Fiction, nonfiction, and the space inbetween

Ever since I read Richard Lea’s article for The Guardian, “Fiction v Nonfiction – English Literature’s Made-up Divide,” I’ve wondered if perhaps there is something to the debunked Sapir-Whorf hypothesis after all. Let me explain. The hypothesis, in its original form, stated that languages have a profound effect on what their speakers are able to think. It’s obvious that people can see more colors than their language might have words for, but in the case of the English words for fiction and non-fiction and the absence of those words in other languages has led to confusion about what to call those made-up stories we love to tell. Lea quotes Aleksandar Boskovic:

“The clear-cut binary fiction/nonfiction distinction in English, is, in Slavic languages, differently coded,” Boskovic says, “and rooted in the history and struggle of the different oral and literary genres – what poststructuralism would call ‘writing’.”

This article—and the fact that a lot of the students I’m helping this semester are doing research about the roles and limits of fiction and non-fiction—has kept my brain occupied for weeks.

Rebecca Flaum
Rebecca Flaum

It’s easy to see fiction and non-fiction as black and white. If it’s made up, the book is fiction. If not, it’s non-fiction. If it contains even a hint of the imagined, the book goes over to fiction. There are various sub-categories, but the two types of book are kept in different places in bookstores. Libraries do things differently, but I still have to tell students to stay away from books with P call numbers because they might mistakenly use them as non-fiction.

Historians and other non-fiction writers might slap me down for this, but I’m starting to see the divide between fiction and non as a spectrum. The place in the middle is full of biographies and autobiographies (with details glossed over or omitted so that readers will see the subjects a certain way), historical fiction that can communicate emotional truths better than a textbook, and other books that are partly true, partly fabricated.

Seeing the divide as a spectrum, if nothing else, has made me more aware of how everything I’m told has been formatted by a human being somewhere along the line for a purpose. If it was even possible for an academic librarian who talks about the CRAAP Test every day, I’ve become even more sensitive to the possible biases of information no matter what the source. I’ve also seen the words themselves, fiction and non-fiction, lead students to blindly trust sources outside of section P.

I was fascinated to learn how authors who write or are translated into languages that do not have words that mean fiction or non-fiction as English speakers understand the concepts deal with the issue of letting readers know what to expect when they crack open the covers of their books. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o explains that in Gĩkuyu:

Kũgana rũgano – ‘to tell a story’ – can mean either of those, but specifically means retelling of well-known stories such as fables. The art is in the telling, not the fact of the story. The best storyteller is the one who recreates the anxiety of expectation and fulfils it.”

Non-fiction is the problematic term in Gĩkuyu. Gĩkuyu speakers might use a word like ũhoro, which Ngũgĩ defines as “a very general sense of happenings which would include actual information of actual happenings, but it could include story.”

Publishers and booksellers in languages without “fiction” and “non-fiction” sometimes have to get creative about how to label and organize things. But what if—and I know this is crazy—we just shelved things by subject? What if we put the biographies and novels and historical books about the American Civil War all in one spot? What if readers took both The Killer Angels and Last Chance for Victory? Of course, we would have to teach people to evaluate information very carefully, but I think it would be interesting if everyone got a dose of emotion and empathy with their facts.

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