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Anne R. Allen's Blog

...WITH RUTH HARRIS

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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."


Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, March 7, 2010

FICTION VS. NONFICTION

I’ve noticed I get a lot more comments here when I write about fiction than nonfiction. And I’m more interested in fiction too. But we’re in the minority. We live in an increasingly “reality” obsessed world.

In fact, faux memoir has become something of a mainstay in the publishing business, and fake “misery lit” now has its own page at Wikipedia. But in all the discussion of forged substance abuse/holocaust/ethnic minority memoirs, not a lot of talk focuses on the sad truth that fiction writers felt they had to pass off their work as nonfiction in order to sell it.

Even though James Frey wrote what a lot of folks agreed was a heart-stopping read with A Million Little Pieces, chances are slim he would have become an overnight celebrity if he’d called it a novel.

And even after his disgrace, Mr. Frey has a solid writing career. Maybe I should have tried to pass my romantic comedies off as memoirs, too: “Chanel at the Fence” perhaps, or “A Million Bad Dates with Guys Who Look Like Hugh Grant.” When the Smoking Gun found out I was really an old hippie chick who couldn’t walk three feet in a pair of Manolos, I still would have had name recognition.

The truth is that despite the occasional publishing phenomena like Dan Brown’s conspiracy theories and sagas of angsty high school vampires and wizards, most bestselling books are nonfiction.

And this isn’t just true of the book industry. Look at the Oscars: would Sandra Bullock have even been nominated for The Blind Side if she hadn’t portrayed a real woman? And how many awards go to actors who portray real celebrities like Ray Charles, Katherine Hepburn, Truman Capote, Johnny Cash, etc. in all those biopics? One actor friend, more than a bit annoyed by this phenomenon, suggests that the Academy establish separate categories for impersonating and actually acting.

Then of course there is the phenomenon of “Reality TV.” Today people are more entertained by a bunch of Z-list celebrities clunking through dance routines in embarrassing costumes than by anything resembling a story. Even popular dramas like the CSI franchise chug along with wooden dialogue and tired plotlines, relying for their thrills on real-life footage of rotting pig corpses and/or somebody’s colonoscopy.

Have we become like the circus audiences of ancient Rome, so jaded that we can only be amused by witnessing real-time human suffering?

Fiction was once our most effective voice for social and political truths. Abraham Lincoln accused Harriet Beecher Stowe of starting the Civil War with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And novelists like Charles Dickens and Sinclair Lewis alerted the world to wrongs and changed the fabric of society.

But in a market like ours, I suppose Mrs. Stowe would need to claim she “just growed” in Uncle Tom’s cabin herownself—maybe before suffering from that strange skin-whitening disease that so tragically attacked Michael Jackson. Instead of Oliver Twist or Main Street, we’d have Charlie D’s painful memories of abuse in the bootblack factory, and “Red” Lewis’s personal confessions of debauched Gopher Prairie nights.

And I’ve got to admit I my own nonfiction reading has taken a bite out of my novel reading time, since most of what I read online at least purports to be nonfiction. And here you are reading this blog, which is pretty much reality-based (I swear.)

So what about it—are you reading more nonfiction than fiction these days?

12 Comments:

Blogger Cathe Olson said...

I definitely read more fiction . . . probably about 90% of what I read is fiction.

I think it would be interesting to ask this question along with gender. My husband reads almost all nonfiction and I notice at my school library that many of the boys are much more drawn to nonfiction books than fiction.

March 7, 2010 at 12:59 PM  
Blogger annerallen said...

Interesting point, Cathe. Male readers--do you read fiction?

March 7, 2010 at 1:17 PM  
Blogger Stacy McKitrick said...

I read fiction for pleasure, 99% of the time (it's what I've always read and always loved). I think that's why I find it so strange that non-fiction out sells fiction. But then, there are a lot of self-help books and such that would fall under non-fiction, right? That would explain it, then!

And yes, I'm female.

March 7, 2010 at 3:39 PM  
Blogger annerallen said...

I’m posting a couple of comments that came via email, because they’re both from men.

This from the former editor of Alan Hancock College’s literary magazine "Mindprints":

“I do read a lot of fiction based on fact. Just finished a terrific novel set in Ethiopia during the end of Haile Selassie’s reign and the subsequent revolution (1974). This was especially meaningful to me as I’d lived and worked there from 1968 thru the end of ‘72 and had many Ethiopian friends in Asmara and Addis Ababa. Title is “Beneath The Lion’s Gaze”. Novel was written by a young Ethiopian in her early twenties and a wonderful writer, too. Yikes, I may have taught her parents in high school. (Just sent her a fan letter.)

