The Truth About Fiction vs. Nonfiction
Aminatta Forna, from Reporter to Novelist, and Everything in Between
Some years ago I was invited to judge a literature prize. The prize was awarded on the basis of a writer’s body of work, but the prize organizers had limited the scope to works of fiction. Works of non-fiction by the same writer were not included. This made no sense to me and I said so. As a novelist and essayist I see the two forms as conjoined twins, sharing themes and concerns, which all come out of the same brain, but flow into two separate entities. The same is true of every writer I can think of who writes both fiction and non-fiction. Marilynne Robinson’s novels Gilead, Home and Housekeeping and her powerful essays examine her reflections on Christanity and morality. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Chronicle of a Death Foretold and News of a Kidnapping tell of the history and making of modern Colombia. Michael Ondaatje says he wrote first his memoir Running in the Family about growing up in Sri Lanka, but felt the need to turn to fiction to write about the Sri Lankan civil war. Aleksandar Hemon’s Nowhere Man and his collection of essays The Book of My Lives excavate themes of loss and displacement from his hometown of Sarajevo.
Twelve years ago I was being interviewed on the radio about my debut novel Ancestor Stones, the first thing I had published following a memoir which had garnered a fair bit of attention. The novel told the stories of four women, each sisters growing up in a different era of a country’s history. The interviewer asked me a question that confounded me. Why I hadn’t written it as a work of nonfiction, she wanted to know. I replied that it would have been difficult, the people didn’t exist and the events I described in their lives hadn’t happened. Later I spent a little time pondering that question. Did the interviewer, who had spoken to hundreds of writers in her career as a critic and radio host, really have so little understanding of the process? I wondered if she thought, as I discovered a good many people lazily assumed, that the family described in the story was nothing more than a lightly disguised version of my own. The historical background to the stories was true, sure, but the stories themselves, the people, I had made all that up.
A while later I was guest lecturer at a British university giving a talk and reading from my memoir to a group of students of creative nonfiction. My publishers had described the book as a “story of a father, a family, a country and a continent.” I had grown up in Sierra Leone, the daughter of a political activist and dissident. The story I told was of my search to uncover events surrounding my father’s murder in the 1970s when I was eleven years old. Back then the kind of political upheaval that was played out in Sierra Leone was being played out all over the continent as nascent democracies of newly independent nations were hijacked by authoritarian regimes.
At the end of the session a middle-aged woman raised her hand: “Why,” she asked “had I gone to all the bother of writing a work of nonfiction when I could just as easily have written a novel.” To write the truest account I could mattered, I answered, a little testily, because these things actually happened. It mattered to my family, to the participants, the witnesses, and the people of the country. This was a book about how oppression unchecked causes a country to implode 25 years later, part of an unveiling of the things that had happened and never been spoken about.
“Each time a writer begins a book they make a contract with all the people who buy their book.”
I began my working career as a journalist, because having grown up in a country where the state controlled the newspapers and the narrative and fed misinformation to the public, truth telling was important to me. In this era of “fake news” my background as a journalist has turned out to be a useful one. I was trained to fact check and to question the reliability of each and every source, and hence these days I’m astonished to discover the credulity of the public, including some friends and Facebook acquaintances, who take apparently at face value stories which would not withstand a few moments scrutiny. “Fake news” has been around a long time from Joseph Goebbels to the British tabloids and the American entertainment magazines. What has changed thanks to social media is the mode and speed of delivery, also the messenger, from basement trolls, to Russian bots all the way to the leader of a Western superpower, who according to various sources lies publicly roughly five or six times a day, whilst at the same time condemning the output of the mainstream media as fake.
A decade after I joined the BBC however, I was done. I was never content as a reporter for a large organization. The problem, I gradually came to realize, was that I was obliged to speak with a voice not my own but another voice belonging to another kind of person. It was the voice of the BBC, a reflection of the broadcaster’s viewers and listeners, people who had on the whole lived lives quite unlike my own, who took for granted a shared knowledge, shared levels of experience, of familiarity and unfamiliarity with their world and the world beyond. They were the great middle class of middle England, and I was not one of them. The voice stuck in my craw. Everyone writes for their own reasons and if there is one thing that moves me to set out my thoughts on paper it is this: that ever since the years of my childhood I have never seen the world the way I am constantly being told it is and I could only do so in my own voice.
