Saturday, September 09, 2006

Fiction vs. Non-fiction

Last weekend Callista and I were putting her books on two different shelves when I had the idea that we could sort them into fiction and non-fiction, just as one of those spontaneous learning exercises.

Well, I almost messed up big time, because she picked up a book about Santa Claus and said "oh, non-fiction". I started to correct her by reminding that non-fiction is "stuff that's true", but luckily I caught myself just in time. (By the way, I've never technically lied about Santa Claus. I do believe in the spirit of Santa Claus, so when I tell Callista that I think he's "invisible", I'm quite sincere.)

Then, to add to the humor of the moment, she picked up her Children's picture Bible and asked "These stories - are they real or not?" I, the good UU parent that I am, hemmed and hawed for a bit, then began a confused and ultimately ineffective explanation of library standards. Which she rather abruptly interrupted with "I believe 'em.", while thrusting the book into the "non-fiction" section. I didn't laugh out loud, but was I laughing very hard on the inside! Did I ever mention that I really like 7-year-olds?

4 Comments:

Blogger Michael Chermside said...

Fact vs Fiction: it's actually a surprisingly difficult distinction.

I remember when I was in elementary school and they had a section teaching us the difference between "fact" and "opinion". We were supposed to evaluate statements like "The door is closed." and "The dress is pretty." and determine whether they were fact or opinion.

I did quite poorly on this exercise. The problem, was that I REALLY got it, while my teachers did not.

First, there was the trivial issue: statements like "I think the dress is pretty." At first I would classify them as facts (hey, either I think it or I don't!), but it didn't take to long to learn that if the sentence had a word like "think" or "believe" in it, then they wanted it listed as opinion regardless of what it was.

What really got me though was false facts. For a sentence like "The sky is green." I would classify it as a fact... a false one! Our textbook had about 20 or more examples, only one or two of which were false facts. The book called these "facts", but it seemed that the existance of false facts was a minor point, not to be emphasized. Anyhow, my teacher just didn't get it. She believed that false facts were to be classified as opinion and would mark me wrong when I didn't do so. I wouldn't change my mind, so I just wound up doing badly on that section.

The point of this all, is that I'm not sure quite sure what we mean by "fact" and "fiction" -- and the distinction is somewhat like the distinction between "fact" and "opinion". The first question is what to do with "false facts"? There are LOTS of these with a range of falseness, ranging from holocaust denial historys to physics textbooks that teach Newton's laws without Einstein's corrections. I say these belong with the "fact" books, but unlike my teacher, you must keep in mind that "fact" is not the same as "true".

So what's different about Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind? They're just presenting opinion; they are written as if something really happened. But it didn't happen... and we all know that. Nor are they completely divorced from reality -- often fiction is more effecive at explaining something about human nature than any number of psychological textbooks. I think the key difference is that in fiction the _author_ doesn't expect us to believe that the story is true (well, not in a literal sense anyhow).

At any rate, I am quite impressed with Callista's acumen as well as the piercing honesty of a seven-year-old. Thanks for sharing this story and for making me think.

3:31 PM, September 11, 2006  
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