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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What Is Nonfiction?

The first meeting of my Rutgers class in Materials for Children was going well, I thought, when we stumbled into the question of how to define the difference between fiction and nonfiction? One student, who already works with kids in a library, volunteered that she asks her young readers whether they like facts or story — but it was clear that as she offered that handy definition in class, it was not going to work. It wasn’t. Nonfiction is not limited to fact nor does fiction have a monopoly on story. But what definition would work? Being on the spot is sometimes the best spur to thinking, and needing to come up with something I hit upon this — a formulation I quite like and am offering for your consideration: Nonfiction is a book which can be checked against something outside of itself. That is the truth of the book can be researched, challenged, tested, investigated by making use of sources and experiences not contained within its covers. Fiction is a book in which the truth — depth, insight, wit, drama, passion — is entirely contained within itself. The author may lead you to think or feel differently about something outside of the book, but she does so entirely because of her skill at crafting characters, plots, language — a world — contained within the experience she has invented.

I realize that there are some areas where this fuzzes — historical fiction, for one, introduces some issue of fidelity to history — though exactly how much is contested. And the whole large set of issues around stereotypes, accuracy, cultural sensitivity relies to some extent on the book matching an external reality. But these issues are contested precisely because it is not clear which reality they are to match. I still recall going to the Best Book for Young Adults  discussion (before those meetings were hijacked by the fiction fans) when they were debating Saphire’s Push. The two black librarians on the committee disliked it, seeing it as promoting the worst stereotypes about black teenagers. One white librarian whose husband was an inner city social worker thought it was good because it was so true to life. And a few days later at another meeting, a white editor expressed concern that the book fostered stereotypes, while a younger black editor accused him of not wanting to face real life. In other words while everyone agreed that some test of the book had to do with its connection to, or lack of connection to, “real life” no one could agree on which standard to apply.

Fiction can help us see “reality” differently. Nonfiction can have vividly drawn characters, pulse-pounding plot, compelling use of language. But — as a baseline — fiction serves as a mirror only by being true to itself, to the rules the author creates within its own covers; nonfiction may have all of the literary excellences of fiction — but it ultimately makes claims about a world outside of itself, which can be examined. How’s that for a definition?


  1. As my kids would say, “pretty awesome.” I love the idea of NF being defined as that which can be tested/checked against works outside of itself. It’s interesting, I heard one historical fiction author say that–in terms of doing research for his fiction–he always makes sure that the facts in his book, if they can’t be proven, cannot be unproven either. But ultimately, hardly anybody but that conscientious author will check and test “his” facts against original sources because he’s writing fiction. One EXPECTS a nonfiction book to be checked and tested…

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I like the idea of testing in part because it frees up NF. That is, the book is not obligated to be finally true, but rather constantly subject to question. So an author can risk a theory, an interpretation, a speculation — all fine — so long as the reader is afforded a way to examine those views — in the notes, citations, the sources the author uses, or through the reader’s own reading and thinking. NF is our best shot — which you the reader have every right to question and examine.

  3. I find this post absolutely fascinating and so relevant to the reading I am doing at the moment of a certain non-fiction book. It is a biography. The notes in the end tell us, always, what is true and what is imagined. And so one goes back and forth, back and forth, and ponders.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    want to tell us more about the book?

  5. Thanks for your insight into this often difficult topic. Another element, that I believe Beth is alluding to, is the increased use of creative nonfiction, particularly in biographies. Personally, I can understand why a biographer may want to create dialogue to move a story ahead in an interesting way, but when the author begins to make up events, I think it moves into the realm of historical fiction.

    Wonderful topic.

  6. Hank Cochrane says:

    Excellent job delineating the differences between fiction and NF. I think you have crafted about as workable a definition as one might for. Still, I think a truly complete definition of the difference between NF and fiction must include some kind of understanding as to why both are necessary.

    Broadly speaking, the reason that people craft fiction as opposed to nonfiction (and vice versa) can’t be reduced to a simple matter of preference (except in the case of individuals of course). That is, NF and Fiction aren’t simply different in how we verify the realities they depict. They also each serve separate but necessary cultural needs (not that the lines aren’t often blurred). Reporting on human events and our existential dramas is a complicated business.

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    Thanks My feeling is that the issue is less dialogue versus scenes and more one of clarity and seriousness. So long as there is a very good route map allowing the reader to tell what is made up by the author and what based on research.

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    Sure they serve different and equally valid needs. I just tried to map out a descriptive difference not a hierarchy of validity.

  9. Hank Cochrane says:

    Yes, I understand. I didn’t mean to get all Harold Bloom on you (though I am a fan). You just got me thinking and as it turns out, the subject is richer than one might think at first glance.

  10. Marc, I like your definition a lot but am curious as to how you weigh author intent in your definition?

    For example, would you consider a work that used verifiable facts to “prove” the author’s personal convictions a work of non-fiction?

  11. Marc Aronson says:

    Interesting. Look fiction can be full of facts take War and Peace and that is a book that is essentially a meditation on history it means to tell us a truth about human action. But the book succeeds or fails not based on it’s count of napoleons soldiers or description of his battle formations but rather on the world Tolstoy creates within the novel. He uses facts but creates his own story. In reverse when I write a biography I use all the insight into character I can muster. I try to figure out the people I write about in the same way a novelist develops his characters. But my speculations can be challenged or tested by finding out new or contradictory information about those historical figures through research. Not by questioning my skill as a novelist.

  12. I think I’m on the same page as you with respect to facts-in-the-service-of-a-story and vice-versa but what about the decision that comes before the writing?

    If someone puts verifiable facts in the service of a patently false story at what point would you say that it crosses the line to fiction? I’m thinking of some of current political genre which purports to be non-fiction but seems to include more spin than a 70’s disco.

    Is it just bad non-fiction or has it fully crossed the line as you see it?

  13. Marc Aronson says:

    that enters a whole other genre — propaganda, ideological tract, manifesto, jeremiad — there the driving force is the position of the writer, and everything — from word choice and type face to facts and dates — is at the service of broadcasting and selling that belief

  14. What a great description–I can totally buy that!