In the time I have been writing there have been huge shifts in the sphere of the realm we now call creative nonfiction. Where once most first person nonfiction was generally confined to travel writing, narrative journalism and essays, the late 20th century has seen a huge explosion in personal memoir, from Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr’s tales of family dysfunction to Jung Chang’s “memoir as narrative history,” Wild Swans, set against the historical back-sweep of the Chinese cultural revolution. In nature writing, Annie Dillard’s self-described “theodyssey,” which sees creation in tiny Tinker’s Creek, Helen Macdonald’s exploration of grief and falconry, the expanses of Barry Lopez Arctic Dreams. There are hybrids of every kind: William Fiennes’s account of his brother’s epilepsy combined with the history of the science of the brain in The Music Room, the magic and myth of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, and again Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family which moves beyond the very idea of form.
The writer of creative nonfiction and the writer of fiction have much in common. Both employ the techniques of narrative, plot, pace, mood and tone, considerations of tense and person, the depiction of character, the nuance of dialogue. Where the difference lies is that the primary source of the fiction writer is first and foremost their imagination, followed by their powers of observation and maybe a certain amount of research. The primary resource of the writer of creative nonfiction is lived experience, above and beyond all, memory, add to that observation and research.
Another difference lies in what I call the contract with the reader. Each time a writer begins a book they make a contract with all the people who buy their book. If the book is a work of fiction the contract is pretty vague, essentially saying: “Commit your time and patience to me and I will tell you a story.” There may be a sub-clause about the effort to entertain or to thrill, or some such. In my contract for each of my novels I have promised to try to show my readers the world in a way they have not seen before, or perhaps show it to them in a way they had not considered before. A contract for a work of nonfiction is a more precise affair. The writer says, I am telling you, and to the best of my ability, what I believe to be true. This is a contract not to be broken lightly.
“Where once most first person nonfiction was generally confined to travel writing, narrative journalism and essays, the late 20th century has seen a huge explosion in personal memoir.”
There are those writers of what is published under the heading nonfiction who freely confess to inventing some of their material. Clearly they have a different kind of contract with the reader from mine, or perhaps no contract at all. Whenever I am on stage with memoirists who do this, they start by explaining how the story was improved by those additions and that none of it mattered much anyway. In the words of the British writer Geoff Dyer: “The contrivances in my nonfiction are so factually trivial that their inclusion takes no skin off even the most inquisitorial nose.” And then there are writers such as W.G. Sebald and more recently Karl Ove Knausgaard who deliberately place their work in the twilight zone between fact and fiction. I won’t argue these writers case for them here, they know what they are doing.
For the memoirist who purports to be telling only the truth and then is caught lying a special kind of fury is reserved. In 2003, at a book festival in Auckland I met a woman named Norma Khouri who had written a memoir called Forbidden Love which told the story of the honor killing of her childhood best friend in their native Jordan at the hand of the friend’s own brother. The girl’s supposed crime was to have fallen in love with a Christian. The book sold half a million copies and at the time we met Khouri had founded and was raising money for an organization to save Jordanian women in danger of being killed for “honor.” We appeared on the same panel, afterwards we drank at the bar. Norma was fun, she seemed to have survived her ordeal well, too well some said later, but I know many people who have faced extreme situations and they are often perfectly cheerful. I didn’t think too much about her American accent either, she told me, or perhaps I assumed, that she had been to the International School in Jordan. All in all I spent maybe two hours in her company.
I flew back to the UK and a month or two later I received an email from the panel chair David Leser, a well known Australian journalist and feature writer. He wrote that he had stayed up with Khouri late into the night after we had left the bar, had been deeply moved by her fragility and courage, even, he admitted later in an article, fallen a little in love with her.
“I began my working career as a journalist, because having grown up in a country where the state controlled the newspapers and the narrative and fed misinformation to the public, truth telling was important to me.”
Khouri was a fraud. She had left Jordan for Chicago at the age of three and had not set foot in her homeland since. The whole story had been a hoax. No best friend, no Christian lover, no honor killing. The rage at Khouri lasted for months. A decade later a filmmaker made a documentary about her: Forbidden Lie$, in which Khouri continues to try to vindicate herself, despite the mountain of seemingly irrefutable evidence including accusations of financial misconduct and her inability to provide evidence to prove the existence of her dead friend and her friend’s family. To Leser she admitted she had lied but, she said, for the right reasons. Those who met her including Leser (and me) never could decide whether she was a trickster, a fantasist or even a woman with some hidden trauma of her own.
