Fiction versus nonfiction: what’s the difference?
When I taught elementary school, I taught my kids the difference between the two. Fiction books, I told them, are the “made-up” books: they are made-up in someone’s imagination. The nonfiction book are not fiction: they are nonfiction. Sometimes they are called the “true” books or the “fact” books. Most of my kids were content with that, but occasionally an observant youngster would ask me why the fairy-tale books were shelved in nonfiction. To which I would raise my eyebrows and say, “Good question!”
By the time kids are in middle school, they are ready for a more nuanced explanation. By then, they are ready to understand that sometimes a novel can be more “true” than an nonfiction book on the same topic.
Truth can be a very slippery object to grasp.
For example, a fiction novel set in World War II-era Poland could be more factually accurate than a nonfiction history of the time and place.
One factor contributing to this is that the novelist could have conducted more complete research and examined more primary (first-hand) accounts. The plotline may even be based on a factual story. But the story in a novel is largely as the author imagines it to be. The names may be invented, the timeline may be tweaked for dramatic effect, and the author may take great liberties in describing how a character feels and what they are thinking. If this information is not gleaned from a diary or an interview with the actual character, it is fiction. The information supplied by the author came from thought, not reality.
Another factor that could make the fiction novel more “true” is by poetic convention. The story could be read by someone who was actually present in the same time and place and they could say the novel perfectly captures how it felt to be there.
Not all fiction books are novels. A short story collection may be by one author or may be from diverse authors from one country, by gender, or from an ethnic group scattered all over the world. The book could contain great stories featuring horses as characters or be based on kids who play basketball. The criteria that makes these stories fiction is that they are the product of someone’s imagination.
Nonfiction books, as I explained to my young students, is “not fiction.” In other words, it is everything that does not belong in fiction. But does that make these books “true?” Well, not necessarily. Let me explain.
Books of myths, fairy tales, and folk tales were possibly based on actual events that happened in the distant past. Through retelling, they may have incorporated elements of magic and the metaphysical.
However, in the experience of most of us today, there are no gods throwing lightning bolts around, fairies don’t dance around rings in the moonlight, and beans do not grow into magic stalks that can be climbed to giant’s castles. So why do these books go in nonfiction? Because they are part of historical, cultural heritage. We don’t know who made them up nor exactly when they were started. So they go with religion books (mythology) or they go in social sciences under folk tales.
Some people might be confused to find that poetry books belong in nonfiction. The reason is that poets are using metaphor, simile, and symbolism to represent a truth about humanity. How it feels to be human, our aspirations, and our foibles are explored through a creative use of language. Some poems tell stories, but they generally also have a deeper meaning, even if it is only to convey a feeling to the reader. In that sense, they convey a truth that transcends imagination.
Bias and being outdated are two reasons a nonfiction book may not be strictly true.
In a perfect world, all nonfiction writers would be diligent in making sure their facts are accurate. And generally we should give writers the benefit of the doubt. But we also need to be aware that some authors have a hidden agenda when writing their book. They want to convince other people that certain things are the truth or certain events happened in a certain way that they didn’t. These books are biased. And authors can also be guilty of unconscious bias. In these cases, the author is so convinced their point of view is correct that they don’t consider conflicting information accurate.
Trying to move the reader to hold a certain viewpoint is fine as long as they are upfront about the goal. It is a problem, though, if they do not acknowledge what they are doing. Readers should be free to make up their own minds, so any credible evidence that contradicts their argument must be presented and dealt with honestly.
Another, less nefarious issue, is with date. A physics book written in 1950 would be woefully out of step with what physicists understand today. The book may be of historical interest to modern students and physicists, but readers need to realize the information contained within will be superseded.
In a library, a book found with bias or dating problems wouldn’t be reclassified as fiction. In other words, a librarian would not change the call number on the out-of-date physics book and shelve it with the novels. It would likely be discarded and replaced by a more up-to-date book on the specific topic as soon as possible.
