How should fiction and nonfiction mix?

Posted November 18, 2018 by Lory in discussions / 41 Comments

This week’s Nonfiction November topic, hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, is Reads Like Fiction.

Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

I’d like to put a slightly different spin on the topic, and ask: What degree of factuality should there be in fiction, and to what degree is it acceptable to deviate from the facts in nonfiction? What works for you, or what do you find ethically acceptable?

I find the most impressive historical novels stick to the facts as far as they are known and fill in plausible details around the edges where there are uncertainties. It’s rare that an author does not change, rearrange, or combine the facts in some way, but I appreciate a note informing me about these deviations. And I personally do not like it when really important details, like whether a character was married or a murderer or present/absent at some crucial event, are changed — when things get too far from reality, then I think it’s better to create original characters based on or inspired by the historical figures, and give the imagination free rein.

I love nonfiction that reads like fiction, but I don’t like too much invention here either. Sometimes the facts are just too few and far between, and rather than writing a very short book the author speculates at length about things no one can possibly know. To me, this quickly becomes tiresome. Sometimes twisting a certain event or sequence of events makes a better story, which is within the bounds of respectability in a novel, but not, to me, in a nonfiction book. It’s all right to imagine some scenes or bits of dialogue, but I get uncomfortable if these devices take up too much of the book, or are not properly identified. Here, too, there are times when I wish the book would just be written as fiction and have done with it.

How do you feel about the mixing of fiction and nonfiction? Can they be respectably combined, or do they need to stay in separate corners?

Posted for the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight.

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41 responses to “How should fiction and nonfiction mix?

  1. Lizzie Ross

    For me, historical fiction has to be true to the events. I don’t mind authors playing around with who has died and when, but there’s no excuse for not understanding and using the events the characters have been put into.
    I recently read a time-travel book, a US Civil War version of Outlander, and was angry from page 10 until the end, because the issue of slavery NEVER CAME UP. The time-traveling heroine never had to confront the world she’d been taken to, never had to question her own assumptions about how this world justified its existence. I’d have stopped reading at p. 50, but I wanted to give the author a chance to redeem herself. Didn’t happen.
    But George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life — these are GREAT. The authors play with history without ignoring it.
    As for non-fiction that includes fiction — in that case, “non-fiction” is a misnomer and the author not to be trusted.

    • Agreed, but can non-fiction respectably read like fiction? I see a lot of authors who seem to be trying to gussy up their thin or not-really-very-interesting material with too much “fictionalization,” and that rankles. On the other hand, some are able to take a great story and write it both beautifully and truthfully (In the Kingdom of Ice is my prime example for this), and that is impressive. I’m always on the lookout for more examples of the latter …

  2. I extremely agree with you about wanting historical fiction to adhere to historical facts. Whenever I read a historical fiction book, I always skip to the end and read the author’s note early on, because I like to have a sense of what’s real vs invented. It also helps me to feel grounded in the author’s vision of the history, if that makes sense? I like to read the author’s note to get a sense of the tone they’ve taken towards their subject.

    • I also like to read the notes first (or in the middle). I feel less cheated if I know ahead of time when the author has taken liberties.

  3. I wish I could remember the historical texts I may have read when at school which were so literary as to feel close to fiction, but the fact I’ve forgotten them may indicate my lack of trust in them. I do however recall one critic of, I think, Edith Sitwell’s biography of Elizabeth I who complained about descriptions of the queen walking down corridors as though the writer was there and could read the monarch’s thoughts. I suppose we’d call it creative non-fiction…

    As for fact-based fiction, isn’t the believableness of much of the stories we read reliant on a degree of realism? From so-called ‘hard’ SF to contemporary novels we need a modicum of verifiable elements to engage us, don’t we? Even fantasy requires enough psychological depth for us to suspend disbelief.

    • Creative non-fiction … a certain contradiction in terms there. When I see too much creativity going on, that’s when I’d like it to be just called “fiction.”

      And to be clear, I see nothing wrong with basing fiction on historical fact but playing around with it to some extent. But I prefer it when the important events are kept as they occurred, not tampered with. There’s usually lots of room for imaginative work around the un-recorded evetns.

