11 December 2015

Reading Fiction Vs. Nonfiction

By Art Taylor

This week marked the end of classes at George Mason University where I teach—at least class meetings, though finals and lots (lots!) of grading still loom ahead.

Winnie Ruth Judd
The last book we studied in my course "Five Killer Crime Novels" was Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep, a 2009 novel inspired and informed by a real-life murder and murder trial from 1931: the case of Winnie Ruth Judd, known as the Trunk Murderess, the Blond Butcher and the Tiger Woman. Judd was convicted of killing two of her friends, dismembering one of them and stuffing both bodies into trunks which she then shipped from Phoenix to Los Angeles. It was only when she went to pick up her cargo that she found herself in trouble: The trunks were beginning to smell...and to leak.

In advance of reading Bury Me Deep, the students and I dig through through the original coverage of the case in the Los Angeles Times—the manhunt ("Greatest Police Hunt in History of West") and capture; the background on Judd's childhood ("Preacher Backs Daughter") and her marriage to an older doctor ("Doctor Wants to Hunt Wife"); her friendship with the two victims and their own background ("Gay Revels Revealed, Narcotics Hinted at in Killing"); a confession that was discovered ("Found in Store Wash Room; Authenticity Denied"); a trial that included hints about the involvements of a Phoenix businessman whom Judd said "knows all about it" (but who skirted past being charged with the crime); and ultimately a conviction for Judd ("Death-Penalty Verdict Returns in Less Than Three Hours")—though I should stress that the story hardly ends there.

Building on some of those same documents and on later books about the case, Megan Abbott "began to reimagine Winnie Ruth Judd's story, with a different final act," as she tells readers in the Author's Note at the end of Bury Me Deep. Accordingly, part of what we study in class are the places where fact and fiction overlap, the points where the author has taken characters and plot in fresh directions, and in the process the ways that the novel opens up perspectives on both the character in the book (Marion Seeley) and the real-life Winnie Ruth Judd, on the place and predicaments of women in the early 1930s, and on the nature of storytelling in general—the struggle for control of a story, where truth resides and where it can be shifted, subverted.

I won't go into too much detail here about all those overlaps and intersections and divergences—though it's provoked some fascinating conversation in class. Instead, I want to focus on a more abstract discussion that's kept threading through that examination of text—namely, the differences in how we read fiction versus nonfiction.

For many people—and I don't mean just my students here, but also readers of my own age and older—the idea of reading fiction seems lesser somehow than reading nonfiction. "Fiction isn't about real things"—that's the kinds of thing I've heard from both students and friends. "I'd rather read about people who really lived, events that actually happened." Even in a case like this, where real events have informed a fictional treatment, students have fallen back on the novelist's ability to just make it up, to shift and transform in ways that diminish rather than inform a broader understanding of those real events. Once you diverge from the facts, they might argue, you also sacrifice something about the truth of a person or a situation.

As you might imagine, I'd argue against that idea—as a fiction writer myself, as a scholar of fiction, and even simply as a reader. To defend my thoughts, I could easily point to the ways in which readers can learn about another era or another culture though novels and stories about other times, people, and places. And even in terms of emotional engagement and investment, it's easy to explore the many ways that fiction becomes real to us. How many of us haven't at some point been caught up in the plight and the demise of a favorite character? How many people haven't cried at some scene in a book or a movie about characters who have no flesh and blood beyond those pages? I can usually bring up Harry Potter to the students in my class and offer up a scene or two for them to consider—none of it "factual," of course, but much of it becoming "real" in other ways to the readers, real enough that they have celebrated triumphs or mourned losses that never, any of them, actually happened.

But despite those examples, some divide frequently persists—and it's also easy enough to find support for the other side of the argument. Even I have read nonfiction books or watched documentaries or encountered books and films based on true events and caught myself thinking, with delight mixed into the incredulity, "Wow, can you believe this actually happened?" Just recently, I would point to Dean Jobb's Empire of Deception about master con artist Leo Koretz, and Clint Eastwood's film Changeling comes to mind too.  It's not just that these texts prove how fact can be stranger than fiction—surely it can. Instead, what strikes me is how we read/experience these differently knowing they're factual. What might be entertaining or thrilling or harrowing as fiction becomes something more; we have to process our incredulity as part of the reading/watching experience. These things really happened—we understand those texts in a different way because of that knowledge.

I don't know that I have anything definitive to say about this topic. In terms of Bury Me Deep, many of my students seemed to divide their experience of the book between those sections where Abbott diverged from the true story and those sections which hewed more closely to the "evidence" they had gained from the original  newspaper articles or from excerpts from journalist Jana Bommersbach's 1992 book The Trunk Murderess. Those sections based on fact seemed to give them insights into what might have really happened. Those sections that were clearly fiction (that "different final act," as Abbott herself called it) were at least to some degree relegated to fantasy, entertainment.

What are other people's thoughts about this? Do you read fiction and nonfiction with different expectations? How about fiction based on real-life events? I'm curious to know!


  1. I think you’re right, Art, when you say: “For many people—and I don't mean just my students here, but also readers of my own age and older—the idea of reading fiction seems lesser somehow than reading nonfiction. "Fiction isn't about real things"—that's the kinds of thing I've heard from both students and friends. "I'd rather read about people who really lived, events that actually happened.”

    Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who think like that. There’s a great scene in the movie “Sideways,” where Miles/Paul Giamatti is talking to the soon-to-be father-in-law of his buddy Jack/Thomas Hayden Church:

    --Mike Erganian (Shaun Duke): What is the subject of your book? Non fiction?
    --Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti): Uh, no. It's... it's a novel. Fiction. Yes. Although there is quite a bit from my own life... so I suppose that, technically some of it is nonfiction.
    --Mike Erganian: Good I like non fiction. There is so much to know about this world. I think you read something somebody just invented, waste of time.
    --Miles Raymond: That's an interesting perspective.

