Fiction vs. Nonfiction: To Be or Not To Be

In the Editors' Notes of our Fall 2009 issue, the subject of categorizing prose came up. Our view, not likely to be agreed upon by all literary folk, was in favor of clearly disclosing in a journal's table of contents whether a piece was fiction or nonfiction. As you know, a good number of literary markets do not classify prose appearing in their issues as anything more specific than, well, "prose." This is usually defended with: "Why does categorization matter? Just go with it."

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but for us, when we dive in and read, we like to know right from the start whether the story we are investing time in actually happened. Why? We aren't sure, exactly. It's not like we're secretly wishing everything should be genuine and true; we all appreciate an insightful and thoughtful fiction, too.

That being said, we sometimes happen upon cases where prose is indeed classified, yet we still squirm in our seats. Having read more short fiction and nonfiction than we can ever venture to quantify, there are times when it all rings a bit sour.

For one, certain pieces classified as fiction seem too much like nonfiction. These are usually personal stories, sometimes reading like an admission or lament, other times just being very subtle or, dare we say, dull. As we move through the story, we question why the piece was even written, what special thrust or significance it has for anyone other than the writer. We suspect that, perhaps, the story was actually nonfiction and the author chose to "hide" the veracity of it by labeling it otherwise. If such was the case, we feel cheated, lied to.

Conversely, some nonfiction we read with memoir qualities, and particularly pieces whose subject is a writer's deceased parent, leave us with unconvincing thoughts. Though we don't question the basic facts, characters, and actions in the piece, the sentiment conveyed makes us skeptical. Often we'll read that had the author been given a second chance at a relationship with a parent, things would have been notably different. But as we come to understand the writer through the narrative, the many details of his/her life and personality, we feel that given this second chance, it is much more likely the relationship would remain very close to what it was originally.

So, yes, we do like to know if prose is fiction or nonfiction, and as well, we like to be assured the piece fundamentally achieves its purpose for the reader while avoiding skepticism. What is your opinion? Have you experienced similar situations in your reading? Do you have a different perspective? Write to us and indulge us.

Art accompanying Amanda Newell's poetry -
Riley Erwin, "Vino" 2015

Theme graphics this issue - "Ain't It Fun"
Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2015.