example of an author of fiction which is so highly autobiographical as to raise eyebrows; and for that matter, he was also an author of nonfiction that may have fudged here and there (i.e. his journalism in times of war in which he claimed a heroic or brave role for himself). And then there are the James Freys and Greg Mortensons of the world, who claimed to be writing nonfiction and later were accused of either smudging their facts or wholly making things up. So, my point is, the line between fiction and nonfiction (a) can be fuzzy and (b) is an important line to be aware of – even when we can’t draw it firmly.

I came across a short article the other day that I want to share it with you here. Robert Gray’s column at Shelf Awareness, is called “Deeper Understanding.” He recently wrote Conquering Our National Fear of Fiction, in which he notes that President Obama has been criticized for reading fiction. He then makes arguments – and quotes studies – in favor of reading fiction for education, and for improving ourselves. His message is one I definitely get behind (again, see my discussion of the value of fiction).

I love reading nonfiction. I think I love it more every year. There’s so much in the history of our world – and in what’s happening in our world today – that’s fascinating and that we should be aware of. Of course, I’m not doing an exceptional job of keeping up on everything. There’s too much to know. But I do enjoy nonfiction. In fact, I feel like I’ve read an awful lot of it this year – but when I look back at my Books Read log, I see that fiction still massively outnumbers nonfiction. Maybe I had a misconception because so much of the fiction I read is very short, and some of nonfiction is quite long, so the time spent on each might be closer to equal… maybe I’m making excuses. My point is, I have nothing against nonfiction, and should read more than I do. But! Fiction! Not an ugly stepchild at all!

So, for discussion here if you please: Do you read mostly fiction, or non? What is the value of each? In other words, is fiction frivolous and nonfiction valuable, or does fiction have a great deal to offer us as people, as a society? Why? What authors have you come across who smudge the line between the two? How strongly do you feel about defining the line, and how do you go about it? For example, is In Cold Blood fiction or non? Or some strange hybrid?


For your reference, I’ve linked here to a few of my favorite nonfiction reads of the last year or two…
Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride, Peter Zheutlin
Dethroning the King, Julie Macintosh
The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson
Fire Season, Philip Connors
Heroine’s Bookshelf, Erin Blakemore
Iphigenia in Forest Hills, Janet Malcolm
Mr. Playboy, Steven Watts
Hemingway’s Boat, Paul Hendrickson
Newspaper Titan by Amanda Smith

9 Responses

  1. These discussions are always interesting — in my former career as a journalist I read tons of nonfiction, for inspiration as much as anything else, and I always think of those folks as my favorite writers — the New Yorker pantheon, for lack of a better term, ie. Calvin Trillin, Ian Frazier, Tony Horwitz, John McPhee, as well as Joan Didion and Annie Dillard. And Joseph Mitchell, though that brings up a whole other fiction vs. non kettle of fish. A couple other titles to check out if you’re looking for truly excellent nonfiction: The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen, Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, Titan by Ron Chernow, Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith and One Art by Elizabeth Bishop, which is her collected letters but is as close to a memoir as we’ll ever get from her and a beautiful, if heartbreaking book. Since I started working in a library, I find myself reading a lot more fiction — especially genre fiction, mostly historical. Not sure what that says about me or about publishing today.
    And if you’re ever in Key West on a Papa pilgrimage please stop by the library and say hi!

    • Hi Nan! What a treat to have a visit from a Key West librarian. But I’m so sorry to have JUST missed you – we were there just two weeks ago!! Bummer. Of course we toured his house; it was my very first Papa residence, and was very special for me. Thanks for the recommendations; I have read none of those you listed, so great list. :) I am glad to have found your blog, too! Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I just read further on your blog and saw that! Too bad — but hope you enjoyed your visit here. I will definitely be stopping by frequently. Nice blog!

  3. I love reading nonfiction, and I believe more and more strongly that telling the difference between the two is very, very hard. Not impossible, but it’s tricky. I love books that purposely walk the line between the two, not deceptively, but openly. I’m thinking of Lauren Slater’s book Lying, which I loved. It’s a nonfiction book where she tells you she might be making things up.

    • Oh Rebecca, it took me a minute to figure out who you were! :) I’m not familiar with Lying; just looked it up – a “metaphorical memoir,” hm? Interesting. I can’t really think of anything I’ve read that has consciously and opening played with the lines between F and NF; that might an interesting thing to look for.

  4. [...] from Penman somewhat. This is a slippery slope, to learn history from fiction, as I’ve discussed before. But if it’s ever permissible, Penman might be your author; she is very faithful to [...]

  5. [...] blogged about this concept before, and I still don’t have an answer. And yet I still love to read historical fiction, [...]

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