Pondering the Similarities Between Fiction and Nonfiction
Posted by on June 5, 2014

At Little Curlew Press, we’ve been pondering: what are the similarities between fiction and nonfiction?

Roger: As I read through both fiction and nonfiction submissions—and as I work on my own big fiction and nonfiction creative endeavors—I’ve been thinking this question over. For me, the overlap is so basic and simple, but nearly impossible to describe. Quality writing has an energy that rises from the page. In one of my essays, I am working with the concept of language as a sketch. That’s what the writer strives for, I think, that image saturated in truth and imagination—and that’s the case in either/and fiction and nonfiction. The best fiction is steeped in research, while the best nonfiction is drawn in narrative precision. When it comes to environmental lit, both describe a place or an aspect of our natural world in detail.

Mary Ann weighs in: In a recent blog post here, I described a nonfiction piece thus: “ . . .as much a short story as a piece of nonfiction . . .” Why?  Why did I beknight this gem of truth-telling by comparing it to fiction, a work of imagination? The gripping story arc? Rich imagery? The mystery? Who knows? I just did. And it got me thinking. Why is it that when we stumble upon riveting nonfiction, we say it “reads like a novel,” or “enthralls like fiction,” as if reporting– bedrock of the best nonfiction– were the work of carpenters, and imagining– the province of fiction writers– the work of angels? Neither is wholly true. The best fiction writers and nonfiction writers are both carpenter and angel.

In the literary journalism anthology The Art of Fact, Kevin Kerrane writes in the introduction: “John Grierson, the father of the British nonfiction film, defined documentary as ‘the creative treatment of actuality.’  Ben Yagoda, my coeditor, describes literary journalism as ‘making facts dance.’”  All in all, isn’t that what the best fiction and best nonfiction share – the “creative treatment of actuality” and “making facts dance?” Underlying both is dogged reportage (think Dickens; Foster Wallace; Jack London) and imaginative use of scenes, dialogue, images and description (Richard Harding Davis; Mailer, even Thoreau and Matthiessen, Didion and McPhee). Where do they differ? Fiction is augmented truth; nonfiction is truth augmented. The one may or may not have happened. The other did happen. Where are they similar?  They both transport us from the reality of now to the reality on the page.

Rachel on Environmental Lit: I agree with Mary Ann! The best fiction and nonfiction writers are both carpenters and angels. This is especially the case when it comes to environmental lit. Both environmental fiction and environmental nonfiction has to be grounded in research, because it deals with the natural world. A key difference is that one cites its sources while the other doesn’t. Some of my favorite writers have beautiful fiction and nonfiction works.

Please weigh in. How are fiction and nonfiction similar? What are some of your favorite writers in either genre? Do they write across genres?



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