Fiction Precedes and Defines Non-Fiction

Yet even fiction is a fiction, a word which developed out of the Latin fingere, “to fashion or form.” In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of “fiction,” now obsolete, is “the action of fashioning or imitating,” and is related to the verb “to feign.” The word first referred to all kinds of art,  “The . . . Art of Painting . . . surpassing by so many Degrees . . . all other Human Fiction, or imitative Art” (Lord Shaftesbury in his Characteristicks).

Twice in the definition we have read of imitation in connection with fiction — “fashioning or imitating,” “imitative art” — so what do art and literature imitate? Reality, of course! Who invented reality? Plato, when he proposed the ideal. In other words, reality only came into existence when he said — let me see if I can get this right — reality isn’t so real because the ideal realm is realer. Reality, then, was defined in the west by what it was not: real. Reality and the ideal split out of nothing like matter and anti-matter and we have been confused about them both ever since. The next definition of “fiction” in the OED is “arbitrary invention.” Since all signs are arbitrary, according to Saussure, all language, by this definition, is fiction.

In English, we do not even have a direct word for non-fiction. We describe it as what it is not: fiction. If fiction is a story that is not true, then we define non-fiction, as “not not-true.” Not not-true is not the same as being true, I assure you. If you ask someone whether they liked a movie and they answer, “Well, I didn’t dislike the film,” it does not mean they liked it. In spite of what your teachers have said, the negatives do not cancel each other out to make a positive. This is a mistake of applying Latin grammar to English.

In a quick survey of fifty-nine languages (using Google translator), only six languages appear to have a direct word for non-fiction, a word that is not simply the negative of fiction or fantasy or art. Russian, Belarusian and Ukranian call non-fiction “popular science,” extending the name of one type of non-fiction to the whole category. The Swedish word, facklitteratur, means “trade,” “field,” or “departmental” literature, or writing about a particular subject. The Thai word means “documentary” and the Welsh word means “factual.” The other fifty-three languages define non-fiction by what it is not.

Linguistically, then we lack an independent concept of non-fiction as a thing in itself. Like reality and the ideal, non-fiction only exists because its opposite exists. Fiction precedes and defines non-fiction. The two are inseparable.

(The fourth part of a six part series, following “Understanding and Our Narrative Systems” and followed by “Purpose: To Rehabilitate Reality.” To read more about the relation of fiction to nonfiction, read “Meta-Introduction to Donald Barthelme and the School.” Also, check out my book Narrative Madness, available at and on Amazon.)

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