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Ayla's picture



Fiction and Non-Fiction are the two main divisions of writing. Wikipedia describes fiction as the “form of any narrative or informative work that deals, in part of in whole, with information or events that are not factual, but rather, imaginary - that is, invented by the author,” (Wikipedia).  Wikipedia’s definition of non-fiction is a bit longer, since pieces of writing must meet stricter requirements to qualify as a work of nonfiction.  Non-fiction is the “form of any narrative, account, or other communicative work whose assertions and descriptions are understood to be factual.  This presentation may be accurate or not...however, it is generally assumed that the authors of such accounts believe them to be truthful at the time of their composition,” (Wikipedia).  The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean is a work of nonfiction, precisely fitting the definition above.  Alternatively, it’s movie representation, Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman, is fiction.  The way the audience learns from a piece of writing depends on whether it is fiction or nonfiction.  This arises because “life never makes sense, only fiction does,” (kobierta).  The qualifying of actions and events in a work of fiction that readers do cannot be done in a work of nonfiction.  Using the example of The Orchid Thief and Adaptation, we, as critical readers, find it easy to project the intentions of Kaufman in creating Adaptation.  His movie is fiction and so it fits together while Orlean’s book does not do so.  As a result, we learn more about ourselves when we read nonfiction than when we read fiction.

A piece of fictitious writing can fit into a rectangular package.  We can tape up the corners, shove in the loose strings, sit on it like a suitcase so everything fits, and mail it to the dusty corner of Lessons Learned.  (Sometimes the package doesn’t make it there, but that’s besides the point).  When we read a work of fiction, we try to make sense of it; we think the characters and the plot are woven together.  If a character kills someone, well it is probably foreshadowed earlier in the book.  If a character hurts someone they love, it might have been explained that they weren’t loved as a child or they were angry with that person for some reason.  Charlie hints at this concept when he tells his brother, Donald, that he can’t write a movie from a book that is not plot driven (Adaptation).  Furthermore, we are critical of the author’s writing to ‘make up’ for our own failure to make sense of fiction.  If a character acts rashly all of the sudden with no preemptive clues then we are confused.  The story doesn’t make sense!  This is a written poorly.  So, readers find the need to qualify every action, every scene, every character’s decision.  We look for the reasons behind the plot, even if it is a stretch.  We feel secure when everything fits together because “it whittles the world down to a more manageable size,” (Orlean, 109).  

The consequences of qualifying every detail of the story is that we sometimes project intentions onto the author.  The author is trying to show Y.  For example, I can claim that Charlie Kaufman’s script for Adaptation highlights some of the themes from Orlean’s book.  One of these themes is that a person cannot adopt someone else’s passion.  He expresses in the movie that he wants to “show people that flowers are pretty,” and he would rather that his movie exist than be artificially plot driven.  (In the book reviews, The Orchid Thief was considered to lack a plot and instead be a compilation of interviews with Larouche and the history of orchid hunting).  This is the root of his struggle to represent Orlean’s book in a movie.  In the movie, Orlean’s thoughts are heard on a voice-over, I desperately wanted to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.   In a later scene, as Orlean and Larouche walk through the swamp - lost - John becomes very frustrated.  He exclaims that people are always leeching off of him and they they should get their own passion.  Shortly thereafter, the pair finds a ghost orchid.  Orlean looks at it and says, “It’s just a flower,” (Kaufman).  The audience can see the disappointment on her face.  Just as Orlean learned that she could not adopt a passion for orchids as her own, Charlie realized he could not make a movie about flowers and encourage his audience to appreciate their beauty.  So, he did not make a movie about flowers.  Another simpler example is that Charlie’s movie is ultimately about himself.  This parallels the claim that Orlean’s book is ultimately about herself and her drive to find something that she is passionate about.  

