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?