From Kylene: Early in our discussion of this book, we kept pushing
each other to define the most critical difference between fiction and
nonfiction. We discarded the idea that one was true and the other not
because we read a great deal of nonfiction that we know is not based
on facts or truths. Then, during the 2014 Boothbay Literacy Retreat,
Bob made the following comment: "Fiction invites us into the writer's
imagined world; nonfiction intrudes into ours and purports to tell us
something about it."
Everyone in the room stopped taking notes and
looked up, and I knew we (well, Bob) had said something
that resonated with many. People broke into
groups and began discussing this. During dinner that
night, Lester Laminack wanted to know more about
this idea. Over the next several months, Bob and I continued
to discuss this vision of how fiction and nonfiction
differ. Eventually, we agreed that his comment
captured something we find critically important.
Perhaps fiction allows (at times) a more relaxed reading because it
acknowledges that it's inviting us into an imaginary realm. It may ask
us to regard as true, for the moment, what we know to be unreal. When
we enter the novel we agree to accept many of the inventions; when
the author presents to us a character, we accept him or her and pretend
for the moment that the character is a living person. When the author
shows us something happening, we accept that it happens. Some genres
within fiction ask us to accept more than others. In a work of science
fiction or fantasy, for example, we may be asked to believe—temporarily,
of course—that one can travel through time or upon the back of a dragon.
If we are to read that novel with enjoyment, we probably have
to say to ourselves, in essence, "All right, while I'm in the pages of this
book, I'll pretend that dragons do exist."
This momentary suspension of disbelief does
not require us to leave our values and understandings
behind, nor does it deny us the right to make
our own judgments about the fictional text. Indeed,
we may doubt whether the motivations and the
behaviors depicted are believable, we may question
the ethics of the characters, and we may condemn
the morality of their choices. Or the reverse may
be true. We may find that reflection upon the fictional text causes us to
question some of our own understandings of human behavior, perhaps
question our own ethics and some of our own choices. But if we don't
accept, momentarily, some of the author's invention, we may as well not
read the novel in the first place.
Developing that Skeptical Eye
Nonfiction, on the other hand, enters our world and tells us something
about it. It must enter our world if it is to be meaningful to us.
We aren't invited into the author's invented world to mingle with her
invented characters and witness her invented happenings; the nonfiction
writer intrudes into our very real world, tells us about real people,
describes real events. At least, we want to trust the writer to do so.
The nonfiction text may tell us about the newest tech tool, what
caused World War II, how dinosaurs evolved, whom we should vote
for in the next election, or how to fix dinner; no matter the content, it
will give us information or make some argument about the world we
inhabit. Writing that enters our world so directly needs to be read with
a questioning stance, one that reminds us to be somewhat skeptical of
that person intruding into our world.
We don't raise that question about the flying brooms in the Harry
Potter novels, but texts about health care, climate change, Ebola, women's
reproductive rights, cyber-bullying, testing mandates, marriage equality,
or the lengthening of the school year deserve that consideration. Perhaps
we have a better opportunity at holding on to that skeptic's eye if we
remember we aren't guests in the author's world; he is a guest in ours.