The Nonexistence of Nonfiction
This nonsubject is a nonissue.
It’s the kind of nonsense spouted by a nonconformist from his nontraditional, nondescript office of nonstop nonchalance.
As a nonsmoking nonalcoholic, I always try to be a noncombatant. Or at least a nonpartisan. I’m nonflammable, nonpoisonous, and nonrenewable, but certainly NOT a nonprofit. And if that seems noncommittal, remember that as a nontoxic nonentity, you have the right to remain anonymous.
So pour a glass of your favorite nondairy beverage, open a cup of nonfat yogurt, and hunker down with the nonhuman nonresidents sharing your nonliving, nonperishable, nonstandard nonce of noninterference.
And on, anon, a non.
This is where the lies begin. This is nonfiction.
A Swindle for the Ages
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.
The greatest trick that anyone—devil or otherwise—ever pulled was convincing the world that nonfiction was a thing. Whoever it was who came up with that malarkey made a mountain of money…and sold his soul.
Because the idea that any kind of publisher (and I include media outlets of all stripes) is capable of producing a nonembellished, nonadulterated account of factual events is a fiction so absurd that only a brainwashed idiot could believe it.
But don’t take my word for it. The absurd-on-its-face nature of nonfiction has been troubling the consciences of writers for as long as there has been a distinction.
Let the Record Show
Volumes of so-called nonfiction never make it to a second edition without corrections. Those corrections are subject to further corrections, especially when the book is of particular importance. School textbooks, for example, are continually updated as new discoveries and conventions are regularly introduced into a field of study.
History books have it even worse. History writers are taught to eschew secondary sources and use only primary sources to base their observations on. But when finished, these same history writers have not created more primary sources. Their entire body of work becomes a secondary source—the very same thing they have been conditioned to avoid.
And even primary sources are inadequate. Because no writer is so skilled that he can literally transport the reader to the place and time being discussed. It is, for example, impossible to write about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It is only possible to write about the idea of Lincoln’s assassination. Because the idea is the only thing left of it. The event itself was like a snowflake—a unique pattern in space and time that existed for a moment and only a moment.
The primary sources who wrote about that event only had access to it as a memory, and a traumatic memory at that. The shock and fog and enormity of the crime is all they could write about. They cannot give us testable facts. No one was measuring the speed of the fatal bullet. Nobody at Ford’s Theater set out a scale to record the force with which John Wilkes Booth struck the stage. No quantifiable scalars or vectors of that night remain. We have only the story, and even if that story is true, it was put together after the snowflake melted. The universe had already moved on to the next minute of history.
This same paradox occurs with every past moment, and it has led one writer to exclaim,
My feeling is that there’s no such thing as nonfiction. Everything is fiction, because in the moment someone tries to relate an experience of what happened to them, it’s gone. The reality that was felt at the moment is almost impossible to describe. It’s one reason why there are writers, to come close to how it felt when it happened.NORMAN MAILER
And while it would surely be insane to deny that Lincoln’s assassination ever happened, the fact is that no one alive knows it is fact. We merely trust that the accounts of it are true.
The same can be said for all “facts” learned from nonfiction books. Many of them cannot be tested, and the ones that can will not be tested by almost everyone who reads them.
At the end of the day, nonfiction is not the presentation of untainted facts. Rather, it is the assertion of the author’s personally held axioms.
And then you have nonfiction’s other problem.
Some Nonfiction is Blatantly Fake
Some authors, having caught on to the idea that mainstream narratives about history and science are mere assertions, have decided to publish their own contrary assertions, as a way of cutting against the mainstream grain.
Take, for example, ancient astronaut theory.
The claim that prehistoric humans were driving under the influence of ET when they built the pyramids is unsubstantiated and patently absurd. But when you try telling that to proponents of ancient astronaut theory, all they have to do is remind you that popular and mainstream theories about how the ancients lived are similarly a matter of conjecture.
And while those mainstream conjectures are transparently more credible than most fringe theories, we cannot say, in any empirical way, that they are more provable. Thus we end up with a kind of stalemate where the mainstream theories are still embraced by the majority but the fringe theories cannot be put to bed.
This problem is even more glaring when it comes to propaganda literature.
Such literature doesn’t even pretend to give an objective or factual view of current events, yet much of it still is shelved as nonfiction. Even books now universally derided as detached from reality and full of lies are categorized the same way. Hardly anyone would call Mein Kampf a true book, yet we’re not allowed to shelve it in the fiction section.
But then there are other propaganda books that are acknowledged as fiction. Look at Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984. These stories are no firmer in advocating a political viewpoint than any tract, yet these are listed as fiction, whereas the tracts are not.
From this, we see the level of factuality is not what renders a book fictional or nonfictional. The difference is only whether the author claims the events portrayed actually happened, even if the claim is disproven.
The Only Intelligent Conclusion
Wise men of all generations have issued this warning: don’t believe everything you read.
Wiser men yet have gone even further: don’t believe anything you read.
Those who work in or alongside publishing are aware of a more specific truth: how a book is categorized has nothing to do with the book itself.
Many fiction authors write their book in one genre, only to have their publisher place it in a different section of the bookstore. Did you think your book was for young adults just because you wrote it for young adults? Silly author! Your book is actually for middle aged mothers, and will be shelved that way.
A famous example of this is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. The book was originally published as hard science fiction, and the author wrote it with an adult audience in mind.
But because it has a young person as a protagonist, it has been reissued as a young adult, middle grade, and even children’s book.
Professional authors have learned the concept of “genre” is a marketing tool, and nothing more. The same is true when differentiating fiction from nonfiction. The ultimate determination is made by the publisher, and their only assay is “which category will this book make the most money in?”
And as long as people want to believe nonfiction is a thing (though it clearly isn’t), they will keep paying for the (imaginary) privilege.
But there is a more intelligent option—perhaps the only intelligent option. And that is to approach every claim of factuality with skepticism. Every professional, and especially people in power, has incentive to lie. And simply being vested with authority is no reason to believe a narrative is above reproach.
So the next time some sensationalist tell-all exposé claims to give you the “real” story about this subject or that, instead of jumping onto the bandwagon and rushing to “enlighten” your friends and neighbors, ask yourself, “how do I know this claim has any truth to it”?
If your answer is that the author of the book is simply a benevolent third party who wants you to be informed, then chances are you have fallen into a trap—and not a new one.
Remember that people lie, including people who are more famous and important than yourself. By approaching every claim with indifferent skepticism, you will find yourself to be less angry and confused than those who latch onto everything they read as if it were gospel.
And never forget that truth is stranger than nonfiction.
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2 thoughts on “The Nonexistence of Nonfiction”
Any blog post that proclaims “don’t believe anything you read” as the counsel of wise men unavoidably undermines and discredits itself.
And from that it is only a small step to “don’t read.”
So, considering your message as a whole, and your advice to approach everything with indifferent skepticism (including this post), I must remain open to the possibility that there is in fact such a thing as unbiased and truthful non-fiction.
Don’t become a misologist, no matter how attractive that may be. No good will come of it. If you don’t believe me, look no further than: A Canticle for Leibowitz for how such thinking can lead to another dark ages.
Well of course no one should believe me.
Even though I’m always right about everything.