What (Exactly) Is Non-Fiction?
All writing falls into one or the other of two kinds: fiction, or non-fiction.
Fiction is a definite thing – something “made up” or imagined in narrative or dramatic form. All other writing falls under the name non-fiction, and the vagueness of that name shows how extensive the field it covers must be.
Everybody writes non-fiction, everybody reads it. Whereas millions of people never read any fiction whatever, and millions more read it only during a few years out of their lifetime.
In writing we use words. A word has been defined as an articulate sound or series of sounds which is through conventional association with some fixed meaning, communicates an idea, without being divisible into smaller units, capable of independent use.
Words, then, are sounds to which meanings have been given by common consent. Sound and meaning are therefore the two elements with which the writer must deal, and the difference between fiction and non-fiction lies basically in the different ways in which these two elements are used and combined.
Now there are two ways of understanding a thing. One is through emotion, through sharing a common experience The other, through intellect – through a detached and individual experience. Thus there are two paths to understanding an emotional path, and a logical path. Fiction prefers the emotional path, non-fiction the logical path. Both use both paths to some extent.
Thus all writing, all literature, falls between two poles. The one pole is mere sound and fury, the other pole mere idea or fact. One may say that every piece of writing falls somewhere between mathematics and music. But the classification in which each piece of writing finds itself depends upon the relative emphasis on these two elements.
For a mere sound affects our emotions, so that it is impossible to use any word which does not cause some slight fluctuation in the emotional nature of the reacher. And since words have meanings, it is likewise impossible to use a word which does not produce some effect upon the thought and mind of the reader.
Fiction must have some facts and ideas to justify the emotion it offers. Non-fiction must induce some emotion in order to maintain interest in the facts and ideas which it offers.
It follows that our readers will attend usually to our facts and ideas only when these are, as they say, “interesting” – that is to say, only when these facts and ideas are touched with emotion. This is why the writer of non-fiction must make such careful choice of a subject for his writing, though the entire universe and all knowledge lie open to him. He can persuade his reader to consider only those subjects in which the reader is interested or in which he may become interested.
The fiction writer, to whom emotion is of the first importance, selects the facts needed to support that emotion. The writer of non-fiction, to whom his facts or ideas are of first importance, must somehow bring in the emotion which will make his facts and ideas interesting.
For the non-fiction writer, the easiest method is to write on subjects about which the reader has already felt a strong emotion – subjects which have already acquired an interest for him.
The non-fiction writer has another, more difficult but more profitable method which consists in arousing emotions about things that aren’t considered exciting by his reader. Here lies the true opportunity of the writer of non-fiction.
Of course, he can scarcely hope to arouse emotion about a subject utterly unconnected with his reader’s interests, but he can rouse more emotion, or fresh additional emotion, about a subject in which his reacher is only mildly interested.
Language as we ordinarily find it was created or developed primarily to convey facts and ideas. For facts and ideas are necessary to human life, and language was developed by practical men who had something useful to say. Most of the words in the dictionary are the names of things and ideas. Only a few words express emotion naked anal unashamed.
Grammar also was devised for orderly communication of facts and ideas.
It therefore follows that when a writer sets himself to express strong emotion, ordinary language has to be wrenched from its usual form to serve his unusual purpose. The stronger the passion to be conveyed, the more ordinary speech will suffer at the hands of the poet.
Of course, though the writer of non-fiction deals with a more usual language than the tragic poet, since his first concern is not with emotion lent with the facts and ideas for which the language was devised, nevertheless he cannot escape the necessity of combining the intellectual with the emotional interest to some degree, however slight. He must present fact with passion.
Next: Fact With Passion