So you can see, while it can be a little complicated, the general rule still holds: fiction books come from a specific author’s imagination, while nonfiction books are generally those based on facts.
What makes up the nonfiction section in a library?
For most public and school libraries, at least in the United States, the nonfiction section is arranged by the Dewey Decimal System of classification. More information on the system and its application to home libraries can be found in my blog post.
The ten topics are:
- General Knowledge
- Philosophy and Psychology
- Social Sciences
- Natural Sciences
- Applied Sciences and Technology
- Arts and Recreation
- Geography, Biography, and History
I have blog posts delving more deeply into how to arrange a library for large collections of those books too.
Besides the mythology, fairy tale, and folk tale books discussed above, it may puzzle some readers why other types of books belong in nonfiction. Depending on your personal perspective, books on UFOs, cryptozoology, paranormal phenomena, religion, controversial science books, political books, and even technology books can be controversial. Some history books are researched with an aim to prove a particular point of view, highlighting or even skewing some “facts” while ignoring facts that refute it.
Our current polarized, politically-charged environment causes issues here. But in my opinion it’s not really so complicated. Common sense can help sort out the trustworthy from the dubious.
Facts, simply stated, are facts. If something happened, it happened. People can disagree on why things happened, but they are not free to disagree on if they happened. Calling someone a liar does not make them a liar. But if that person is witnessed by multiple people or recorded on tape doing things, only to claim they never did it, then they are either senile or they are lying.
As long as authors make it clear in nonfiction books that they are presenting an opinion about something, it is okay to speculate on what may not be factual. Sometimes there are gaps in the historical record or gaps in scientific understanding. In these cases, speculate away, as long as all relevant evidence is truthfully presented.
But when a writer presents disputable evidence or mere opinion as if it is the only reasonable interpretation, I would argue the book slants more towards fiction and does not deserve a place on library shelves.
So that’s my personal criteria for judging books. Exceptions need to be made for books on religion, the paranormal and other areas where the whole point of the book is subjective viewpoints or beliefs. The author needs to be honest about their intent at all times and must never present evidence that was made-up as a fact. If a person writes a memoir, but makes up most of the story, then that book should be labeled a novel and be published as a fiction book.
What makes up a fiction section?
Fiction are generally plot-based works that are stories people created using their imaginations. In other words, they are creative works. They can be novels, short stories, graphic novels, or comics. There are literary genres that have been around for over a hundred years like classics (Jane Austen); horror (Steven King); fantasy (J.R.R. Tolkien); science fiction (Greg Bear); historical fiction (Sir Walter Scott); and mysteries (Agatha Christie).
These genre categories have morphed into newer ones like literary fiction (Donna Tartt); chick lit and romance (Sophie Kinsella); cozy mysteries (Ellie Alexander); crime thrillers (John Grisham); and magical realism (Alice Hoffman).
In recent decades “genre-bending” has become a trend. In these books, elements of fantasy may be combined with historical fiction or a book may be part horror and part comedy. An example would be The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams which was part comedy and part science fiction. Yes…it’s 42.
Unlike novels, which can take several hundred (or over a thousand) pages to tell a story, short stories can generally be told in between less than one page to a hundred pages. But like novels, they are also a product of imagination.
When nonfiction seems like fiction
There are several categories (also called genres) of nonfiction that share characteristics with fiction books. These are literature, poetry, and narrative (or creative) nonfiction.
The first, at least on the surface, is the Literature category in the Dewey Decimal System. These books are shelved in the 800s section. It can be confusing because literature is considered the best writing from different languages and geographical regions. So novels, short stories, essays, poetry, plays, and even riddles are shelved under Literature.
I used to tell my high school students that painting is art made with your hands, music is art made with sound, and literature is art made with words. Literature is serious novels, short stories, plays, poems and essays that will likely stand the test of time because they both contain universal human themes and because they are superbly written. The 800s may contain the works themselves, but more likely, it contains works of interpretation and criticisms written about the works.