  4. I grew up in the time when the dustier and more impersonal the prose in non-fiction was, the better. As a history student I was never allowed to use ‘I’ during my essays and always had to use ‘one’ and put any of my opinions in the passive. So I very much celebrate the relatively recent shift in making non-fiction more readable and punchy.

    My only caveat would be that it shouldn’t mean the necessary rigour or research should be in any way compromised. Surely the discussion should be about prose style – if it purports to be non-fiction then the attention to accuracy of detail should be a given.

  5. Lizzie Ross

    Here’s a nonfiction book that reads like a novel, but it’s over 500 pages: Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth, about the competition to be first to the South Pole. Amundsen vs. Scott. Powerful and distressing.

  6. Oh, what a wonderful topic for thought and discussion! I started to reply… Four paragraphs later, I realized I really had a blog post rather than a comment. So I’ll post my response on my blog this week, and just say here that I love it when nonfiction is presented in interesting ways, whether it’s with humor or using creative literary techniques — so long as the facts are accurate. And I prefer historical accuracy in my historical fiction, but will cheerfully play in an “alternate” universe if I know ahead of time that’s what I’m getting. Just don’t mess with the facts or ignore historical details without telling me you’re doing so. And if you make silly mistakes because you didn’t do your research, you’re going to lose me as a reader. Don’t ignore how long it really takes to get from one place to another by carriage, or have your medieval peasants eating potatoes before the discovery of the New World.

    • I’m fine with alternate history, fiction based on historical characters but with names and details changed, etc. It’s when the fiction takes over without due notice that things get dodgy. And yes, do the research, please! But undigested bits of research (“this fact is so interesting, I have to fit it in somewhere…”) also cause problems.

      Altogether, I’m realizing how hard it is to write a really good historical novel, or narrative history. I look forward to your further thoughts!

  7. I’m completely with you on this one 🙂 My default assumption is that historical fiction is at least trying to be accurate and that nonfiction is going to be extremely accurate and anywhere that the author intentionally makes something up, I definitely want a note about it!

  8. This is a good and though provoking post. I’ve worked on a memoir one and off, and it is driven home to memoir writers that they must embrace scene, scene, scene, and dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. To an extent, I agree, but I wonder. Do our readers really need to be always shown in that way, do we need to cater to them in that way….when in fact it is difficult to remember what happened years ago accurately? I suppose the talent lies in showing a scene as it is seen through the filter of the narrator…and making sure the reader understands that. I’m wondering if we can approach memoir a bit differently as that genre evolves, with other good, literary techniques that don’t always automatically default to scene and dialogue…

    • I would love to see a memoir (or novel for that matter) that could represent effectively the way memory actually works. I can understand the pressure to invent scenes and dialogue in order to hold a narrative together, but it’s a literary convention, not the reality.

  9. ….and as for historical fiction, I like sticking to the facts and agree that in some cases it’s just better to invent a character and be clear about that, rather than changing facts or circumstances or time lines….

  10. I think it’s best to keep them separate. I don’t read fiction but if I was reading historical fiction I would expect it to be mostly accurate but I wouldn’t be mad if it was a little different because it’s fiction. Nonfiction should never add in things that didn’t happen though. If a time period can’t be remembered, I’d rather that be admitted and a time lapse occur.

    • I do think there can be some speculation or theorizing in non-fiction … but I really like to see it identified as such. It doesn’t bother me if fiction is somewhat changed, but there are some historical novels that I’ve read that distorted the facts SO much it really disturbed me.

  11. I really appreciate having both fiction and non-fiction at hand to bring a place or a time to life for me. When I was studying the history of England in school, I borrowed books from the library which certainly weren’t texts, just to help bring it to life for me and, along the way, gather a few important dates. But now when I think about how much I would have loved to have novels like Hilary Mantel’s novels about the Henry VIII conflict with church/state, I wish I was a student again now!

  12. I’m with you — I like historical fiction that sticks with known facts and whose author reveals which aspects are either deviations from the truth or speculated. And with nonfiction — I seriously want only the truth! For a time, I was tied in knots trying to determine whether “The Right Stuff: A Novel” by Tom Wolfe was actually nonfiction.

