Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Nonfiction=vegetables, fiction=dessert?

The August 25-31 issue of the New Scientist has a special section on science in fiction (not science fiction), including reviews of new books by Richard Powers, Alan Lightman, and Andrea Barrett, three writers I admire greatly. There is also an essay written by Rebecca Goldstein, a philosopher of science. Her novels include The Mind-Body Problem, Strange Attractors, and Properties of Light, none of which I've read but sound interesting.

She writes,
While I always loved fiction, as a child I thought of it as frivolous, pure make-believe. When I was given my first library card at the age of 6, I even made a rule to try to keep the seductive things from enchanting me too thoroughly and making me go soft-brained.

Every time I visited the library I allowed myself to take out one work of fiction. To balance it, I had to take out a book that was good for me, something I could learn from. I forbade myself from reading the storybook before completing the good-for-me book.
Obviously, as one who writes about science for kids, this disturbs me. Aside from the fact that the writer imposed this rule on herself at the age of six (six!), I'm dismayed by just how early we absorb the lesson that nonfiction is good for you, like brussels sprouts, and fiction is just candy. Where do we get these ideas? Is it because kids' science books aren't as well written as fiction? Is it because learning about the natural world seems too much like school?

Fortunately, Goldstein goes on to write that she's come to view fiction and non-fiction a little differently:
I have come to believe, over the years, that literary fiction is remarkably suited to grappling--as philosophy and science grapple--with the difficulties of reconciling objective truth with inner points of view.
What do you think? Is nonfiction your vegetable (not to diss vegetables, you know I love 'em!) or your dessert?


Patbrace said...

This is a question that my Book Group has been grappling with. Do we want to discuss fiction, non-fiction, or both? Having just read John Berendt’s City of Falling Angels, a non-fiction book about Venice that was interesting enough, but left us with little to discuss, I raised the issue that more than half of our last 10 books had been non-fiction. As I read a lot of non-fiction for my own writing project (Anglo Saxon History), when I want to relax, I want to read fiction. Perhaps the word relax is the key, here. I revel in the intricacies of a good plot. I have to work harder when I’m reading history. Nevertheless, human beings have been telling each other stories since we first hunkered around cook fires in caves. Some of the stories were true. All of them conveyed truth, of one kind or another. That was their purpose. In this way, fiction and non-fiction are the same. Do I think of non-fiction as a vegetable? No. But when I pick up non-fiction, it is with a purpose in mind, and I know from the subject matter where the author is likely to take me. Fiction, on the other hand, is where I go to revel in the beauty of language, and to go where the author takes me, even though I often have no clear idea, at the start, where that will be.

Sara Latta said...

Interesting that you should bring up John Berendt's City of Angels; I have--or had--been listening to it, but I lost interest, some time after the gay poet commits suicide and supposedly leaves his fortune to a little girl.

I'm guessing there was little discussion about Berendt's book is that it lacks the real insight into Venetian culture than he was able to capture for Savannah in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." It was interesting to me, because we'd recently visited Venice, but it seemed more gossipy than really insightful about the city.

That said, I must confess that for me nonfiction is also background reading for my work. And thus, in the vegetable category, I guess. But as I was discussing with my friend Cara this morning, we are fortunate enough to have careers that are tailored to our interests. So our work-related nonfiction reading tends to dovetail with our interests.

Speak(er) said...

It figures! Just as I prefer my dessert first, I'll take fiction anyday. Although I've read some wonderful nonfiction in my time, I usually reserve that category of reading for my newspapers and magazines.