15 February 2014

Liars' Club

The gap between fiction and nonfiction has always been interesting to me. I know some folks who strongly prefer one of the two, and others who enjoy reading both. I'm one of those who happily suffer from fiction addiction--I read a lot more short stories and novels than nonfiction books and articles. Probably because of that, I also think it's more fun to write fiction than non.

A few months ago a guy asked me at a booksigning whether my books were nonfiction. When I said no, he immediately informed me that that was too bad, because he never, ever, reads fiction. "Why," he asked me, looking as if his underwear might suddenly be too tight, "should I waste my time reading a bunch of lies?" Rather than answer that for him--believe me, I could have, and I could've even pointed out that many nonfiction books contain lies as well--I remembered that my mother taught me to be polite and made some "to each his own" comment and wished him a nice day. But I couldn't help feeling that he and others like him might be missing out on much of the joy of reading.

The fun department

Don't get me wrong. I absolutely loved Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit, Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki, Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn, Stephen King's On Writing, Doug Preston's The Monster of Florence, Stephen Harrington's The Gates of the Alamo, Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, just about everything by John McPhee and Stephen Ambrose, and many other works of nonfiction. God help me, I still have most of the Watergate confession books by Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Dean, etc., and at the time I even liked those. But for every article or book of nonfiction I read these days, I probably read fifty or more short stories and novels. Are they made up of lies, as my potential customer with the pained expression said? Sure they are. But I like the tension and thrill and surprise and anticipation that these novels and stories offer. I not only don't know the ending, I don't even know what's going to happen next. I guess--although I feel a little guilty when I say it--what it boils down to is this: I read nonfiction when I want to learn something and I read fiction when I want to be entertained. And I really, really like to be entertained.

Not that fiction can't be informative and entertaining at the same time. It can. Just read a little James Michener or Michael Crichton or Colleen McCullough or Edward Rutherfurd sometime. And I think one of the best things ever is the concept of "creative nonfiction"--it's sort of like giving The History Channel a good slap and injecting it with a dose of adrenaline. But if the choice is strictly nonfiction vs. strictly fiction, and if it's a choice between getting educated and having fun, I know which I'll pick, every time. As Gus said to Call in Lonesome Dove, "You never had no fun in your life. That's my department."

An old friend and non(?)author

I recently received an interesting take on fiction vs. nonfiction, when I located (via Facebook) one of my old Air Force buddies, now living in Texas. He was as surprised to find out that I write short mystery stories as I was to find that he writes technical reference books about routers, servers, etc. (He was probably more surprised than I was, actually, because we both entered the military with electrical engineering degrees and actually did that kind of thing for four years.) But we were of course pleased to discover that we were both authors now, and I offered him my sincere congratulations for his literary success.

"It's nothing," he replied. "The thing is, I'm not really an author." I asked what he meant; I had already, by that time, found a lot of his books on Amazon, and I would later also see them on the shelves in the computer section at our local Barnes & Noble. "Well, I've never written any fiction," he answered, "and you're not a real author, you know, until you publish some fiction." I'd never heard that before--I certainly don't believe it's correct--and it was intriguing to hear him say such a thing. He added that nonfiction gets no respect--he said its name doesn't even tell you what it is. Instead it tells you what it's not: it's NONfiction.

Just the facts, ma'am

Again, those were his views, not mine. I have a healthy respect for the writers of good nonfiction, in the long or short form. One of my reasons for respecting them is that what they create has to follow rules and restrictions that my writing does not. The very fact that it must be true and real means more effort and more research and more legal risks. Having produced a little nonfiction myself now and then, I know how tough it can be. But I must say again, while I respect and admire those writers and their products, I find fiction far more fun and relaxing to write--and to read. To me, nonfiction wears a suit and tie and Sunday shoes while fiction is happy to run around in a sweatshirt and sneakers.