As I qualify why Charlie wrote his script the way he did, I project intentions onto his person and I heighten his skill as a writer.  It is entirely possible that Charlie wrote Adaptation as the movie we view because he was out of options and he was over his deadline.  This is unsatisfactory to me as a viewer and an intellect.  Without my qualifications of Charlie’s movie, I am not satisfied with Adaptation and my learning is cut short.  If I invent reasons why Charlie wrote the way he did, though, I find that my learning of his movie and of Orlean’s book expands.

On the other hand, learning from a piece of nonfiction writing is quite different.  A work that is about something that actually happened is rather haunting because “life doesn’t make sense,” (kobierta).  Nonfiction is a brash reminder that we cannot qualify why people act the way they do or why events happen.  In The Orchid Thief readers cannot explain why Laroche is fickle in his passions.  There is no qualification for his actions; that is just the way it is.  Orlean is bewildered when John tells her of his past passions like tropical fish.  When he renounced tropical fish he swore he would never take another step in the ocean and he has not been in the ocean since then - even though he loves it (Orlean).   

We can still try to make projections and make sense of life.  Maybe Laroche renounces orchids, which die on him, for computers because he lost his mother and has trouble facing death.  Maybe not.  Maybe he moves onto computers because he feels like doing so.  Laroche may say that his renunciation of things that die have nothing to do with his mother but rather because mortal things require more care and he is too tired to tend to them.  There is a wall between a piece of nonfiction writing and the audience that reflects back any projections we make onto the characters.  For example, if a reader assumes that Laroche misses his previous passions, even when he says he does not, then the reader is a person who would miss something that was once a large part of his/her lifeAs a result, we learn more about ourselves when we read nonfiction than when we read fiction.

Orlean considers nonfiction writing to be very challenging because  “you have to deal with what really exists.  This is a greater challenge...this is reality,” (Orlean, 287).  Similarly, nonfiction is more of a challenge to read.  It is more of a challenge for readers to accept reality than to accept a fictitious nicely packaged story.  It is more difficult to learn about ourselves than to learn about lessons that imaginary characters in a story faced.  Fiction satisfies our human desire to reason why things happen while nonfiction forces us to look at the world for what it is.  As a result, the type of learning from each type of writing is different.

Works Cited:

Kaufman, Charles.  Adaptation. Columbia Pictures: Hollywood, 2002.


Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief. The Random House Publishing Group: New York, 1998.


Anne Dalke's picture


let me see if I am following what you are saying you here.

Starting from kobieta's claim  that
“life never makes sense, only fiction does," you extrapolate that
"nonfiction doesn't make sense, only fiction does," from which you extrapolate that
"we learn more about ourselves reading non-fiction," precisely because it isn't "nicely packaged" to make sense.

In this genre that is "more of a challenge to read," we ourselves have to do the sense-making, stretching ourselves to "accept reality," rather than an imaginary story that has a more "satisfying" shape, where the writer has already "made sense" for us. Forced to find reasons for why things happen in a non-fictional text, our understanding expands.

If I've got what you're saying, then your claim is that non-fiction, being closer to life, isn't going to make sense (the way life doesn't make sense), and --following from that--that all the sense-making we do involves our own projections. If we are aware of this process, what we are really learning about, then, when we read, is ourselves.

So my next question, I guess, is what we read for: to understand ourselves better? Or to better understand the world beyond ourselves? And if it's the latter…what genre will serve us best? In preparation for my upcoming 360° on Women in Walled Communities, I've been reading a fascinating book by Megan Sweeney about The Art of Reading in Women's Prisons, which traces overlapping therapeutic and disciplinary models of reading, both trying to control who prisoners will become, by regulating what they read. 

In the early 20th century, these practices--known as "bibliotherapy"--were used to "normalize" prisoners, to help them "work through traumatic experiences and to develop their agency, political consciousness, and civic engagement." But then a concern arose that reading was a radical practice, one that developed prisoners' "racial and class consciousness, rather than complying with state-defined rehabilitative goals." As so, as the earlier "era of rehabilitation" was replaced by our current "disciplinary model of correction," "bibliotherapy became a "relic of the penal past."

And yet, to me, this sounds very similar to what you are describing here, an activity that is still very much taking place outside prison walls?