Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Behind the Books: Let’s Get Real!

In recent years, I’ve read a plethora of articles and blog posts about the name “nonfiction.” Although I’ve never been too upset that the books I write are identified as “not something else (fiction)”, it’s got lots of folks all hot and bothered. And let’s face it, keeping the differences between the two similar sounding names--fiction and nonfiction--can be confusing to young kids who are just beginning to read.

To solve the problem, some librarians are now using the term “information” book. But not everyone likes that name either. Some people think it sounds, well, not all the interesting and exciting. They say nonfiction has much more to offer than just information.

Other suggestions include true books (as opposed to fake books, I guess) and real books and fact books. But none of these has really stuck.

Recently, Marc Aronson, who has long been advocating a name change, proposed “reality book.” Of all the ideas I’ve heard, this one seems the most appealing to me. I like the obvious connection to the currently uber-popular reality TV phenomenon, and I like that it avoids the problems of simply calling nonfiction “real” books or “true” books.

What do you think?


  1. on the other hand, there's a lot of really good fiction that is "reality based" ...
    it's a ponderment, for sure. where do you put a book that's basically about science but tells a story through a character (human or animal) that talks?

  2. Made-up dialog definitely relegates a book to fiction, but reality seems to have problems too. It's worth thinking about.

  3. I've probably been reading the same articles and blog posts as you have. We may have even commented on the same ones. I agree that "reality book" is probably the closest anyone's come to a good substitute for "nonfiction" but will the name really ever change? Probably not.

  4. Reality books seems wrong to me on a number of levels, but Nabokov said it best: “Reality is the one word that is meaningless without quotation marks.” I don't have a useful contribution to this problem, though I do acknowledge that it is a problem for some--at least initially. Maybe the bottom line is that overcoming inadequate vocabulary is part of being a reader and this is just an example.

    As an editor, I think the attributes of successful fiction and nonfiction are more similar now than ever. I have no interest in accumulations of facts, no matter how fascinating (any more than I have an interest in accumulations of lies, no matter how beguiling). Google is an adequate fact accumulator with an unbeatable price structure. What I'm interested in is the art of telling a story, whether the raw materials be whole cloth or patchwork.

  5. I agree, Tracy. Probably not. But I do think it's interesting to think about NF was originally defined as something it's not rather than what it is.

  6. Andrew, i think what's happening right now with narrative nonficiton is wonderful. Our brains seem hard-wired to love stories, so it's an effective way to convery ides--true or made up. But not all creative nonficiton is narrative, and I don't thini it shoudl be. Look at the work of Steve Jenkins, for instance. His books are ingenious and effective, but they aren't narrative.