You'd be hard-pressed to quickly answer the question, "Who is the greatest nonfiction writer?" The subject of a nonfiction book tends to overshadow the author, rendering the latter difficult to recall. Now, how about naming the greatest fiction writer? A challenging question also, but for entirely different reasons. Is it Jane Austen? William Shakespeare? Mark Twain? Virginia Woolf? William Faulkner? Flannery O'Connor? Ernest Hemingway? So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, or rather, write. The novelist transcends his or her titles.
It pains me, as someone who has devoted a writing career to nonfiction, to admit here that the great men and women of letters deal in the made-up stuff. While nonfiction, from the sports news online to the latest feature in Memphis magazine, occupies most of our reading time, fiction writers dominate our civilization's pantheon of literary heroes. For one notable example, the Nobel Prize in literature is neither designated exclusively for works of fiction or nonfiction, but rather for an author's entire body of work. Of the 104 Nobel laureates, only nine have been nonfiction writers.
Forced to explain this disparity, a pundit more qualified than I might bluster at length about the differences between creativity and concrete facts, or even art and science. The difference, at least as I see it, is that fiction books are our lifelong companions. Fiction accompanies us throughout our formative years, beginning with Dr. Seuss, and marking our intellectual mileposts through Judy Blume into required junior high and high school reading like Dickens' Great Expectations and Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.
A reader can return to the same work of fiction at different points of life and obtain new and different meanings from each encounter. While non-fiction purports to untie a subject and answer whatever questions the reader may have about it, a novel reflects a truer image of existence in its ambiguity and uncertainty.
My advice for aspirants to literary glory? Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story.
— Preston Lauterbach
My father advised me long ago that the principal reason we go to college is not to learn all we need to know, but to discover how to learn for the rest of our lives. And since my college days, it's the reading I've managed to do — most of it nonfiction — that has extended, enhanced, and broadened my education.
Fiction has a critical place in a civilized culture, and fiction writers, I'd concede, are the finest and most creative minds on the planet. But it's in reading about what our world is — as opposed to what it could or might be — that can inspire us to greatness, whatever our chosen endeavor.
Nonfiction can be abused by lazy or misguided writers and editors. Just pick up any number of Kennedy assassination "histories." But when done right, legends live and the gap between then and now is all but closed.
I've discovered presidential biographies to be the access point for learning about — and, importantly, exploring — a given period. Curious about the Depression and World War II? Conrad Black's biography of Franklin Roosevelt details the struggles of a country and what amounts to the rescue of Europe and the Far East through the eyes and action of a man — flesh and blood, crippled even — who grew larger than any imagined character from any novel (or comic book!) ever written. It's 1,134 pages on the potential of the human spirit.
I work among reporters, so imagine the impact All the President's Men had. My office is mere blocks from what was once the Lorraine Motel and Gerald Posner's Killing the Dream enlightened my reflections on a fallen angel, all the while breaking my heart. And the reading doesn't have to be heavy. David Halberstam's October 1964 manages to detail how two baseball teams and a single World Series can encapsulate the growing pains of the civil rights movement.
Fiction takes us to places we need to go, in spirit at least. The best nonfiction, I maintain, helps us live and grow — here and now — in ways only reality can truly shape.
— Frank Murtaugh
Frank Murtaugh and Preston Lauterbach