Fiction or nonfiction, which do you prefer? Like many writers, I enjoy reading and writing both. But if you had to choose one or the other, which one would you pick?
Perhaps it’s a silly thing to debate. My 90-year-old grandfather and I recently had a mini-debate over the best kind of berry. Although he grudgingly admitted that his favorite is the blackberry, he didn’t defend his choice with much passion. Why, he finally asked me, do I have to choose?
The fiction vs. nonfiction debate is one that my dear friend Melissa and I often enjoy, mostly for academic purposes. We know we don’t really have to choose but the competitor in each of us loves drawing the battle lines and defending our positions.
For me, it’s easy. I’ll take fiction any day. Why? While nonfiction can be absorbing, especially if done well, (like my friends at SMITHSONIAN or dear Malcolm Gladwell) can you really lose yourself in these pieces the same way that you can a novel such as 1984 or Great Expectations? The best nonfiction writers employ fictive devices (the narrative, the flashback, the climax) to draw the reader in. And for good reason. They work.
The fiction writer, similarly, steals from the real world. She recreates her own version of a Manhattan neighborhood that is modeled from life. She may give a character a signature expression that she borrowed from a real person. And certainly, if she needs to describe the fragrance of a peach, she would do her readers a disservice if she had never actually picked up a fresh one and inhaled from its fuzzy flesh.
What’s the difference then? Why is the experience of fiction for some more enjoyable than that of nonfiction? For me at least, I find the experience of being transported into an author’s private world — his emotions, his sense of place and his story — utterly irresistible. Best of all, I know that there’s something larger at work. I know that there will be a resolution of some sort. It may not be the happiest of endings (think again of 1984 or Great Expectations) but thanks to the author, the loose ends will be wrapped up in some way. As the reader, I will be treated to a resolution.
Real life, on the other hand, is full of ragged edges. As much as I’d like to think otherwise, the longer I live, the more I suspect that some things don’t happen for a reason. A straight newspaper article about a bank robbery, while interesting, doesn’t capture my imagination the same way that a novel about the same subject might. A novel about a bank robbery would build to that climax slowly, perhaps explaining the motivations of the robber. It might even describe the same situation from the point of view of the victim. And the author would be bound by his honor to pull these details together in a way that rewards the reader.
I adore nonfiction for the same reasons Melissa does: its sharp detail and its immediacy. She is also a photographer (no surprises there) and one of the most efficient collectors and retrievers of facts that I know. In a word, she is brilliant, and I jokingly call her Me-Google, or my own personal Google. Facts are useful, no doubt, but aren’t they best enjoyed when interwoven into a story of one’s own?
Another friend named Kelly and I once studied Buddhist meditation for a few weeks. We made it almost to the end of the course, but my interest gave out when the teacher insisted that while meditating we focus on the “experience” of our day rather than the “story.” But the story, my version of events and how I will tell it to others, is far more dear to me than any experience. Even today, I can’t remember the details of our defection, but in my mind, Kelly and I slipped out of the darkened room and drove to Bojangles where we spent the next hour drinking sweet tea and laughing. Our “story” ended up being more memorable than the “experience” of sitting cross-legged trying to clear our minds.
The debate will go on between me and Melissa, and I look forward to more spirited discussions on the matter. But for me, first there’s fiction. And everything else will always be nonfiction.