I’ve never quite understood people who only read nonfiction (or that rarer beast, the person who only reads fiction and is uninterested in history or the news). I like well told and interesting stories, whether they’re true or not. (I’m also pretty bad at focusing on one thing all the time, so maybe I’m just a fox with an inability to understand hedgehogs.) But even though both fact and fiction are united by use of narrative—storytelling—I’ve also never had much sympathy for the idea that they’re therefore the same thing. (This is the idea behind much “post-modern” literary criticism, as well as, to some extent, in Hayden White’s analysis of history writing as literature and David Shields’s Reality Hunger.)
To my mind, the important difference between the two is not necessarily in how much is factual, though of course that’s part of it, but in the role of imagination and experience and the deal the writer makes with the reader. In fiction, the writer’s experience is filtered or projected through his or her imagination, and thus altered by it, sometimes beyond recognition. This is true for even the most fantastic writing, which always uses gestures and details the writer experienced—even if only through reading other writers’ descriptions of gestures and details! Meanwhile nonfiction uses imagination to illuminate the experience and research of the writer. Imagination picks the details from the reality, arranges them in an often unexpected order (think of the seemingly—but not at all—random structure of John McPhee’s books on geology), but tries not to alter the facts themselves, only illuminate them by description and context.
Imagination is like light, but light can be used for colored gels and kaleidoscopes and Lazer Zeppelin shows at the planetarium, or as a high-powered spotlight. So the main difference between fiction and nonfiction is the deal the writer makes with readers regarding how his or her imagination will be used. Because all good readers know that facts and imagination will be jumbled together in both “true” and “made up” stories, but we need ground rules so we know what we’re getting into, and what we can do with the story after we read it. People think James Frey is a scumbag because he presented stuff he made up as fact—the quality, good or bad, of the writing was irrelevant. But of course Frey’s writing wasn’t very good. The sole interest in his book came from the idea that the crazy things he described had actually happened. They were implausible as fiction. This is why it would likely have failed if marketed originally as a novel.
Good fiction reveals the strangeness in ordinary things. The best nonfiction tells us surprising and weird stories, but reveals them to be part of a larger pattern or web—part of our ordinary lives, whether we knew it or not.