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Fiction or not?

kapelian's picture

Over time, literature and science have been separated due to the difference in the nature of their works.  Scientific works and theories where in one category while English literature was in another.  Books we looked at in this course such as Darwin's book The Origin of Species was an acclaimed book for its scientific content, while Whitman proved as a great American poet with is work Leaves of Grass.   Despite their initial differences in how they where written, both books where essentially written about the same thing – the world around them.  So what makes one book fiction and the other scientific theory?  What makes one a poem and the other a bland description on pigeons? Why is one called nonfiction, and the other fiction?  Throughout the course, we've looked at how science and stories are not very different at all. We've learned by looking at not only Darwin and Whitman, but through Dennet and Hustvedt too, that all forms of literature tell their own kind of story.  If you look at Dennet, he is a philosopher who took a big work of science (Origin of Species) and showed how the the concepts could apply to other things.  And in Hustvedt's story, The Sorrows of an American, this book of fiction has many scientific pieces too it, such as the main character being a psychoanalytical psychologist.  These two works do their fair share of blending the boundary of fiction and non-fiction.  Especially with Dennet's use of metaphors, like sky hooks and cranes and the Library of Babylon, he constantly makes things up in order to help the reader understand him point.  By using literary devices more often found in a fiction story then in a good academic book, he makes the book not only more readable to the general public, but gives the book a little bit of a fiction look.  And in Hustvedt's book, she often has her characters get into deep discussions about psychology and the brain, something that most readers would not be able to follow because it's so dense.  For example, when Burton was talking at the party Inga threw for her mother, he spoke a lot about new findings in psychology and even mentioned of one of Dennet's works.  This paper will look  at how fiction and nonfiction diverge and converge, shaping literature to what it is today.  It will also look at the importance of ignoring these categories in order to better understand literature and even newer media today.

To really understand the blurring of fiction and non-fiction, we have to define what is fiction literature and what is non fiction literature.  By the standard dictionary definition, fiction literature is works of imaginative narration, especially in prose form.  This is poetry, theater  performances, comics and cartoons, fantasy and sci-fi stories.  The authors take what they know and add an almost magical element to it, making the story or poem into something completely different then from  what we know.  In comparison, non fiction is a branch of literature comprising works of narrative prose dealing with or offering opinions or conjectures upon facts and reality, including biography, history, and the essay.  Nonfiction is mostly used for books of science and history, as well as common books used in schools to teach.  So, fiction is the imagination, and non fiction is the hard facts. Although they are presented as polar opposites, fiction and nonfiction are merely categories of literature.  Their main purpose is to make categorizing literary canon easier by giving two big, main categories for scholars to use.  These categories emerged long before anyone today can remember.  Some scholars point to the earliest divergences of fiction and nonfiction to be in ancient times when historians wrote of battles of their country men so they could tell the facts of what happened to the other citizens of the nation.  This was early nonfiction, and early fiction were the myths of ancient Egyptian and Greek times, stories that told of people who may or may not have existed doing extraordinary things.  These stories also told life lessons to give examples of how one should live their lives.

One part of fiction and nonfiction that many people debate on is the legitimacy of certain creation stories.  Ancient Greeks believed that the world and the universe was created by the Titans, who where then overthrown by the gods who lived on Mount Olympus.  Today, very very few people believe this story as truth, especially with all of the scientific research that has gone into physics, chemistry, and biology to help us understand the world we live in.  However, there is the long standing debate with Christianity.  To many, the bible is a work of nonfiction, but to some it is just a story.  Although there is some proof of some of the characters in the Bible actually existed, there is much less proof that everything in the bible is pure fact.  For example, no one today can prove that Jesus walked on water other then to have faith in the fact that the Bible is telling us the truth. There is not only the belief of this creation story, but there is also a debate between Judaism, Islam, and the various other religions practiced across the world.  To each person, what religious story is fiction and which is not is a very touchy subject, yet one has to consider it when looking at the categories of fiction and nonfiction.  Not only between religions does this debate exist, but also between Christianity and the story of evolution.  To many scientists, the story of evolution is a universal truth even though it is only a theory.  But to religious leaders and people who deeply practice the religion, evolution is nothing more then a story.  The differences of opinion on the matter of evolution and creationism is one of the hottest debate topics in the United States today.  No matter how much research and studies are done on evolution, there are still people in the religious community who shun the information as lies, sticking close to the bible as their one true story about the functioning and workings of the world today.  This shows that in some cases, what is considered to be real or not is a matter of opinion.  

