Which is more true, fiction or non-fiction?

ficiton versus non-fiction

[This is a recycled one from a little while ago, but so far as I can tell nothing has changed, SW]

I love questions like that.

I suppose I got to thinking about this topic because I am writing this on February 22, the day George Washington celebrated his birthday after the English Colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. His date of birth was February 11, 1731, under the Julian calendar the British Colonies used at the time he was born.

What does that have to do with my assigned topic you might ask?

Quite a bit really.

As a kid, I learned two things about George Washington.  He chopped down a cherry tree and owned up to it when his father confronted him about it, and he once threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River.

I haven’t researched either of these two purported events.

They are true, even if they never happened.  They are true because of what they teach us about George Washington. The lessons are simple but profound. He was perceived as honest, even if honesty cost him.  And people thought he was a helluva man, a person possessing great  physical prowess.

I said I hadn’t researched the facts behind these accounts. But I have stood on the bluff overlooking the Potomac at Mt. Vernon, and I can say without reservation that there is no way in hell George Washington or any other human could throw a coin from one bank and land it on the other.

The story still teaches the same unassailable proposition about him.  Who cares whether it happened?

Fiction is often juxtaposed against its sibling, non-fiction.

The truth is that non-fiction is storytelling, too. To be sure, non-fiction at least purports to be based on some historical event.  That’s where this troublesome word fact comes up in the discussion.

“Non-fiction is fact,” the history professor scoffed at the novelist.

Come on, professor.  You know better than that. As soon as an author tells a story about an event or a person, he has brought his opinions, his biases, his observations, his world view into play.  Throughout the telling of the story, he makes judgment calls about which way to shade the story, which historical accounts to believe, which ones to disregard.

That’s why I think fiction sometimes receives a bad rap and non-fiction too easily ascends to a superior pedestal.

When it comes  right down to it a novel and a work of historical non-fiction are indistinguishable apart from the starting point. One starts with a story concocted out of whole cloth, the other uses an historical event and takes off from there.

I love both types of books, but I don’t believe for a second that a non-fiction book is more true than a well-crafted novel.

I wonder if honest Abe really grew up in a log cabin?


(Stephen Woodfin is an attorney and author who once skipped a rock halfway across the most narrow place in the Sabine river.)


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