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

Article excerpt

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. …