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
I'll wrap this discussion up with three questions and (just for you, Leigh) a poem. My questions are:
- Do you read more fiction or non, and why?
- If you're already a writer of fiction, what kinds of nonfiction do you find most interesting?
- 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.