That longstanding debate of fact vs fiction has resurfaced again – and I hope that’s not down to Noel Gallagher’s unforgiveably imbecilic anti-literature rant in GQ Magazine, and GQ‘s equally imbecilic decision to make him Icon of the Year. At least the New York Times is less likely to fall victim to such an influence when it asks “What’s Behind the Notion That Nonfiction Is More ‘Relevant’ Than Fiction?” in its Bookends column. There, “Rivka Galchen and Pankaj Mishra discuss the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, and the way each form reflects the world in which we live.”

fact vs fictionAnd it’s Galchen who quotes probably the most useful distillation of the claims of fiction, especially highly imaginative fiction: the preface to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (actually ghostwritten by Percy Bysshe Shelley). The tale of Frankenstein: “was recommended by the novelty of the situations which it developes; and, however impossible as a physical fact, affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield. I have thus endeavoured to preserve the truth of the elementary principles of human nature, while I have not scrupled to innovate upon their combinations. The Iliad, the tragic poetry of Greece – Shakspeare, in the Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream – and most especially Milton, in Paradise Lost, conform to this rule.”

There you have it. Fiction deals with “the elementary principles of human nature” in ways that factual texts often cannot. Sometimes it serves as the literary equivalent of a thought experiment in physics or mathemathics – which themselves are fictions. (How factual, after all, is mathematics?) At other times, it performs thought experiments for entire societies or civilizations – as very often in science fiction when it explores the application and social impact of technologies that haven’t even been invented or adopted yet (Arthur C. Clarke’s communications satellites and William Gibson’s hacker-riddled cyberspace to name but two). As it happens, it also does far more. But that at least should dispose of the belittling of fiction in relation to fact.

Shelley’s examples touch on both drama and poetry, and as a poet, I’m also a tad disturbed about the way this debate revolves around factual versus fictional prose. Is poetry supposed to convey fact? Doesn’t it illustrate the futility of the whole debate? Poetry very often doesn’t create a fictional world in the way that prose fiction does, and yet how often is it focused on the specific delivery of facts? Language is about creating minds, identity, thought processes and communities far more than it is about delivery of information. (Ask any cognitive psychologist, developmental biologist, sociologist or linguist.) If all that words are about for you is the delivery of information, then maybe you shouldn’t be using words at all.

(Incidentally, GQ still hasn’t answered to my questions following Gallagher’s outburst, asking them if they were endorsing illiteracy and ignorance by making Gallagher an Icon. I hope they didn’t find too many difficult words in my email.)


  1. “What’s Behind the Notion That Nonfiction Is More ‘Relevant’ Than Fiction?”

    Gosh, I don’t know. Could it be that nonfiction is (or is intended to be) true, and that fiction is a bunch of lies strung together to entertain people?

    The fact that anyone can even ask this question with a straight face is frightening. Have we really reached the point where we can’t distinguish the value of fantasies coming out of authors’ heads from that of real information about the real world?

  2. Fiction is the truth in parable form. In the Bible, Jesus and the Old Testament prophets explained eternal verities by the use of stories. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a perfect example. Is its message any less valuable because the Samaritan was a fictional character created by Jesus?

    Fiction writers are telling the truth through their fiction. They create the world as they see it and offer their own beliefs.

    Is a novel any less valuable than the true-life story found in “Reader’s Digest” which illustrates the same point? I don’t think so. The only difference is the medium used to express that belief.

  3. Guest, a story about the poorest and most despised among us giving aid when others won’t is an excellent example of how to behave even if we don’t believe in God. It also stresses that prejudice is folly, that religious behavior isn’t always followed by those who do believe, and that kindness is a virtue among all humans.

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