Everyone, even Norma Khouri, has their own reasons to write, their own justifications for the choices they make, their contract with their readers, their contract with themselves. I ask my students of both fiction and nonfiction, but most of all those who wish to write personal memoirs (perhaps because of all the forms of writing it is the one most often confused with therapy): Why do people need to hear this story? Not, Why do you want to write this story? i.e Not what’s in it for you. What’s in it for them?
When I come to a begin a book it is usually with a question in mind, something I have been thinking about and I want to ask the reader to think about too. What turns the book into a novel is the arrival of a character. Elias Cole, the ambitious, morally equivocating coward in The Memory of Love came to me through a chance remark by a friend about her father, a successful academic who had somehow survived a villainous regime where his colleagues had not. I hired a man to paint my house who I discovered (on the last day) was a thrice imprisoned violent offender. Out of that encounter came Duro, the handyman Laura unthinkingly allows into her holiday home in The Hired Man.
My nonfiction begins with a question too. The difference, if I can pinpoint it, is that with nonfiction when I start to write I believe I may have come up with an answer, an answer of sorts at least. Don DeLillo once quipped that a fiction writer starts with meaning and manufactures events to represent it; the writer of creative nonfiction starts with events, then derives meaning from them. Gillian Slovo, both a novelist and memoirist, once told me that with nonfiction you always know what your story is, with fiction that isn’t necessarily the case. I think there is truth in both statements. It’s easy to lose sight of your story, meaning the deeper truth you are reaching for in fiction, the more it can be a slippery process. When it comes to nonfiction I discard or store numbers of stories, sometimes because I can’t think of the right way to tell them, but more often because although I know the story in narrative terms, I have not yet arrived at its meaning.
The best stories can arrive quite by chance, replete with meaning and maybe even with a great character through whom to tell them. Some years ago a stray dog I had adopted in Sierra Leone and given to a friend was hit by a car. The story of the effort to save her life, which involved many ordinary people in a country still on its knees after ten years of civil war, introduced me to Dr. Gudush Jalloh who was then the only working vet in the country (the others having all fled or been killed). Here was a man who devoted himself to the lives of the city’s street dogs, who, in the face of an announced cull, had stood up to represent the dogs before the City Council, who had driven around at night rousing the local people into action to save the lives of dogs. I wrote an essay for Granta, “The Last Vet,” about Gudush Jalloh, for to me everything about him represented something to which I had been giving a great deal of recent thought, the gap between Western and West African modes of thought. By writing about him I could reveal something to West Africans about their own culture and reverse the gaze on Western culture.
“The conversation,” I later wrote after spending two weeks in his company, will range over days: “African pragmatism and reality, Western sentiment, the schism between the values of the two and the West’s own conflicted treatment of animals. Of Jalloh’s lot in trying to embrace, negotiate and reconcile so many ways of thinking.”
Sometimes meaning comes later. I lived in Tehran when I was 14. The year was 1979, my mother was married to a diplomat who headed the UN’s development projects in the country. I found myself a teenage witness to one the great revolutions of all time, from its heady flowering in the hands of writers and artists, to the crushing of new found freedoms by the mullahs a year later. The events, their sequence and consequence, made no real sense to me at the time.
In the essay 1979 I wrote: “I was, at that time, an ardent revolutionary. I had a poster of Che Guevara on my wall and a sweatshirt bearing his image. I read his speeches and admitted to no one that I found them impenetrable. I was ardent—all I lacked was a revolution. And now here was a revolution [between the progressive authoritarian Shah and the defiant yet regressive Khomeini] and I had no idea whose side I was on.”
Decades later, watching the hopes and disappointment of the Arab Spring those months in Iran came back to me, this time with a fresh understanding, of the ways, the stepping stones, by which freedoms can also be hijacked and subverted. Of never believing it can be that easy.
