Fiction or Nonfiction?


What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction?  This question came up on my Quora feed, and it is one I have wrestled with during my time as an elementary school librarian.  Many teachers coach with the mnemonic "Fiction is fake, nonfiction is real."  I found that this caused a lot of confusion for our young students.  What follows here is my response to the Quora query.   

Fiction is a story made up by an author or authors. Nonfiction is everything else. This definition of fiction works much better than the traditional "fiction is false, and nonfiction is true" dichotomy that many of us learned in elementary school. There are many kinds of books that are not stories but are not fiction. Poetry for instance is mostly not stories. Then there is folklore. The whole 398 section in the Dewey Decimal system from folktales in 398.2 to nursery rhymes, and other traditional poems in 398.8. None of it made up by an author. This also helps us sort out the gray areas in historical fiction. You can make up a story about a real person. The difference between historical fiction including real people and real events and a biography, for instance, is that in the fiction book the author made up the story. The realistic part may include setting and characters.

Much more complicated than defining fiction is trying to pin down nonfiction. I feel much more comfortable describing nonfiction by describing the type of book. In my elementary school library, I described the bulk of the 300-900 in the Dewey areas as nonfiction information about a topic. 398, of course was mostly folklore with a few books with nonfiction information about traditions. The 200's included a good number of nonfiction information about faiths with a few religious texts. Now and then I would change my mind about where a book belonged.

Of course, life would be easier if definitions could be clear with no gray areas.