The Fiction of Nonfiction

Many writers claim they write both fiction and nonfiction.  I propose that this statement is fictional.  All writers write fiction, whether they know it or not.

What differentiates a work being categorized as fiction or nonfiction in the world of commerce is intention.  Novels often enter the world with a warning (meant to protect the author more than anything else) that reads something like:  This is a work of fiction and the characters and events of this story are not meant to represent any person in real life or an event that has already occurred.  Nonfiction books either mention the famous person or event that constitutes its mainstay or mention nothing at all.  Memoirs often state:  This is the story of my life.

The author James Frey got himself in hot water (and many book sales is my guess) when his book A Million Little Pieces came out as a memoir, later identified as a work that did not represent an accurate shadow of his life.  They later released the book as a semi-fictional novel and overall, the book did very well.  What is often missing in a discussion of the controversy is the fact that the book told a riveting and thought-provoking story.

Many writers of memoir wish they could go back and do it over again.  Why?  Because a different perspective has blessed many of the suppositions they had at the beginning of the project.  Uncle Harry didn’t use a razor blade to remove the hair blossoming from his ears. He went to a barber who used a tiny pair of scissors.  Thanks, Cousin Gertrude, for the update.  Which version is accurate might be a worthy debate, but a more important consideration might be which offers the greater impact.

History, for example, is never purely a single story.  It all depends upon the point of view.  The 1972 Summit Series took place between a clash of titans in the hockey world at the time, Canada and Russia.  This occurred during the “Cold War” and nationalistic fervor was high on both sides.  One game ended in a tie and Russia won three games and Canada won the final game, their fourth win.  Canadians were jubilant, and the world took notice of the victory.  But did they win?  Not if one visits the Russian equivalent to the Hockey Hall of Fame that claims Russia won because they scored more goals in the eight-game series than did Canada.

Nonfiction writing cannot escape our individual and collective perspectives.  We can trick ourselves into believing it is a possibility, but it is not.  All writing, and for that matter, all thought, has as its foundation a subjective and fictional experience.

Many times, I’ve heard readers (or movie viewers) mention that a particular work stood out for them.  Why? I’d ask.  Because it is based on a true story.

A story is true if you believe it is true.  The main character in any novel you read resembles the experience of at least ten thousand people who live or have lived on this planet.  Fiction and nonfiction are first cousins.  In our minds, they must never marry.