At other times a thought process, which has been going on for months or even years, might begin to arrange itself into a sort of pattern. Like a pebble in my pocket I carry the notion around, collecting other pebbles which look similar, until I have a pocketful. I’ll spread them out on the table, these notes and observations, looking for the points of connection. Then there comes the moment, hopefully, when I see it. In that way fiction and nonfiction are not so different, that part of the process is the same. With fiction, though, I will begin to search for a narrative with which to veil those ideas.
Here’s Zadie Smith: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand—but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”
And therein lies the difference. In nonfiction the writer seeks to remove the veils, to strip away and to reveal what is really there. On my noticeboard in my office in London I had pinned the lines: “Nonfiction reveals the lies, but only metaphor can reveal the truth.” I don’t know who said it, I’m afraid. I think it was Nadine Gordimer, but I’ve quoted it so many times that on the internet it is now ascribed to me. The quotation seems to me to be intended to elevate fiction as the higher form, and I agree that fiction allows me to reach for another less literal kind of truth. But there is something about stripping away the myths that veil the lies that is vitally satisfying. There, says the writer of nonfiction, I said it! I said it! And so is thus spared the lifelong sadness of never being satisfied.
After a long spell writing fiction I find I inevitably seek recourse in the clarity, the exactitude of nonfiction, a flight from the coyness of fiction. Then comes a time when I have said what needs to be said, facts become constraining and it’s time to revel in the boundless freedoms of the imagination once more. A novel begins with the thought: What if? A work of creative nonfiction begins with words: What is. The writer says to the reader: Wake up, smell the coffee and look at what is there.
The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.
Aminatta Forna is the author of the novels Ancestor Stones, The Memory of Love, and The Hired Man, as well as the memoir The Devil That Danced on the Water. Forna’s books have been translated into sixteen languages. Her essays have appeared in Granta, The Guardian, The Observer, and Vogue. She is currently the Lannan Visiting Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University.
Everything You Need To Know About Fiction Vs Non-Fiction
If a friend were to ask you right now, “How do you know whether to call a book fiction or nonfiction?” what answer would you give?
You think you have a pretty good idea of how to distinguish the two — until someone asks you to articulate the difference in your own words.
It sounds so simple, right? You could just say, “Fiction is imaginary, while nonfiction is true.”
But sometimes the two overlap.
Fiction can make use of fact, and nonfiction can make use of the imagination.
If you were a judge in a fiction vs. non-fiction contest, what features would stand out for each contestant? Would fiction always be making things up? Would non-fiction be more formal and particular about details?
Is a short story always fiction? Is a magazine article always purely non-fictional?
It’s not so clear-cut after all. But there is a way to know the difference. And I hope you’re curious enough to keep reading.
The Difference between Fiction and Non-fiction
Fiction and nonfiction books belong in different genres for a reason.
But a fictional story doesn’t have to be 100% based on imagination, nor does every piece of nonfiction have to be dry and unimaginative.
Think of the last novel you read that included credible details about a specific place or about a particular murder weapon.
Those details were true, but the story and its characters were made up — though they may be loosely based on true events and real people.
Now, think of the most engaging magazine or newspaper article you’ve read recently.
It grabbed your interest from the first sentence and held onto it — not with dry facts but with relatable and well-written narrative prose.
But in order to see more clearly how to distinguish fiction from nonfiction, we need to know what each one is.
What is fiction?
Fiction is prose that describes imaginary events and people.
It can also take a true story and change important details to create a new and no longer factual narrative.
So, is a novel fiction or nonfiction?
Look up the word “novel,” and you’ll see it defined as a “fictitious prose narrative of book length…” So, yes, a novel is always a work of fiction.
Short stories, on the other hand, can be either fictitious or true.
In the latter case, if the author is telling a true story in a compelling way, we call it “creative nonfiction.”
So, what are some general examples of fiction?
, novellas, and short stories (including cozy mysteries)
- Collections of fictional short stories (i.e., not “true stories”)
- Horror novels, novellas, and short stories
- Movies based on novels or on characters from a series
- TV series – drama, comedy, satire, “telenovela,” etc.
But what about fictionalized accounts of true stories, you might ask?
What about when Hollywood gets permission to create its own theatrical version of a true story?
Well, you probably know by now that the words “based on a true story” don’t guarantee that all the details will be true.
Unless it’s a documentary, if you hear the word “artistic license,” you can safely classify the Hollywood version of the story as “fiction” — especially if you know at least one critical detail to be untrue.