I'll wrap this discussion up with three questions and (just for you, Leigh) a poem. My questions are:

  1. Do you read more fiction or non, and why?
  2. If you're already a writer of fiction, what kinds of nonfiction do you find most interesting?
  3. What's some of the best nonfiction you've ever read?

My poem, if you can call it that, is one that I dug out of my files yesterday, titled "A Little of Both":
Is writing work, or is it fun?
Or is, sometimes, neither one?
For answers, look to Shakespeare's days--
His plays were works, his works were plays.
One more thing. I love the title of Lawrence Block's book featuring some of the many columns he wrote for Writer's Digest. It's called Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. Block has certainly done a good job of that, for many years now.

My fiction is written more for fun than for profit, that's for sure--but in the immortal words of Billy Joel, it's still rock and roll to me.


  1. John, I began writing for profit in the nonfiction world--feature articles in magazines, which averaged about $300 each. Later, I wrote scientific papers for Clemson University.
    When I joined a writers' group, they constantly told me that breaking into fiction was much tougher. My favorite phrase back then was, "Watch me!" so I wrote a short story. Miraculously, that story won in the Augusta Arts Short Fiction Competition, putting $500 in my pocket and an invitation to read at the Augusta Arts Festival, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
    I've been hooked since then on writing fiction, though to be honest, I do think it is more difficult. I read fiction for pleasure and usually nonfiction for information when I develop a new interest. I wasn't much on history until Eve began posting. Now I occasionally read history.

  2. Fran, you can honestly say you're good at both.

    Unlike you, I got my start with fiction rather than nonfiction; like you, I was fortunate enough to have some fiction success early on (although I've had plenty of failures since). Those early acceptances can be a great shot in the arm.

    I heard someone say that the easiest writing you can do is a memoir, because your outline is already done and all you have to do is fill in the blanks.

  3. John, I hope it isn't a big irrevocable mistake to confess on the Internet that I find it very hard to read nonfiction at all. I've written plenty of it myself, though not trade, ie commercial, nonfiction like the books you mention: my professional works on addictions and relationships and online therapy, and my pop or journalistic style pieces including about 400 well written, entertaining blog posts; and my thirty years' worth of poetry, about which I used to tell audiences, "All the stories in my poems are true." But I've always believed to some extent (not quite like your friend, but similarly) that I wasn't a real WRITER (vs "author") until I'd published (not simply written) a novel. Since that happened (the first one launched on my 64th birthday), I've had no doubts at all on that score.

    Oh, and I agree with Fran that writing fiction is harder, because you have to make up the story.

  4. Liz, I think your take on is understandable--you've done so much nonfiction yourself, it's something you don't seek out as a reader. I feel the same way about traveling--I did so much globetrotting on the job, I now try never to leave my own zip code.

    As for publishing a novel, I'm not there yet, although I just sent a new one off to my agent and have my fingers crossed--but I think all fiction is fun to write, mostly BECAUSE you have to make up the story. The plotting will always be the most enjoyable part of the process for me. Congrats, by the way, on those thirty years of poetry--that's a form of writing that I think very few can do well.

  5. What I meant was, your take on THAT is understandable. (It's still early.)

  6. (1) I read about 50-50, fiction/nonfiction. Why? Because I'm an omnivore, constantly curious, and I cannot, cannot, cannot keep my nose out of almost any subject at all.
    (2) I find history most interesting, of course, with theoretical physics running a close second. In history, I'm always fascinated by social history - how did people live back then? - and again, I'm omnivorous, although most of my shelves are European, Chinese, and Japanese history. Re physics, well, I love it, but I suspect that I'm a lot like Otto in "A Fish Called Wanda" - "Apes don't read philosophy." "Yes, they do, Otto, they just don't understand it."
    (3) Best non-fiction ever? Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror"; Jonathan Spence's "Death of Woman Wang", and "God's Chinese Son"; Junichi Suga's "Memories of Silk and Straw"; Shelby Foote's 3 volume "Civil War"; Angus Calder's "The People's War"; Dorothy Hartley's "Lost Country Life"; Hiroaki Sato's "Legends of the Samurai"; any of the diaries of Heian Japan. For starters.