Even though poetry ranges from the serious, like “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot to the whimsical “Oops!” by Shel Silverstein, all poetry is considered nonfiction. While some poems seem simple on the surface, they are often far deeper than they appear. Poets are generally writing to express the truth about a topic. That topic can range from a child contemplating clouds to life in Kublai Khan’s Xanadu. Poetry books are shelved in the 800s, the Literature section.
In the twentieth century, journalists and other nonfiction writers started exploring methods of writing nonfiction using techniques traditionally employed by fiction writers. Similar writing styles can be employed with travel writing, nature writing, science writing, sports writing, biography, autobiography, memoir, interviews, and personal essays. They are sometimes referred to as “literary journalism.” Famous writers who have employed these methods include Truman Capote (In Cold Blood); Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff); and Roxane Gay (Hunger).
Arranging fiction books in a home library
In the libraries I used to work in, there were sometimes two fiction sections: one for novels and one for short stories. The one for novels had an F on top of the call number (for Fiction) and the first three letters of the author’s last name on the bottom. They were arranged on the shelf, all together in alphabetical order, by the letters on the bottom.
In my high school libraries, there was also a short story section. These books had an SC on the top of the call number (for Story Collection) and the bottom had the first three letters of either the author or the editor of the book. Editor’s names were used if the book contained stories by more than one author. These were also placed on the shelves in a separate section and were arranged alphabetically by the letters on the bottom of the call number.
We separated the two fiction sections in a high school because students were frequently required to choose a short story to read for an assignment in English classes. It was much easier for them to go to the shelf and explore the stories in front of them than to try to find stories in the online catalog and then track them down in the fiction section. High school students are frequently in a hurry and I wanted to encourage them to handle and look through the books.
What you choose to do with your story collections is up to you. If you have a lot of them (most people don’t), you could place them all together at either the beginning or the end of your fiction books. But if you are a reader who is devoted to a few authors, you may have better luck shelving all your books by, say E. B. White, together no matter if they are essays, short stories, or novels.
Another option for your fiction books is to arrange them by genres. This can be fairly tricky if you read widely and own a lot of them. But some people only read a specific genre like sci-fi. If that’s the case, then it may be best to shelve them in order by author or editor’s last name. But so many books could be shelved in more than one genre. And what to do if you have several books by the same author, but they may belong in different genre categories?
I ran into this in one of my high schools when I decided to shelve the fiction books by genre.Once again, the decision was made to convenience the students. When an English teacher brought in a class, I could briefly describe which genres we had and the students were a little more enthusiastic about exploring.
I decided to have ten genres since there are ten nonfiction categories. The ones I chose were Chick Lit (including romance), Classics, Dude Lit (including adventure and books heavy on fart-jokes), Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Sports Stories, and Westerns. I imagine different libraries would need different genres. We were a small rural school with a fairly uniform population.
As I mentioned though, some books just didn’t fit neatly into one category. And there were the problems that made some people testy. Some girls like adventure books and didn’t like looking at “Dude Lit” books. And where should you put a historical fiction book that contained a subplot of science fiction?
Overall, though, the genre-fied collection worked fairly well. Most of the kids seemed to like it. But one problem I noted was that it kept some kids separated from books they might have liked. A student who loved horror might have really liked some of the classic books, but they weren’t willing to branch out and explore. But I tried to solve this with kids who liked to read by being open in the mornings before school, during lunch, and during class times for them to come in and check out books. Helping those students was my joy.
Finding good books to read
Libraries and bookstores
This is my favorite method. Pick a library or bookstore. Any library or bookstore. Used bookstores are my favorites. Walk around. Soak up the atmosphere. Look at displays. Look at signage. Pick up the books. Read the blurbs. Flip through the pages. Carry some around with you for a while, then stop and look at them. Talk to librarians or people who work in the stores. Who knows what treatsures you may wind up with?