  13. What I dislike in biographies is when the author makes assumptions about what the subject felt and thought – unless that person expressed their thoughts and feelings in letters for example – and use phrases such as ‘must have thought’ ‘could have’ and ‘probably’ etc. As for historical fiction I agree with the comments that it should stick to the facts and not add imaginary situations – as Alison Weir did in her fictionalised biography of Anne Boleyn where she had Anne meeting Leonardo da Vinci, although she did point out that the scenes were imaginary!

    • Ugh, there have been books with so much “probably” and “could have” that i wanted to throw them across the room. And putting historical characters together just because you think they OUGHT to have met – that’s a big turn off too!

  14. Lory, I think we are of the same mind. I love real facts and events in my fiction, but I prefer my non-fiction to be factual and not too much speculation.

    • That seems to definitely be the consensus here. I wish certain authors would pay heed to our preferences.

  15. I sometimes try to match my Nonfiction Reading with my current fiction reads. This month I’m reading German Literature. Tied to that I’m reading Weimar in Exile- The Anti- Fascist Emigration in Europe and America by Jean Palmier. Very long and detailed it goes into a lot on German writers reaction to Nazi rule.

    I normally read several books at once. I was recently given a review copy of a biography Mel Brooks Funny Man by Patrick McGillgan. I love his movies and am grateful to learn about how they were created.

    I like biographies of writers. I am currently also reading Neruda: The
    Poet’s Calling by Mark Eisner. I bought it marked down short time as a kindle from $16.95 to $0.95. (Now sale over ).

  16. Like some of your other commenters said, I like to read author notes so I know what parts of a book are real and what parts are fabricated. I’m okay with the author taking purposeful liberties, but it would be nice to know upfront. I don’t read a whole lot of nonfiction, but it doesn’t seem like a nonfiction author should be making things up! 🙂

    • It’s often not exactly “making things up.” They are trying to fill in gaps with their hypotheses or theories. That’s fine to a certain extent (as long as it’s clear that’s what they are doing!) but past a certain point I find it irritating. It can make a 200 page book into an 800 page book.

  17. Hmmm, there are some good questions here. As someone who primarily reads fiction, I actually like my non-fiction to be more distinct – so I remember that is real! I agree that I like to know what’s real and what’s not, and that if you stray too far in one direction or the other, you should just embrace it all together (i.e. that point you made about historical fiction becoming more imaginary than historical).

    • That is a good point about remembering what is real. This can become quite blurry in both fiction and non-.

  18. I love how you’ve approached the topic, and are asking some really interesting and valid questions. Personally, I’m very much the same as you – in fiction I like facts be stuck to, and even altered slightly, I want to know about it. I don’t think it takes away from the story either by knowing; so I see no reason why not to add it to an author note. And as with nonfiction, again, strictly factual. Great topic!

    • It would probably be cumbersome to detail all the “artistic license” taken in a historical novel, but I do appreciate some general description.

  19. My dad, a photojournalist, used to joke that the local paper’s motto was “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” I think some authors (I’m thinking of Steve Sheinkin, who writes nonfiction for young adults) choose such fascinating topics to write about that they don’t NEED to jazz it up with inventions and imagined possibilities. I know I’ve learned quite a bit of history from historical fiction, and I feel betrayed if something imaginary is presented as factual. But I don’t mind liberties being taken if it’s understood to be fiction. I guess it depends on the purpose–am I reading this biography of Queen Elizabeth I to learn about her actual life, or as escapist adventure? The book should present itself as one or other other, not pretend to be more accurate than it is.

  20. I recently read Grave Mercy by Robin LeFevers, and it’s a blend of fantasy and historical fiction that takes place in the duchy of Britany before falling to France. Great story! But then I read at the end that some of the “characters” in the story were actually already dead during the story’s timeline. I never quite understand THAT kind of poetic license…

    As for non-fiction— it always boggles my mind when authors quote a conversation they had with someone. What are the odds that conversation actually occurred verbatim? It’s a small pet peeve, I suppose, but a pet peeve nonetheless. I see it a lot in travel writing or memoirs.

    • Memoir certainly treads the line between fiction and non-fiction. It does seem impossible to remember all that dialogue word for word, so I take it for granted it’s reconstructed.

      And yes, bringing people back to life when they didn’t live is the kind of artistic license I could do without. If you don’t know where they were at a certain time and want to imagine it, fine … but not if they were definitely not in existence!