The blurring of lines between fiction and non-fiction can even be seen today in cartoons and comic books.  In any form, cartoons and comics are considered fiction.  They almost always have an imaginary setting along with imaginary characters.  These forms of new media, often disregarded as 'stuff for kids', has some very interesting things one can learn.  For example, in many cartoons (especially those for kids), there is often a lesson to be learned at the end of the episode.  They can be anything from share with your friends, or don't be a bully.  Although these little pieces of advice and life lessons show up in a cartoon, they're very important for living in our society.  Putting these lessons in these shows can be like a little slice of non-fiction in the cartoon's fictional world.  These life lessons in stories have been going on since the time of the ancient Greeks.  These stories where told in order to teach people how to behave.  Like the way Darwin's book tries to teach us about evolution, these Aesop's and life lessons teach us about how we should be living.  Even if a story about a father and son flying out of prison is fiction, the moral of not listening to your elders and trying to fly higher then you should are non-fiction.  They are essentially true and can be applied to real life through many different aspects.

Not only life lessons are in cartoons and comics, some actually have things someone can learn.  For example the cartoon show Ms Frizzle's Magic School Bus, the fictional teacher Ms Frizzle would take her 2nd grade class on various field trips and give them first hand knowledge about the world.  They traveled on a 'magic bus' that could change it's shape and allowed the students to travel inside the human body, under the sea, and go through a weather cycle.  Everything about the show was fictional, except for what the viewer learned from the field trip from the episode.  Like with the life stories, putting actual facts in the episode gives the viewers something to learn, but also lets them have the fun of watching fictional people undergo a fantasy adventure.

There is another side of a coin to this.  Non-fiction works can have fictional elements to them too.  Once can even look as a work of non-fiction as fiction.  For example, despite the long descriptions and scientific jargon within Origin of Species, it is only a theory.  Even though newer and newer evidence shows up through new experiments, it is not yet proven as a universal truth.  In that sense, this acclaimed book of science is nothing more then a fiction story.  Darwin was a very good story teller, making sure people believed in his views.  In his chapters about geology and rocks, he left out a few parts unexplainable questions in the rocks that geologists well knew about.  Darwin wanted to story to sound as believable as possible to the common man reading the story.  Although the other points he makes throughout the book still hold true, the thought that he edited the story in order to make it the best story possible leaves more of a question as to how unbiased and non-fictional this work really is.  This train of thought can even be taken through Walt Whitman's poems.  Whitman only wrote about what he thought about and what he saw.  It's very obvious that he was romanticizing things.  He may describe a tree as being a bright shade of yellow green, when really it may be a duller green to almost a brown.  Whitman made the world around him seem more exciting and beautiful through his poems then they might actually be.  However, like Darwin he is still talking about the world around him.  He's looking at what he sees, and altering it as he sees fit to make the best possible story that the maximum amount of people will read and enjoy.  Darwin and Whitman where writing to reach different goals, but their techniques and books where very similar too.

Another example of this was presented to us in class.  One girl wrote a paper on who a particular blood disease in some people gave way to the rumors of vampires, and how they would look very pale, and hate garlic, etc.  Vampires are seen as fantasy creatures due to the treatment they've gotten as stars in famous fiction books like Twilight and many movies.  So when some people read this girls paper, they immediately got excited, thinking that with these facts that their dreams of a real vampire and “Oh Edward Cullen is living in my closet!” could come true.  This fellow classmate of mine wanted to write a paper on an interesting blood disease that lead to the existence of a big horror-creature species over time through literary canon.  This shows how nonfiction can eventually give way to the existence of fiction depending on how the canon of a particular story or the way people present it.