Thrift stores often have used book sections as well. For someone just getting started with reading, these are inexpensive places to pick up books. If you wind up not liking one you bought, you don’t have a lot invested. Just take it back when done. But you may find an author you love or a subject that really peaks your interest. Just think of all the fun you can have exploring. Thrift stores are also great places to pick up vintage books if that’s your thing.
Google or DuckDuckGo it. Just look up “recommended books on (fill in the blank).” You may be shocked at the sorts of things that come up. Here’s a short list of platforms and websites that can help you out.
Places to find book recommendations online:
- Goodreads. This is a mammoth platform. People read books, rate them, review them, make lists of them, create and join groups to discuss them, and enter contests. Goodreads can be overwhelming for someone merely looking for a book to read. My suggestion would be to type in a few books you have liked and look at the reviews of people who also liked the book. Then look at their “Read” list to see what else they have liked. You can also look at the groups and lists they are connected to. And keep in mind that the ratings skew toward the popular. Just because something has a low overall rating, that doesn’t mean it would be a bad book for you.
- Book Riot. In my opinion Book Riot is the diva of book sites. It covers the best of fiction and nonfiction for young and old folks and has reviews of old and new books. Comics have a place, too. Book Riot is a great all-around source of book recommendations with posts written on all sorts of subjects. The site makes for fun browsing and has wonderful recommendations.
- We are Bookish. Bookish is the editorial blog for NetGalley members. If you are not familiar with NetGalley, you can sign up to be a book reviewer and have a chance to read books for free, in exchange for a review of a new, soon-to-be-published book. They are an independent platform aimed at helping authors and publishers promote their books. We are Bookish has book reviews galore, most very recent, but they also have posts on Bookish Lifestyles (how could you not love that?) and advice on book clubs.
- Whichbook. This is pretty awesome. You can find books based on your mood or what kind of plot lines you like. You can even find books based on whether they are long or short. I like this one because it brings up combinations of factors I would never be able to search for on my own. (How about a mind-blowing book with an unexpected ending that is short with little-to-no violence?) Yes, you can do that. They also have a blog with book reviews and a list-sharing app. You can make lists of your own and view the lists of others. You can share book recommendations and link to libraries that have the books for lending or to bookstores who have them for selling.
- Epic Reads caters to teens and YA literature fans. My high school library linked this on the website. There is so much here for teens to enjoy. There are book lists by genre and subject, links to bookish videos, contests, quizzes, and reviews of the latest book releases.
- Tor.com is an online magazine and community for fantasy and science fiction fans. They are independent of any publishing company. In addition to the book recommendations and blog, they also publish readers’ stories.
- Literature-Map. If you have an author that you love, type in their name and get authors who are similar, ranked by degree of similarity. There are no bells and whistles here: no book reviews, no blog, no contests, just a very simple interface that should give you a satisfyingly long list of potential authors to explore. See an author in a constellation you had forgotten you loved? Simply click on their name to find even more names.
- Five Books. I’m a fan! They interview experts on topics and ask for five book recommendations on their topic of expertize. This is a great source for nonfiction recommendations but they also have sections for fiction, kids books, and audio books. They have thousands of interviews and post two new ones every week.
9. Read This Twice. Ever wondered what your favorite baseball player would recommend? This site has lists from everyone from Pope Francis to Donald Glover (Childish Gambino). There are hundreds of people so you are bound to come across someone you admire and book you might otherwise not have read.
Happy book hunting!
Enjoy your books
If you have used this post to sort through your books and organize your fiction, you can now put your feet up and you enjoy a cup of something delicious. Maybe you will begin a novel you’ve been meaning to reread or one you’d forgotten you had.
Or you can pack yourself a snack and set off to the nearest library or bookstore and explore. With libraries and used bookstores, the options are plentiful and cheap. Enjoy where they may take you!
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