Fiction vs. Nonfiction: The Power of a Well-Made Story

By Neugeboren, Jay | Commonweal, May 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: The Power of a Well-Made Story


Neugeboren, Jay, Commonweal


In the spring of 1965, my literary agent called to tell me that Harper's magazine wanted to publish a short story I'd written. The story, "Luther," told of a New York City teacher's longtime friendship with a black student who, while serving time in jail, becomes a Black Muslim. There was one problem, however, my agent said. Harper's assumed the story was derived from my experiences as a New York City teacher, and the editors wanted to run it as nonfiction.

"But I made it all up!" I protested.

The next day my agent called to tell me that since the story was not "true," Harper's had decided not to run it.

I was reminded of this when I read, in the media hullabaloo concerning James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, that Frey had originally submitted his work as fiction, but that when there were no takers, he decided to call it a memoir.

The question, then: Why, in such instances, are publishers and the public more willing to embrace a story when told that it is "true"--that it actually happened--than when told that it is, on the same subject and with the same narrative line (or even, the same words!), a work of fiction? Why this curious belief that nonfiction, because it is "true," may not only be stranger than fiction, but that it is, ipso facto, stronger?

'Twas not ever thus. In the early part of the twentieth century, large-circulation magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Scribner's, Smart Set, and the American Mercury routinely ran a half-dozen or more short stories (along with novellas and serial installments of novels) in each issue, and only one or two nonfiction articles. This began to change in the early 1930s: fiction started to slip, nonfiction to rise, coinciding with H. L. Mencken's heralding of "the sociological article as the important form of literary interpretation of American mores." In our own time, influenced in part by the advent of the New Journalism and the "nonfiction novel" (see Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote), only one large-circulation magazine, the New Yorker, continues to run fiction in each issue.

The element of voyeurism can explain some of this: the frisson of seeing into the lives of the rich and famous, the glamorous and the unsavory, whether the person be Donald Trump or O.J. Simpson, Paris Hilton or Hillary Clinton. When we read of the private lives of Humbert Humbert, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Gregor Samsa, it would seem to be peeking less into their bedrooms (though we do that) than into their psyches, while simultaneously journeying into the imaginative and emotional recesses of our own hearts, fears, and desires.

There is this too: that James Frey's life, like the lives of those who have written confessional memoirs (Kathryn Harrison, Brooke Shields), becomes a public commodity.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: The Power of a Well-Made Story
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.