Fact in Fiction, by Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness)

Kim Ukura

Kim blogs at Sophisticated Dorkiness, which is an awesome concept and one of my favorite blog titles. Kim is a recent journalism-school graduate and works as an editor. She’s also the founder and co-host of the Blog Improvement Project and part of the Weekly Geeks team. One of the things I most appreciate about her blog is its focus on narrative nonfiction – and since it was shortlisted for “Best Nonfiction Review Blog” in the 2009 BBAW Awards, I’m clearly not the only one who feels that way!

Please welcome today’s guest blogger to The 3 R’s as she proposes a new literary category: “nonfictional fiction.”
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m primarily a nonfiction reader and blogger. As I told a friend recently: I love well-written fiction and well-written nonfiction, but while I don’t like mediocre fiction, I tend to enjoy even average nonfiction.
But lately I’ve been reading a pretty even mix of genres, which got me started thinking what it is about some fiction that I really love and other fiction that I enjoy but don’t seem to take much away from.
I think the kind of fiction I tend to enjoy is fiction that borders on nonfiction, where an author has done careful research to create a sense of place or time or context, then used fictional characters to tell a story that has the possibility of being true.
I’m calling these books “nonfictional fiction,” which are the subject of this post.
Middlesex: A Novel (Oprah's Book Club)Take, for example, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. That book takes place over a specific time in history and focuses on the experiences of a specific immigrant group, the Greek community. The main family in the story, the Stephanides family, didn’t exist, but the experience of those characters is one that an immigrant could have had.
Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is another good example. In an Author’s Note, Gruen explains much of the careful research she did about travelling circuses to tell this story, including which of the anecdotes she used were based most closely on real events:
The history of the American circus is so rich that I plucked many of this story’s most outrageous details from fact or anecdote (in circus history, the line between the two is famously blurred). These include the display of a hippo pickled in formaldehyde, a deceased four-hundred-pound “strong lady” being paraded around town in an elephant cage…
But not all books that are historical would count as “nonfictional fiction.” Last summer I read The Memory Keeper’s DaughterSearch Amazon.com Books for the memory keeper’s daughter by kim edwardsSearch Amazon.com for the memory keeper’s daughter by kim edwards by Kim Edwards, which is a family epic that includes a young girl with Down syndrome. In parts of the book, her adoptive mother is part of a group trying to petition for her to attend public school. This is a real event that happened in the early 1970s, yet when I finished the book I didn’t feel like I’d actually learned anything about the issue – it was more of a backdrop than a focus of the story.
In order for a book to really be “nonfictional fiction,” the research needs to be integral to the story and well-placed to advance the plot and impact the characters.
Another example of “nonfictional fiction” could be Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffeneger. The book takes place in and around Highgate Cemetery, and because of the detail with which Niffeneger writes about the cemetery, it becomes another character in the story. Although I didn’t love the book, I did leave it feeling satisfied with the story I was told AND feeling like I had learned something.
And those are the exact reasons I love to read nonfiction – to learn about something I wouldn’t otherwise know about, to expand my knowledge of the world and why things are the way they are, and (I’ll admit) to have some punchy stories to share when out with friends. My life isn’t that interesting, but the life I learn about through nonfiction (and now nonfictional fiction) helps bridge that gap.
Do you buy my idea of “nonfictional fiction,” or am I just being unnecessarily obsessed with genres? What books do you think might fit this category? 

*A note from me: I am an Amazon Associate. Book links in this post are provided by Amazon.com and will generate a small referral fee for me if used for purchases.

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