Another category where literary canon that was fiction can eventually become nonfiction is science fiction.  Unlike the vampire theory from my fellow classmates paper, science fiction shows things that could one day become existing things.  Science fiction is possibly the best literary genre for looking at the blend of fiction and nonfiction.  Many early science fiction writers where science majors in school, or even retired scientists.  They used the knowledge they had from their work, and predictions they held of the future of scientific discoveries and wrote works of fiction to inspire the minds of their readers.  This genre started getting popular around the 1950s when the great space race between the USSR and the USA began.  These stories told of humans building rocket ships to Mars and meeting aliens and all of these crazy elaborate stories.  Although they are seen and considered fiction books, the basis for them is all nonfiction.  And, with some of the very early sci-fi works, some of their predictions came true.  We built rockets and got to the moon, and we've made amazing, new computers and now the Internet.  These humble ideas from people who shared a passion for science and writing have gave way to one of the most popular genres in literature today.  Since science fiction books are placed under the category of fantasy novels, they are all considered
to be fiction books.  As one can see, these books display many elements that make them look almost nonfiction like.  But because sci-fi novels contain mainly elements of technology that are not used in our world today, they are never considered nonfiction.  Even if it is ideal to remove the basic categories of literature in order to help us better look at and understand stories, these long standing categories do not go away very easily.

Darwin and Whitman wrote their famous books in the 1850s.  Since then literature has gone through many changes with the rise of science fiction and other things.  But, the definitions and ideas of fiction and nonfiction back then are the same as they are today.  These books have been widely acclaimed in their respective fields, however no one thinks to compare them to each other.  In our course, we were asked to read Origin of Species as a novel.  It was something that no other class would ask of because it was something we would have never considered doing.  Because we are always taught that books of science should be read differently then novels, we never think of ignoring those words.  By reading Origin of Species as a novel it lead to many new discussions that as a class, we could have never had without this different kind of reading.  Everyone still understood the book and what it was trying to say and what it was about, but we looked at it as a story, not something that many accept as truth.  It is suggested to some people that this is how scientific theory should be read, the same way religious texts are read because they are more stories then anything else.  People may believe them to be total truth, but we must always take a step back from science and fiction, because nothing is an absolute truth.  It was unfortunate that our class could not read Whitman or Hustvedt like a nonfiction work, but because of they are written to be a story it is much harder to read it just as something that is nonfiction.  If one had little to no concept of the difference between nonfiction and fiction, they may be able to read poetry or a fictional novel like nonfiction, but because these categories are already so deeply in bedded in us it is almost impossible for us to read it a book of nonfiction like fiction or vice versa.  

There is an argument by some scholars over fiction, because even in the wildest fantasy tales, there are still elements of our own, nonfictional world that exist.  For example, many fantasy novels star humans, and have creatures that could simply be seen as mutations of creatures that are common in our world today.  In this context, many would shoot down the notion that fiction and nonfiction are very close because there will always be nonfictional elements to any book, since most authors describe the world around them.  In Hustvedt's work Sorrows of an American, she easily describes the city of New York, where not only she but her main characters all live.  However, the characters are fictional.  To say that the setting is considered a nonfiction part of the fiction story would be very bizarre, but it's true.  This convergence of the two categories in a story that many would easily count off as fiction is a new way to look at the world around us.  Like in the works of Darwin and Whitman who looked at evolution and human life in a different way, ignoring the basic boundaries of the fiction and nonfiction categories changes how one can see stories and literary canons.

From early Greek plays to the most current scientific theories, fiction and nonfiction have always been around as categories to show the differences between certain kinds of literature.  But with the examples provided in this paper it is clear to see that there is not always a clear line between what is fiction and what is not.  Many elements of fictional stories are in nonfiction and many elements of nonfiction are in fiction.  Although these categories are useful, it is much better for people to be able to look at how these categories have pieces that are alike, not just different.  One can learn so much more about any piece of work, whether it be a poem or a philosophy book, if they can look at it through the eyes of both categories.  Susan Sontag said that interpretation was bad, and killed a piece of literature. But, sometimes if one truly wants to understand what a story is all about, sometimes one will have to do a little over analyzing by looking at the work from many angles in order to find the view that best fits what the story is about and what the reader believes.


Paul Grobstein's picture

must there be a fiction/non-fiction distinction?

"From early Greek plays to the most current scientific theories, fiction and nonfiction have always been around as categories to show the differences between certain kinds of literature."

I wonder if maybe the fiction/non-fiction distinction hasn't "always been around."  Maybe the Greeks saw the plays differently from how we currently perceive them?