Why I Have So Much Trouble With Nonfiction

Nonfiction today falls into two broad categories--descriptive and interpretive.  There are overlaps and crossovers.  Few works are strictly one or the other.  The type I have the least problem with are descriptive--long treatises of taxonomy (but not phylogeny), or guidebooks to minerals, rocks, shells, sands, dust, dust mites, 14th century clothes fastening devices--all of these are filled with rich and fascinating information and not really subject to much debate.  You might not agree with such and such a taxon or taxonomic division, but it's based in something measurable and debatable.

On the interpretive side, however, I find that whenever I finish a book that purports to give me the "history" of anything, I find myself dubious.  For example, on the issue of Pope Pius XII, I find it extremely difficult to believe any of the detractors or many of the supporters.  I get the sense that the truth, slippery though it may be falls into the cracks between the two.  Did Pius do as much as he possibly could to have turned aside the Holocaust--I somehow doubt it--but I don't know.  Did he do nothing at all for any Jews ever--the voices of David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir (neither known for their tolerance of anti-Jewish sentiment) strongly suggest otherwise.  But once I've finished a book, I am no better off.  I know neither more nor less that I did before, merely other.  The documents are cited and cut to show the jib of the argument, and thus, one needs to return to the primary sources, which in the case of the documents of someone like Thomas Jefferson, may well have been tampered with by Jefferson, his partisans, or his detractors.

Nonfiction is like one long and tedious argument going nowhere.  The kind I like to read is the kind that wants to persuade me to viewpoint about the arts, music, books.  The kind that frustrates me endlessly wants to tell me the truth about . . . well, just about almost anything.

Sometimes fiction stumbles this way.  Hilary Mantel draws a very, very dismal picture of St. Thomas More in the course of Wolf Hall. And yet, from other sources, it is not one that I have difficulty believing.  Nevertheless, dark as he is painted here, little is shown of his virtues, and there were some, if we're to believe anything at all that his son-in-law wrote. So ubi veritas?  Haven't a clue, and to find out I would have to do all the research Ms. Mantel did to write the book and more (pardon the pun).

But I stray.  I have trouble with nonfiction because often it is a lace of facts sewn together with an agenda that is sometimes apparent and sometimes invisible (perhaps even to the author). It makes the facts difficult to discern and the agenda, depending on whether or not I am sympathetic to it, becomes the fact.


  1. Steven, I strongly suggest you read G.K. Chesterton's A Short History of England, if you haven't already: he speaks a lot about the nature of nonfictional accounts, their reliability, their purpose. It sounds like it would be right up your alley.

    I have similar problems with nonfiction; mostly I don't like it because I read to be entertained, and diverted from real life, for a while.

    Great, thought-provoking entry. Thank you for writing it.

  2. Dear Connie,

    I will need to reread it. I've never much cared for Chesterton, fiction or nonfiction--there is a kind of bubbling joviality which makes me wonder if he occupied the same sphere of reality the rest of us dwell in. But that was then, this is now; and I've discovered along the way that many who, in the past, have alienated me today are just the ticket. Thanks for the recommendation. I think I saw a review at your site and thought even then, I ought to pick this up again. Now I will.

    Thanks again.



  3. Hi Steven,

    I can understand your point and believe you can often get a message across about something in the "non-fiction" world by writing it in the form of fiction. You are simply less burdened to reference, site and package your story.

    It is the human need for story telling that makes non-fiction history the way it is. There has to be all the right elements that make up a story when writing non-fiction. Events cannot of happened in the past for no good reason. Life has to make sense.

    Modern media is rife with the same problem. Have you read "The Halo Effect"? It comes to mind as the author looks at companies and how the same media that in one moment is pouring praise on a company, will quickly try and tell the story of why it is failing as soon as it has a few unsuccessful quarters. I think a lot of its arguments would be relevant to history books as well.

  4. Dear TBlaze,

    Thank you. I agree and have often said that fiction gets in under the radar. If you have something to say that is persuasive--say it in fiction.

    Thanks for dropping by.




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