My sister recently told me, when she browses for books, she will almost always select a nonfiction title over a fiction one. I’m a fiction writer, so she was compelled to justify her choice:“Fiction isn’t real.”
Real? What is that exactly? Factual? True?
At least I’m learning something from nonfiction…
I understood my sister’s point. To my dismay, I’ve heard this argument before: I’m at least learning something from nonfiction. Whether it be historical events, current events, information about this or that, or the life and times of so and so, many people tend to think nonfiction is more worth their while because, they argue, it is more informative. This also applies to Creative Nonfiction (CNF), which tells a “true story.” CNF, like fiction, creates a narrative, but that narrative includes the lives of real people (not characters), actual places (not settings or a sense of place), and events that really happened (not a crafted plot line).
Yes, but writers of CNF often employ fiction writing techniques—the real people are well-developed characters, the actual places are vivid settings that convey a mood and clear sense of place, and actual events or happenings are crafted to move the story forward. You still get a story filtered through the sensibilities and imagination of the writer. Without a label, we could mistake a CNF book for fiction or vice versa.
My sister emphasized her preference when she told me she stopped reading Wally Lamb’s, I Know This Much Is True, after she found out it was fiction. It didn’t matter that she had been absorbed in the story and had become invested in the characters. The magic was gone. That one little fact—fiction—shifted her perception so entirely to determine whatever she was getting from the story as pointless. The story simply wasn’t true.
Truth, Facts, & Story
Facts. Truth. Facts are not truth. Information is not truth. Sure, facts and information have value, providing context and even comfort in our uncertain world. But they do change. Once upon a time the world was flat, Pluto was a planet, lobotomies were an acceptable “cure” for mental illness, eggs caused high-cholesterol, Cynthia Nixon was straight, and so on.
For those of us who enjoy a good story, it’s rarely the facts that draw us in. Good fiction provides an experience. When a story resonates with us, when it taps into an emotional current, it is worth our while. Being swept up in the current of a story means we are in the midst of our imagination and the facts are not the point, the emotional truth is. It’s as if we are the characters we’re following, as if we face the predicaments, temptations, losses, highs and lows they face; as if allows us to suspend disbelief and frees the imagination. We accept the fiction and we expand our reality. We don’t necessarily become more informed about the facts of the world, but we do become more informed about ourselves, about being human.
My sister got swept up in Lamb’s story. She described to me how “into it” she was and then poof! she wasn’t. She seemed almost angry about it, like she’d wasted her time. For obvious reasons, I am biased towards fiction and I can’t help but wonder at people who argue the point that fiction is a waste of time. Our emotions, our feelings, and our imagination don’t register fact or fiction, although our minds do. The mind loves to be busy, it loves a quick pace, news, the Internet, multitasking, and all kinds of distractions.
It becomes a matter of seeing value in those things the mind easily dismisses, like the value of the emotional or transformative journey a good novel demands. Such a journey does mean slowing down and taking time. And if the idea of such a journey is unappealing, then there is plenty of fiction to assist with that very human need we have to occasionally forget our world and ourselves and just escape.
About the Author: Neina Gordon
Neina Gordon, Contributor, is a graduate of the MFA Program at UNC Greensboro where she was the Fred Chappell Fellow and fiction editor for The Greensboro Review. She teaches creative writing at Salem College in Winston-Salem and at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro. She has work forthcoming in Big Fiction.