    Mike calls fiction a “waste of time.” And I think a lot of people agree. But fiction can sometimes, maybe often, get to deeper truths than non-fiction. And I love reading non-fiction, but why limit oneself? Also, fiction can be entertaining and what's better than that?

    But the thing that gets me the most is that a LOT of the people who don’t want to read fiction because it’s not real will watch narrative movies (fiction) about vampires and zombies and batmen and even just made up people and enjoy the hell out of them. So what’s the difference between that and fiction on a page?

  2. Hey, Paul --
    Thanks for sharing that quote from Sideways--which gets exactly to the point that some students and friends have made. And thanks even more for articulating that idea that fiction can get at deeper truths. I couldn't agree more with that. I've learned things about the world and about myself from reading fiction in ways that I dare say I wouldn't have restricting myself to nonfiction.

    But the bigger point, as you say, is why limit? Indeed!

  3. When people say they only like non-fiction, I tend to ask what movies they watch. Generally, it's not documentaries. And I think fiction fills in all the things that non-fiction can't, like motivation, thoughts, impulses, etc. (It always surprises me that so many people don't actually have that much imagination - they can't imagine anyone thinking / feeling / acting differently than themselves - and fiction fills in those gaps.) Plus fiction creates iconic characters, like Sherlock Holmes, Anna Karenina, Hercule Poirot, Scarlett O'Hara, etc.

    Me, I read both, omnivorously. Great post, Art!

  4. How interesting. I am the polar opposite - I want to read fiction, not nonfiction. Okay, I *must* read nonfiction for research, and I read newspapers to keep up to date on world events. But for me, fiction rocks. And great fiction forces us to live in the skin of another, for a brief time, which increases empathy. Nonfiction, to me, is banal. Too much like school.

    Eve, you make a good point about people who say they don't read fiction, but watch tv and movies with relish. They don't see the disconnect, which is amusing.

  5. Actually, that was Art AND Eve who said that! Damn, I pushed Publish too quickly.

  6. This discussion reminds me of something Sir Philip Sidney said in his "Defense of Poetry." (I should go check a copy--it's been quite a few years--but I'm too lazy, so I'll fake it.)Sidney argues that poetry combines the strengths of philosophy and history. Philosophy can teach us important insights, but the insights are too abstract to feel compelling to most people; history teaches us about particular incidents we may find compelling, but the incidents don't necessarily reflect important insights. Poetry, Sidney says, is superior to both because the poet can shape particular incidents to illustrate important insights, so poetry is both compelling and enlightening. That's a rough version of what he says about poetry, anyway--and if fiction had been around during his day, he'd probably say it's true of fiction, too. These days, we don't tend to talk about literature "teaching," but I still think his comments might be relevant to the issues discussed here. And I agree with what Melodie says about empathy: We can develop empathy be identifying with fictional characters, and I bet that makes us better able to empathize with the people in our lives.

  7. Ursula LeGuin tells us that "fantasy is the natural, appropriate language for recounting the journey of the soul and the struggle between good and evil" (approximately; I don't have the book here). We can extend that to all fiction and say that it is the way to gain access to elements deep within us that tend to hide from the harsh light of non-fiction.

  8. Love that quote, Jim!! Thanks for sharing.
    And love that story too, Bonnie.
    Great comments from everyone--much appreciated!

  9. While I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction, I began my love of reading through non-fiction. I'd read some Lassie book, or something, when in second or third grade, and was non-plussed. My brother suggested I try reading some history books -- which didn't sound terribly interesting to me, until he gave me his take on it. Thus, the second "chapter book" I read was a history of the great Johnstown flood, a book that swept me up in the tension of the bursting dam, the violence of the raging flood waters, and the drama of the townsfolk who suddenly found themselves fighting for their lives. I soon discovered that books on WWII battles, as well as the air war in WWI, brought me a similar sort of "meat." I suppose that, these days, most books I read -- be they fiction or non-fiction -- share much of this formula.

  10. Jim, great quote from one of my favorite writers!

  11. I agree with you, Jim Collins. I also find it interesting that the distinction usually drawn between fiction and non-fiction is largely restricted to Western culture. In that regard, it's interesting to note that LeGuin is not only an author but the daughter of a very prominent ethnologist/anthropologist and is therefore very familiar with non-Western views of Story. The fiction/non-fiction divide actually manifests one of THE most salient differences between Western and Indigenous worldview. The root lies in perceptions of where Story comes from and the "boundary" that Western culture sees as existing between each given human being and everything else (other people, the natural world, and so on). So in Western culture, fiction comes from inside that boundary -- within a person's imagination, wholly from that person (despite ancient ideas of muses and modern ideas about creativity and the collective subconscious). Non-fiction, on the other hand, is seen is coming from outside the writer - from the "outside world of factual events." Obviously there is not such a sharp distinction, which is really where an Indigenous person would nod and say, "Well, yes. Precisely. So let's not pretend there is." A different way of looking at the situation is the relationship the writer or teller of a Story has to the Story itself, and the responsibility -- to the Story itself -- that follows. I think there is really much more agreement between Western and Indigenous storytellers than the library catalog system of fiction/non-fiction suggests. Hence LeGuin's comment -- which she would not need to make were we not stuck with a dichotomy that isn't as meaningful as we might want it to be.

  12. Same Anon as directly above. I agree with ALL of you, actually. But I was specifically wanting to address LeGuin's quote in Jim's letter. So I only mentioned him. Sorry about that -- didn't mean to slight anyone in a good discussion.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>