I also read a lot of WWII novels. Can’t get enough of those. Give me a Jack Higgins thriller any day or anything on the London Blitz. So I guess it’s my personal experience that also dictate my reading preferences as I loved Hitler’s Pope and The Zookeeper’s Wife, both nonfiction and set during WWII. That said, I do read a lot of short stories and literary novels. I’d have to go with fiction but the ratio might be 60-40, fiction to nonfiction.”

--Paul Fahey

This from a YA novelist and English teacher:

“I'd say that at least in YA, [fiction] is still pretty strong. And as to what I'm reading these days, well, about a book a week. In the last year I've read two adult novels, two NF, & about 48 teen novels. I guess I'm bucking the system again.”

--C. S. Perryess

March 7, 2010 at 4:07 PM  
Blogger christineA said...

I read mostly fiction, for entertainment. I read non-fiction with titles that intrigue me like, "The Harvard Psychedelic Club". Hard to pass up a title like that! I find a lot of the non-fiction I read these days is written with a fiction sensibilty (if that makes sense!) Maybe both genres are morphing a bit? Can't see myself ever writing non-fiction though.

March 7, 2010 at 4:55 PM  
Blogger Churadogs said...

I used to read fiction, then about 30 years ago, I got curiouser and curisior about the world and alarmed at how little I knew about the world and started in on non-fiction. Happily, so much new research and scholarship has been done on a wide variety of topics, that it's hard to keep up. Finished "Salt," which you would think would be about as exciting as watching paint dry, but it was an eye opener. In our modern age, we have no understanding of what a huge role salt played in the creating of our modern world. Am starting in on nutmeg, now, in "Nathaniel's Nutmeg or The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History" by Giles Milton.

I find this all to be absolutely fascinating stuff, all the linkages, the "connections," (now THAT was an amazing non-fiction TV series) Plus, so much of these newer non-fiction books are really well written. Can't beat "Isaac's Storm" for a page turner. Or "Into Thin Air," or "The Worst Hard Time," (amazing book about the Dust Bowl years).

In short, my take on non-fiction is this: So much to learn, so little time.

March 8, 2010 at 6:57 AM  
Blogger Dorothy Ann Segovia said...

Non-fiction cause that's where my interest lies for now....

March 9, 2010 at 12:25 PM  
Blogger Anna said...

Very interesting discussion! I read fiction most of the time, but every once in a while I go on a nonfiction binge because I start feeling (as Churadogs said) that I don't know enough about the world.

In terms of gender, I've noticed that my husband reads fiction and nonfiction pretty interchangeably. He seems to be equally entertained by either, whereas for me fiction is much more "fun reading" than nonfiction.

March 9, 2010 at 4:41 PM  
Blogger Donna Hole said...

I work in Social Services. I get enough real-life drama, so don't pick it up often. I read mostly fiction; but unless its a fantasy or paranormal - something one could never equate to real life - I tend to read fiction with a true-to-life feel.

I write that way too I guess. Beta's who've read my novel offer sympathy for the hard life I lived. They don't believe me when I assure them it is not mine - or anyone I know - life story.

As far as men being more likely to read non-fiction: I think from what I've seen of the men I've been around, and from a lot of the blogs I read, they tend to read more non-fiction. And if not, its usually something literary, or fantasy/sci-fi.

Great discussion Anne.

..........dhole

March 9, 2010 at 8:18 PM  
Blogger Teebore said...

I'm a guy, and I write fiction. That said, putting aside comic books, I'd say that what I read is about half fiction, half nonfiction, though 95% of that nonfiction is history (I'm a huge history buff) and, aside from a few historical bios, none of the non fiction is memoir.

Toss in all the comics and graphic novels I read, and my fiction ratio increases significantly.

March 11, 2010 at 12:06 PM  
Blogger annerallen said...

Hmmm. I might have been wrong in my assumption that men read less fiction. From the sampling here, I see men reading fiction as much--maybe more? than women. But the fiction is YA, based on historical fact, or in non-traditional formats.

Donna, I hear you about people assuming your fiction is disguised memoir. It's sometimes hard to get people to believe you've never lived anything remotely like what you put your fictional characters through.

March 11, 2010 at 1:31 PM  
Blogger Jan Markley said...

Interesting post. I try to balance my fiction and non-fiction, but most of the time fiction wins!

March 12, 2010 at 8:22 PM  

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