Fiction and Nonfiction

Fiction and nonfiction toe a fuzzy divide. Or, at least some books in the respective categories fuzzily do. Truman Capote’s nonfiction account of grisly murders In Cold Blood  gave birth to the “nonfiction novel”.  Jeannette Walls’s Half Broke Horses is a “true-life novel” that’s “less a novel than an oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by [the author’s] family through the years” . Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name blends fact and fiction from the life of Goldman’s young dead wife to emerge as a “ephemeral fantasy” of a biography.

To balance against the fact that members of the fiction and non- families do not always keep strict segregation from each other, there are some non-obvious differences between the clans — among them

  • The way in which copyright laws apply to fiction v. nonfiction works: in determining the whether a use of copyrighted materials is fair under § 107 of the Copyright Act, courts examine “the nature of the copyrighted work”. In particular, “courts have distinguished between informational works such as news reports and works of entertainment such as movies on plays. On the theory that the law should lend stronger protection to dissemination of factual works, copying is more likely to be fair use if the underlying work is informational than if it is a creative work.” (Jason Mazzone’s Copyfraud, location 659).
  • The second distinction involves readers of fiction and nonfiction rather than the works themselves. According to USA Today, reports in e-book sales show that “adult fiction outsold adult non-fiction by nearly a 3-to-1 margin” in the year 2010. Of course, a more informative statistic would be a fraction of fiction books that is sold in the e-version as compared to the fraction of nonfiction books sold in the same format. Otherwise, it could just be the fact more people read fiction than nonfiction that drives this “3-to-1” observation, rather than diverging preferences in e-books.

    That said, I would doubt that the overall sales in fiction so highly dominate sales in nonfiction, whether the measure be in unit counts or expenditures. However, this is just a hunch. Do you know of sources that say otherwise?

  • Dwight Garner in his New York Times piece writes, “subpar nonfiction is so much better than subpar fiction. With nonfiction at least you can learn something.” I reserve my judgement on that statement, but whatever one may learn with subpar nonfiction, one could’ve probably learned from Wikipedia with a much smaller investment of time.
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