We at the Shmoop HQ definitely love our fiction and nonfiction. Sometimes we can’t decide which form lays a better claim to the king of prose, so we decided to let some Shmoopers do it for us. After collecting responses, these two women took the cake:
Sometimes my students, who are high school juniors, think that fiction doesn’t matter, that fiction is false and nonfiction is true. But then we study fiction. We read The Scarlet Letter and realize that, like Arthur Dimmesdale, we become sick with guilt when we try to pretend to be someone we are not. We read “A Mystery of Heroism” by Stephen Crane and discover the truth that no one can abide being called a hero—and, more importantly, that I cannot abide being called a hero because if I am called a hero (and I know who I really am), then a hero isn’t much. We read “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty and recognize that path of love that we will walk over and over again for the one we love. We read Heart of Darkness and discover the horror that without neighbors and police and civilization, we all have a heart of darkness, that we are surrounded by the rotting hippo meat of greed and lust and envy, that we must fight a war within ourselves to show restraint.
And so it is that we realize that while nonfiction is true, fiction has a depth of truth that surpasses that of nonfiction. Nonfiction tells another person’s truth, but fiction tells a universal truth. Sometimes we will triumph like Phoenix Jackson; sometimes we will fail ourselves and others like Dimmesdale and Kurtz; and sometimes we will muddle through life not completely understanding our own motivations, like Fred Collins of Company A. Fiction tells us what it means to be human. It tells us that we are damned, rotten-to-the-core fools, that we are angels of mercy, and that we are all in this messy business of life together.
This argument resounds through faculty and departmental meetings around the country. As a teacher, I’m forced to say more nonfiction so students have a fighting chance to pass state standardized tests. It’s interesting to note that students have been reading nonfiction since the day they entered school; all textbooks are nonfiction. Perhaps the true problem lies in what type of nonfiction – which has as many if not more categories than fiction – not in the the thought that they read none. Here I will foist blame on departments other than English when I say that individual subjects should spend some time instructing students on how to read their textbooks. In addition, it would be nice if they themselves assigned several nonfiction texts applicable to their subject matter. Students would surely increase their exposure to various genres of nonfiction and see the pertinence of said information as they acquire the basic knowledge inherent in any subject. This would ultimately leave fiction to the English teachers. As this reality has not made itself apparent in my particular state, county, or school district, I attempt to include a realistic amount of nonfiction pertinent to the culture and time period we are studying. I encourage independent reading and require one nonfiction outside the classroom syllabus. I reserve my summer reading and that of my students to the realm of fiction. Everyone needs an opportunity to escape once-in-a-while!