For example, if Hollywood substituted a daughter for a son or changed the setting from Alberta, Canada to Montana, you now have a fictionalized account of the story.
Or if someone recounted the history of the Crusades to include zombies or mythical creatures, the new creation would be a work of fiction.
But what if someone were to write a detailed account of their high school experiences — exposing the indiscretions of staff members and fellow students but changing the names of their “characters” to avoid a lawsuit?
While the names may be different, if it’s easy to identify the characters who did unseemly things, a lawsuit might still be on the table.
But that’s for a lawyer to decide.
Fiction doesn’t pretend to be non-fiction.
It doesn’t hold itself responsible for deviations from the truth. It makes the most of them.
It also makes the most of every element of truth that makes the story more relatable to its target audience.
The Difference Between Fiction and Nonfiction
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For writers and readers alike, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction. In general, fiction refers to plot, settings, and characters created from the imagination, while nonfiction refers to factual stories focused on actual events and people. However, the difference between these two genres is sometimes blurred, as the two often intersect.
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that both fiction and nonfiction can be utilized in any medium (film, television, plays, etc.). Here, we’re focusing on the difference between fiction and nonfiction in literature in particular. Let’s look closer at each of these two categories and examine what sets them apart.
What Is Fiction?
When it comes to the differences between fiction and nonfiction, Joseph Salvatore, Associate Professor of Writing & Literature at The New School in New York City, says,
“I teach a course on the craft, theory, and practice of fiction writing, and in it, we discuss this topic all the time. Although all of the ideas and theories…are disputed and challenged by writers and critics alike (not only as to what fiction is but as to what it is in relation to other genres, e.g., creative nonfiction), I’d say there are some basic components of fiction.”
Fiction is fabricated and based on the author’s imagination. Short stories, novels, myths, legends, and fairy tales are all considered fiction. While settings, plot points, and characters in fiction are sometimes based on real-life events or people, writers use such things as jumping off points for their stories.
For instance, Stephen King sets many of his stories and novels in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. While Derry is not a real place, it is based on King’s actual hometown of Bangor. King has even created an entire topography for Derry that resembles the actual topography of Bangor.
Additionally, science fiction and fantasy books placed in imaginary worlds often take inspiration from the real world. A example of this is N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, in which she uses actual science and geological research to make her world believable.
Fiction often uses specific narrative techniques to heighten its impact. Salvatore says that some examples of these components are:
“The use of rich, evocative sensory detail; the different pacing tempos of dramatic and non-dramatic events; the juxtaposition of summarized narrative and dramatized scenes; the temporary delay and withholding of story information, to heighten suspense and complicate plot; the use of different points of view to narrate, including stark objective effacement and deep subjective interiority; and the stylized use of language to narrate events and render human consciousness.”
What Is Nonfiction?
Nonfiction, by contrast, is factual and reports on true events. Histories, biographies, journalism, and essays are all considered nonfiction. Usually, nonfiction has a higher standard to uphold than fiction. A few smatterings of fact in a work of fiction does not make it true, while a few fabrications in a nonfiction work can force that story to lose all credibility.
An example is when James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, was kicked out of Oprah’s Book Club in 2006 when it came to light that he had fabricated most of his memoir.
However, nonfiction often uses many of the techniques of fiction to make it more appealing. In Cold Blood is widely regarded as one of the best works of nonfiction to significantly blur the line between fiction and nonfiction, since Capote’s descriptions and detailing of events are so rich and evocative. However, this has led to questions about the veracity of his account.
“The so-called New Journalists, of Thompson’s and Wolfe’s and Didion’s day, used the same techniques [as fiction writers],” Salvatore says. “And certainly the resurgence of the so-called true-crime documentaries, both on TV and radio, use similar techniques.”
This has given rise to a new trend called creative nonfiction, which uses the techniques of fiction to report on true events. In his article “What Is Creative Nonfiction?” Lee Gutkind, the creator of Creative Nonfiction magazine, says the term:
“Refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques ﬁction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonﬁction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonﬁction stories read like ﬁction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.”
Although it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction, especially in the hands of a skilled author, just remember this: If it reports the truth, it’s nonfiction. If it stretches the truth, it’s fiction.