Every once in a while I get asked the following question: Why is x shelved in the non-fiction section? With x being some poem or some play or some book on astrology. The questioner usually has a glint in their eye and a smirk on their lips when they say: “You know the events in Hamlet didn’t really happen?”
So I tell them: Melvil Dewey, the man who invented that silly string of digits that libraries like to put on the spine of books, was so incredibly smart that he knew that plays of one Bill Shakespeare so deeply explored the human condition that, if not empirically true, spoke to the soul in such a way that his plays NEEDED to be shelved in the non-fiction section. Achieving the same through literature, he thought, was a fool’s errand. Thus, fiction and non-fiction.
Of course, the previous paragraph is almost completely fiction. Melvil Dewy…yadda yadda… invented silly string… yadda yadda…–that part is true. The rest, not so much. The truth is a little inside baseball and kind of boring. But since you asked… the Dewey Decimal System is actually capable of cataloguing fiction. Meaning, if we wanted to, we could attach silly strings of numbers to the spines of all your favourite novels. Unfortunately, and you’ll have to trust me on this, the way Dewey works and because our fiction collections are so large, this would make it much harder for you to find the books you’re looking for.
Since the great librarian revolt of 1815 [not true], most public libraries have opted forsake Dewey for their fiction collections and sort them alphabetically by author [true]. The reason poetry and plays remain under Dewey rule, and again you’ll have to trust me on this, is that their collections are so small having Dewey numbers makes them easier to find. In short, when libraries divide their collections into fiction and non-fiction they aren’t really making a judgement call on the veracity of the content of the books, they are really just trying to make books easier to find [also true].
While you’re pondering the meaning of fiction and non-fiction, here are a pair of books that skirt the line:
In terms of popular culture, this is probably the quintessential example of the conundrum faced in categorizing something as fact or fiction. Originally billed as the memoir of a 23-year-old drug addict, it came to light that a number of the scenes represented in the book were fabrications. This, of course, raises the question: Does the liberal way in which the author tells his story affect the overall ‘truth’ of the book? After all, it is a common societal practice for people to alter and exaggerate the way they narrate their lives to tell better stories.
I view this as kind of the opposite scenario as A Million Little Pieces. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is categorized as a Fictional Graphic Novel, but has been described as autobiography or biography. This book is a coming of age story told from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl and deals with heavy topics such as sex and drug use. In being categorized as Fiction I wonder if it lessens the impact of the novel. In the book we follow the main character Minnie as she faces many difficult and confusing situations. I worry that being ‘fiction’ allows the reader to avoid grappling with many of the questions the book by dismissing uncomfortable situations as fictitious and thus not something 15-year-old girls might have to face in real life.