THE BLOG
04/19/2013 03:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2013

The Facts About Fiction, the Fiction About Facts

Last week I was reading a very good interview with one of my favorite novelists, David Brin, in the Santa Barbara Independent and was struck by the journalist Tam Hunt confessing that, "...I read mostly non-fiction and I find that most fiction doesn't have the "meat" that I'm looking for in non-fiction. That is, much of what comprises fiction is stuff I tend to skip over because I'm generally reading for what I consider to be the most important points!"

(An important point might be the point that he never should have used that exclamation point.)

Mr. Hunt goes on to say, "However, I think that for a lot of us who fall into this same category, the science fiction genre still holds some hope of keeping our attention."

Well! As much as I like to read of support for the literature of science fiction, I found his blanket damnation of the rest of fiction disconcerting at best and frackin' frightening at worse. What the bloody blue blazes does he mean that fiction has no "meat?" Given the tone of what he is saying, and the fact that he studied both law and biology -- and philosophy (talk about fiction) -- and works as a lawyer, as a renewable energy consultant, and teaches at UCSB in the School of Environmental Science and Management, I think Mr. Hunt is making the fundamental mistake of thinking that non-fiction is fact and that fiction is non-fact. But of course all non-fiction is facts only as presumed, presented, declared, and interpreted by the author (unless it's a math book, of course) and may or may not be accurate. And although fiction may not present stories of fact (although at times it can) if it is a good work of fiction it will present at least one good truth about the human condition.

I certainly hope Mr. Hunt did not make such a declaration to prove what a "serious" guy he is, demanding his books to be heavy with facts (or meat) and not light with fiction (or what? Salad?). Such a pretence of depth would, of course, be quite shallow indeed.

But let us question Mr. Hunt on his declared aversion to fiction. To do that we must leave literature for the moment and ask Mr. Hunt if he ever watches television and goes to the movies. Assuming he would answer, "yes," then the next question to put to him is, "Do you only watch documentaries?" I'm going to guess that the answer may well be, "no." In which case he does not have an aversion to fiction, only to fiction in literary form.

This may be understandable. The commitments of time and concentration to literature, whether of non-fiction or fiction, are both of different kinds and qualities from the time and concentration one gives to the moving image. Some might call it deeper, more concentrated, more precious. If that is the case then Mr. Hunt may be jealous of the time and concentration he gives over to literature and thus wants to make sure that his payback will be, as he puts it, in the form of meat (No damn rabbit food of the mind for me!). If this is the case, then I believe that Mr. Hunt has gone somewhat awry.

I don't know what fiction Mr. Hunt has read in the past, but good fiction, of any genre, does indeed include meat. And if it is very good fiction, it probably provides the reader a completely balanced meal. But the meat of fiction, unlike the meat of non-fiction, is not the meat of, say, a lecture, but the meat of an experience. It does not appeal to the calculating aspect of our minds looking for a laundry-list of facts (and there's nothing wrong with this), but to the empathetic aspect of our minds looking for experiences, feelings (joyful and sad; triumphal and tragic; dramatic and comic), and truths -- always with a lowercase "t" and often small and delicate ones -- about the human condition.

Good non-fiction can be an exciting and edifying trip to the lecture hall, the classroom, along the galleries of a fine museum. Whereas good fiction can be a trip to just about anywhere. Trips to mundane or thrilling or exotic locations here on Earth, or to imagined realms in outer space or alternate universes. Good fictions can be trips into the skins and minds of other people, foreign and domestic, kind and cruel, male and female, real and imagined, and even, on occasion, not human. Non-fiction and fiction are two separate entities, although often with similarities, and neither stands taller than the other. To have a balance life as a reader, the demand is that you crack the spines of both.

But maybe I am biased. As a reader I am always reading one non-fiction and one fiction book at the same time. (Currently the non-fiction book is Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are by Sebastian Seung, with The Great Convergence: Asia, The West, And the Logic of One World by Kishore Mahbubani waiting in the wings. And the fiction is Don Quijote by Cervantes with Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth waiting in the wings). But I am also a writer whose main work is fiction, so you would think I might lean strictly in that direction. But every work of fiction I have written -- every one -- has been informed by the non-fiction I have read. History and biographies are favorites of mine, but in the last 40 years it has been the high quality of popular science writing that has truly drawn my time and concentration.

I believe Mr. Hunt would agree with me about the "meat" of contemporary science writing. On that, I believe, we are on the same page. But I challenge Mr. Hunt to get on that other page with me. There is meat in fiction, Mr. Hunt, there truly is. So grab your knife and fork, and, please, have a seat at the table.
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Steven Paul Leiva has just published his first non-fiction book, Searching for Ray Bradbury, a fact of which his publisher is inordinately proud. Mr. Leiva intends to have a conversation with his publisher about this soon.