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Does Nonfiction Count As “Art?”

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There are two three types of readers. First, there are the nonfiction readers, those who read weight-loss books and autobiographies of famous people, who insist they’re too busy to read books simply for entertainment. They want to learn something. Then there are fiction readers, the ones who get a glazed look at the very thought of reading a self-help book. They want to escape life for awhile, and spending their precious time reading nonfiction is akin to jumping off a cliff blindfolded. Then, of course, there are those who read both, depending on their mood.

There are three types of writers, too: nonfiction, fiction, and crossover authors. I didn’t think there was much of a distinction between these groups until I published my first book, a nonfiction book for women called How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces.

A couple months after the release, I attended a local writer’s conference. It was an author’s dream at first. It seemed to address any topic you could think of: plot, characters, marketing, and even query letters. Except for one thing. There was barely anything for nonfiction writers. I think there was a class on writing for journalism, but that was it. And the writing contest? Not a single category for nonfiction.

A little stumped by this, I read the bios behind the founders of the conference. Many of the “top dogs” were crossover authors–they’d written both nonfiction and fiction books. But it almost felt like their nonfiction was swept under the rug, as if they were ashamed of it or it wasn’t applicable. No one even acknowledged the fact that nonfiction actually outsells fiction in the national market.

Then, as I talked to guests at the conference, I got some interesting opinions. Here are some of their comments:

“Nonfiction isn’t a true art, not like writing a novel.”

“You can’t be free in your writing style.”

“There’s no beginning, middle, and end. I wouldn’t even know where to start writing a nonfiction book.”

“It has no voice, and it’s so bland. I can’t pay attention.”

And that, my friends, made me confused. Nonfiction, too restrictive? Not a true art? Very interesting.

Let me ask you something. Ever read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom? It’s a true story, a first-person account of a woman who loses everything by hiding fugitives during WW2. The description was so detailed and vivid that I literally wept, and I felt my life change by the end. Not a true art, indeed.

What about the memoir, Tuesdays With Morrie? It was beautifully written and thought-provoking in a fascinating way. The way the story was woven together made it feel like fiction, but it was all the more powerful knowing that it really happened. 

Good writing makes you stop and think. It makes you see the world differently. In many ways, nonfiction is even LESS restrictive than fiction. How many books have you read that followed the age-old, predictable “reluctant hero takes a journey to discover who s/he is, with a goofy sidekick and a wise sage, and defeats the bad guy” plot? You don’t have to follow anything in nonfiction. Nonfiction is much more than self-help books and textbooks. There’s a reason for the old adage, “truth is stranger than fiction.” Good writing is entertaining, regardless of the genre.

Read the two excerpts below, and tell me which one has more “voice”:

“My kids love the kissing monster game. They sit on my lap and I say in my most intimidating voice, ‘What does the kissing monster eat?’ They tentatively say, ‘Kisses!’ and I attack them with kisses. Even my toddler loves it. I think my children feel more loved when Mommy is silly than when we have a clean house. Good thing, because ours is nothing like a clean house.”

“‘I chose,’ Hespira said again, and Horreon believed her. So Hespira took leave of her mother and returned with him to the caves of the Sacred Mountain, and the vines of Hespira’s mother grew over Meridite’s temple. When Hespira left the mountain to visit her mother, as she did from time to time, the vines were dormant, but otherwise they grew and grew until the mortar was all picked to dust and the temple fell in on itself and nothing was left but a pile of stones covered in green leaves and red flowers.”

The first one is from my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, and the second is from The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. Which one is “real art?” They both are. (Well, just humor me, okay? And yes, I did like Turner’s book.) They’re both entertaining, with unexpected twists and events and funny dialogue. Except that one is true, and one isn’t. That’s fine. Two different genres, two authors, and one goal–to engage the reader.

Have you ever read an incredible story with dynamic twists and unique characters, only to find out that it really happened? That it’s not just a product of a writer’s mind, manipulated by their hand and tweaked to fit a formula, but something that a flesh-and-blood person lived through? How would it be to not have contrived dialogue, with perfect timing, each character speaking in turn, but to have real, living people doing unpredictable things? Reading a person’s voice and personality woven into their story instead of a narrator’s distant retelling?

In my opinion, the best authors are those who can do both. They see the beauty in nonfiction AND fiction, and the line between the two can get pretty blurred. The best nonfiction reads like fiction, and the best fiction feels real, true, and fresh, as if it could have really happened. THAT is the point of writing, and that is the concept I wished I could have seen at that writing conference. Nonfiction isn’t outside of the art–it’s an extension of it. It’s the bridge between real life and imagination.

What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment below.

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