Non-Fiction is True, Fiction is Un-True

A good number of Christians hold an unfavorable bias against fiction literature, assuming that since the events in a novel are not “real” they cannot be worth our attention, certainly not in light of all the great non-fiction books we can read. And if I was looking for a dogfight with a certain publisher in the comments of this post (which happens whenever I take issue with any of their books — something I hope to spare myself from today), I could point you to a recent book by a prominent evangelical writer that propagates this same conclusion.

The idea that non-fiction is true and fiction is un-true is a misnomer — an ancient misnomer. Greek philosopher Aristotle faced it 350 years before Christ. At one point in his brilliant book Poetics, Aristotle contrasts fictional poetry with historical writings. He writes:

It is not the poet’s function to relate actual events, but the kinds of things that might occur and are possible in terms of probability or necessity. The difference between the historian and the poet is not that between using verse or prose. … No, the difference is this: that the one relates actual events, the other the kinds of things that might occur. Consequently, poetry is more philosophical and more elevated than history, since poetry relates more of the universal, while history relates particulars. ‘Universal’ means the kinds of things which it suits a certain kind of person to say or do, in terms of probability or necessity: poetry aims for this. (59, 61)

Note two important points in this quote.

First, Aristotle was aware that the best fiction is guided by probability and necessity. An author is free to create spaceships and mythical worlds with floating mountains. But authors are not free to re-invent behavioral patterns. Characters must still act within boundaries of what is probable and necessary according to their own nature and the situations they are faced with. And this is one reason why literature, the best of it, is not un-true. In fact, literature with characters who fail to operate according to what is probable/necessary in a given situation are unbelievable to an audience of readers. In this sense even sci-fi writers must write stories that are “believable.”

One example comes to mind. A friend was reading atheist Ayn Rand’s novel Fountainhead (1943). He got to about 50 pages to the end, closed the book, and threw it across the room in frustration. Later he explained to me that as he read the book he watched Rand do things to her characters that were simply not guided by probability and necessity; the characters were acting contrary to the natures she had developed for them.

Second, Aristotle was aware that the best fictional authors spell out our common human experience in ways that prove elusive to other forms of non-fiction writing like history or biography. Fictional literature may prove at times to be more true than non-fiction! Why? Novels are free to move beyond the particulars of history to the universals of human experience, to abstract and philosophical concepts as love, hate, goodness, and evil. With such liberty, the author may probe the human condition more profoundly. Tapping into the soul of human experience, the writer spins a web of believability that is potentially more convincing than the historical account. As the plot thickens, the reader identifies with the probable experience of the fictional characters. The invented story serves to usher the reader into the most important realms of reality.

There’s much more to say and I attempt to cover this in my forthcoming book. The idea that non-fiction is true and fiction is un-true is a misnomer, an ancient misnomer, a misnomer that survives to this day in how Christians view fictional literature.