  7. Thanks for the information, Eve. I'm pleased to know your choices for favorite nonfiction, and I will treat those as a recommended reading list. I confess that the only ones I've read are Shelby Foote's Civil War books. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy all of James Clavell's novels, which I think taught me a lot about Japan, Hong Kong, Iran, etc.

    Any historian who can quote from A Fish Called Wanda is okay by me.

  8. The books and short stories I read are all fiction. (Would a non-fiction short be an article or essay? Then I guess I read those, too, via blogs.)

    I must comment on folks who think fiction is lies. I've heard this several times in the past few years, and it always strikes me as so odd. Fiction is a story. It's not lies. It's something utterly different. To lie is to take a real person or event and say something inaccurate about it and tell people that's what really happened in real life. Fiction is not real life. It's a wonderful place to visit, where the author calls the shots and whatever she says is what is; no lies involved.

    Even fiction using characters based on real people shouldn't invoke the dreaded "lies" comment, because no one is saying these fictional stories are true.

    Sorry for the rant. But I'm glad I could say my piece. And that's no lie!

  9. Like Eve, I read about 50-50, (maybe a little more fiction)
    I am partial to WWII non-fiction, like Ryan's "The Longest Day". Just finished "Guns At Last Light", and found it almost too detailed, but providing insights into the machinations of Allied leaders.
    But when it comes to writing I am a non-fiction guy. with one exception: I had several baseball pieces published in the defunct Elysian Fields Quarterly.
    You handled the guy at your booksigning with class, which is no surprise. I shudder to think what I would have said.

  10. Barb, good to hear from you!

    As for your question, an essay is--to me--sort of an opinion piece that draws some kind of conclusion at the end, while an article is more a reporting of facts about a subject--but be aware, those are my definitions only. Both are of course nonfiction, and I'm always amused when someone says they saw my article in AHMM, etc. I usually inform them that I'm not smart enough to write an article--I have to make things up. (You'll notice, Barb, that I didn't say I "lied" about them.)

    Yes, I do consider blog entries essays, and also all those assignments (ugh) that we were told to write while in school.

  11. Small world, Herschel--I also had a piece in Elysian Field Quarterly, years ago.

    As for my response to the guy who said he didn't read any fiction because it was lies, I was tempted to twist his nose instead, but I didn't figure the store manager would invite me back if I did.

    I've always been impressed, by the way, by the many, many pieces of fiction that you've had published.

  12. Thanks for this post. For more nonfiction that can be riveting as well as informative, try journalist John Maclean's Fire on the Mountain, which gives his reporting on a deadly wildfire that trapped a team of "smoke jumper" firefighters.

    If you like business and economics (but not traveling) there's Robert Smith's Riches Among the Ruins, which recounts his business trips into dangerous areas around the world during the early days of emerging-market bond trading. And economist Peter T. Leeson's The Invisible Hook is a hoot: an entertaining and readable economics-based explanation of pirates' behavior during the golden age of piracy.

    One caveat: I read more fiction than non-fiction, and find nonfiction often moves more slowly on the page, even the thriller-style adventures. Fiction does aim to entertain, while nonfiction reports. Different writing styles that lead to different reading experiences.

  13. Thank you, Peter, for those recommendations. All three are now on my to-read list, and especially Riches Among the Ruins. Your description of that book reminds me of a trip I once made to Manila to teach a two-week class for IBM, and a few days after returning home I was watching coverage on CNN of a coup there, with machine-gun battles in the street outside the hotel where I'd stayed. The Invisible Hook also sounds really interesting.

  14. My response to anyone who tells me they never read fiction is "Oh. Poor you."

  15. Linda, I did have that thought. I can't even imagine not reading any fiction, and I feel sorry for those who don't.


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