Fiction vs. Nonfiction


In the spring of 1965, my literary agent called to tell me that Harper’s magazine wanted to publish a short story I’d written. The story, “Luther,” told of a New York City teacher’s longtime friendship with a black student who, while serving time in jail, becomes a Black Muslim. There was one problem, however, my agent said. Harper’s assumed the story was derived from my experiences as a New York City teacher, and the editors wanted to run it as nonfiction.

“But I made it all up!” I protested.

The next day my agent called to tell me that since the story was not “true,” Harper’s had decided not to run it.

I was reminded of this when I read, in the media hullabaloo concerning James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, that Frey had originally submitted his work as fiction, but that when there were no takers, he decided to call it a memoir. The question, then: Why, in such instances, are publishers and the public more willing to embrace a story when told that it is “true”-that it actually happened-than when told that it is, on the same subject and with the same narrative line (or even, the same words!), a work of fiction? Why this curious belief that nonfiction, because it is “true,” may not only be stranger than fiction, but that it is, ipso facto, stronger?

’Twas not ever thus. In the early part of the twentieth century, large-circulation magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Scribner’s, Smart Set, and the American Mercury routinely ran a half-dozen or more short stories (along with novellas and serial installments of novels) in each issue, and only one or two nonfiction articles. This began to change in the early 1930s: fiction started to slip, nonfiction to rise, coinciding with H. L. Mencken’s heralding of “the sociological article as the important form of literary interpretation of American mores.” In our own time, influenced in part by the advent of the New Journalism and the “nonfiction novel” (see Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote), only one large-circulation magazine, the New Yorker, continues to run fiction in each issue.

The element of voyeurism can explain some of this: the frisson of seeing into the lives of the rich and famous, the glamorous and the unsavory, whether the person be Donald Trump or O. J. Simpson, Paris Hilton or Hillary Clinton. When we read of the private lives of Humbert Humbert, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Gregor Samsa, it would seem to be peeking less into their bedrooms (though we do that) than into their psyches, while simultaneously journeying into the imaginative and emotional recesses of our own hearts, fears, and desires. There is this too: that James Frey’s life, like the lives of those who have written confessional memoirs (Kathryn Harrison, Brooke Shields), becomes a public commodity. What was it like to be a drug addict? To have sex with your father? To suffer from a mental illness? We can talk with those who tell us the “true” stories of their lives; neither we nor Oprah can ever talk with Emma Bovary or Gregor Samsa.

We are often told that writers “should write what they know.” True enough. Yet we come to know things in various ways, and not solely by experiencing them. (One thing I discovered during several decades of college teaching, for example, was that young men and women often write better about love-and sex-before they experience it than after.) “Desire is creation,” says a character in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, and this speaks to what often inspires the writing of fiction (and the living of any interesting life), for it suggests that what may be most interesting about us lies not in what happens to us, but in what we dream might happen to us.

Left alone with a novel-with a world where privacy and possibility reign-to have a novel’s characters and story mingle with our own stories, is to create a mix that may be more complex than that which results from reading about what has actually taken place. For when we do the latter, our engagement with the work is largely and necessarily conscious, and deliberate. When a story is invented, it has the potential to move beyond ordinary reality, beyond its individual characters and their tales, thereby giving us entry to a world that may be unsettling and revelatory precisely because it speaks to elements of our lives that remain ultimately mysterious.

I’ve sometimes said about my own works of fiction that (as with “Luther”) I hope readers will find them at least as real as if they had never happened. While the preeminence of fiction may be on the decline, the power of a well-told invented story remains: a world of let’s pretend, though child-like in its origin, is anything but childlike in mature works (think: Proust, Nabokov, Munro, Trevor, Saramago, Chekhov, Kafka). Perhaps, then, we sometimes prefer that our stories correspond directly to that world we read about in the newspaper and see on TV, because this is more comforting than considering the possibility that what we or others imagine may be at least as real as the world we can see, touch, hear, smell, and feel, may yet, in ways beyond predictability and beyond our control, prove true.

Published in the 2006-05-05 issue: 

Jay Neugeboren is the author of twenty-two books, including award-winning books of both fiction and non-fiction. He writes for the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, and the American Scholar. His most recent novel is Max Baer and the Star of David.

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