The Border Between Fact and Fiction

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking these days about the border between fiction and nonfiction. I don’t have time to write a proper well-composed post right now about this, but I did want to mention a few points related to it that have come up recently.

  •  One of my favorite books of this year, Steve Sheinkin‘s Bomb, has been getting quite a bit of scrutiny as to how well the author explains and documents aspects of his writing, especially the bits that seem most fictional and whether he overplayed certain aspects of the historical material for drama. I’ve looked into both quite a bit as have others and feel satisfied that this book still is one of the best of the year.
  • Another favorite of the year for me is Jason Chin‘s picture book Island.  While Sheinkin stayed on the nonfiction side of the border while using fictional structures, Chin has gone across to the fictional side while keeping the facts true and well-researched.
  • This past Saturday I attended an excellent panel at the New York Public Library on ethics and nonfiction children’s books.  At one point one of the panelists talked about her decision to imagine something in her nonfiction picture book for the sake of reader engagement.  She described her efforts to make the subject and story right for young readers and that she made it clear in her back matter that she had fictionalized this one element. Another panelist said she would not have done this.
  • And then yesterday I had an inquiry about a forthcoming work of narrative nonfiction as to whether it needed an index or not.  The questioner worried that too much back matter would detract from the driving drama of the story itself.
  • As someone who struggled for years to write someone’s story as nonfiction and ended up crossing the border into fiction this is something I pay a lot of attention to. No answers at all, just more questions all the time.


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14 responses to “The Border Between Fact and Fiction

  1. Sam Bloom

    And then of course there’s No Crystal Stair and Countdown, two books that really do an excellent job walking that tightrope. I’m curious about that question about the index in a book of narrative NF – how would that be a bad thing? I would think that, because it is in the back of the book, it would have really little to no effect on the story. Or am I missing something here? At any rate, I agree completely that this is an interesting – and timely – topic.


    • Oh, yes! Those are two more great examples, especially the Nelson as people are struggling with exactly what it is. I saw it shelved in biography in my local kids’ bookstore and also have seen it identified as nonfiction elsewhere. The Chin too.


  2. Robin Smith

    So, at first I read your first sentence as, “I have been drinking a lot…”
    That started my day off with a smile.

    This is a really important question. My son, who is in grad school studying history had no hesitation when we discussed this issue with him a few weeks ago. “You cannot make up emotions, gestures, words or anything without noting it in the backmatter.” When I pushed him about story arc and the like, he was steadfast, even stubborn.

    I expect there is a difference between a children’s book and a thesis, but he wasn’t buying it.

    For what it’s worth,

    Robin Smith


    • Robin Smith

      I think I should have said “include” instead of “make up.”
      “You cannot include emotions, gestures, word or anything without noting it in the backmatter.”
      I think that was what we were talking about.


  3. sullywriter

    It’s unfortunate Mr. Sheinkin chose to invent gestures and dialogue for his exceptionally well-written book because, by not being upfront about those inventions in a preface or afterword, it can call into question his overall credibility as an author. I have no doubt that it was NOT Mr. Sheinkin’s intention to deceive or mislead readers. He wanted to tell a great story, as all authors do, and he obviously felt compelled to make the choices he did to tell it. Having written a book about the atomic bomb myself, I am intimately familiar with the subject and I read Bomb quite closely. The inventions he does include in the narrative are so superfluous, I did not notice them. As an author, I would not make the choices Mr. Sheinkin did in a nonfiction book I write. I understand why some authors do make those choices but they should be absolutely clear about them for the sake of maintaining the trust of their readers.


    • sullywriter

      Maybe I should not charaterize what Sheinkin did as “invention.” He calls it “synthesizing” different accounts. In any case, whether inventing or “synthesizing”, authors should be upfront about such things to prevent such controversies.


  4. sullywriter….I do think it’s important to recognize that what Shenikin does is valid, and not “invention.” Thanks. For me, it still muddies my appreciation of it by not having a better explanation in the back.


  5. I really liked this post.
    I also like your choice of Steve Sheinkin‘s Bomb. I think it’s an amazing book. I liked the way the author tells the story of the life of a great inventor and gives a historical glimpse from the nuclear aspect of World War II. That time period represent ancient history to anyone under 20. Consequently, this book does good job of explaining the backdrop of the era and is very engaging.


    • Steve and I exchanged books this year and I have enjoyed reading his a great deal. It really is a well-done page turner, filled with wonderful, informative detail and action (and is, as Jeff says “amazing”). But reading it was sometimes a little frustrating for me. When I read any nonfiction I constantly stop to study footnotes, sources and backnotes. For me, this completes the picture the author is trying to paint with words. When the number of times I can’t find a source or explanation for a particular opinion, action, whatever, mounts I do begin to question the entire text (though I don’t abandon my reading or even my appreciation for how the writer has shaped his or her text). I also wonder how the writer sees the book’s longterm use. Most of our sales for nonfiction is to schools and public libraries. A book with no or scant sourcing (and no index!!!! OMG!) isn’t going to be very useful to the vast number of kids who might take it out for a school report or project and who probably don’t have a deep knowledge of the subject in question, history in general or how to do step-by-step research. They’ll accept the whole text as fact and (possibly) not examine or think about the subject in much depth. If it’s meant to be a casual read and that’s the end to it, that’s good, of course, though I always wonder why a work of nonfiction can’t be both dramatic and well sourced at the same time.


  6. Jonathan Hunt

    I remain deeply troubled by this discussion.

    First of all, Robin, I agree wholeheartedly with your son, but I know of no instance where Sheinkin has invented emotions or dialogue–or even where it has been speculated that he has done so. Nina speculated that it was possible that he invented the gestures, but nobody has been able to prove that he has, in fact, done this. Am I missing something?

    So I would ask you, too, Ed, what gestures and dialogue that he has invented, specifically the latter. Can anybody cite one piece of dialogue that Sheinkin has invented? Anybody?

    I do think the documentation is very lazy, but that alone does not mean that anything has been invented.


    • sullywriter

      I think I said “invented” was a poor word choice on my part. I believe Sheinkin said something about “synthesizing” together things he found from different sources. Is that changing or altering facts? I’m not sure, but I do think it’s important to note this method of “synthesizing” in a preface or afterword so readers understand it.


  7. Jonathan Hunt

    But the dialogue has not been synthesized. I found the sources for all of the quotes that I looked up. It wasn’t always as easy as it could have been without pages numbers and without a specific citation for each source, but I did find all the ones that I looked at. So I would argue that “dialogue” too was a poor word choice.

    And isn’t “synthesizing” what all historians do? Don’t they all read primary and secondary sources and synthesize the information into a new cohesive narrative? I just don’t see it as a new nonfiction technique that merits extra consideration.


    • I was just going by what Mr. Sheinkin said himself. I may have misunderstood what he was saying. I suppose it’s accurate to call what historians do “synthesizing.” Perhaps “distill” or “shape” might be how I’d I describe. And, no (whatever we choose to call it), it is not a new technique that merits extra consideration. I’d say that’s rather common in narrative nonficiton.

      I thought what I had understood Mr. Sheinkin saying was that he looked at a few versions of a moment or exchange that had some subtle differences and then “synthesized” them into one. I see nothing wrong with that but it should be explained in the source notes and, if done multiple times, should be explained in a preface or afterword.


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