Fiction or Non-Fiction? A Veteran Journalist Explains Why He Ventured into Fiction

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Yesterday's segment about new curriculum guidelines that would replace some beloved novels with non-fiction reading in K-12 classrooms sparked a lot of responses listener responses about the virtues of fiction and non-fiction. What's more important for a high school education: fiction reading or non-fiction reading?


"A mixture of both" listener Shannon wrote on The Takeaway's Facebook page. "I think showing both sides of literature help students develop a respect of the written word. A great story sometimes can't compare to a great memoir." 

Another listener, Frederic says neither. "Intellectual discussion of the ideas presented in the reading and a deeper understanding is the most important aspect of any reading. A superficial understanding of either fiction or non-fiction is endemic of the American education system, and the American society," he wrote.


Today, a veteran journalist who ventured into fiction after a storied career in the world of non-fiction weighs in. Jeff Greenfield the author of “Then Everything Changed.”

"The idea that you can favor non-fiction over fiction as a genre, is to me a fool's errand," Greenfield says. He believes that both fiction and non-fiction are equally essential.

There are some history books that Greenfield thinks teach you more than any novel can. But on the other hand, he says, a piece of fiction can be a window that allows us to see into an era, in a way that a history book can't. "I really do think that when people look back at New York in the 1980s, they're going to have to look at The Bonfire of the Vanities," he says. "I think Tom Wolfe was able to take his insights and his shrewd and somewhat jaded eye about the battle over status and money, and render it in a way that a simple piece of reporting — or even an elaborate piece of reporting — just wasn't going to be able to do."

The documents of history themselves are as integral to Jeff Greenfield. "There is no way to understand where we are, without understanding the premises of the folks who created the country."  


Jeff Greenfield

Produced by:

Mythili Rao

Comments [6]

Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

I value both fiction and non fiction. I find it a little scary that there is a debate about it at all.

Nov. 28 2012 07:04 PM
Allison Myers from Brooklyn, NY

Kids need a mix of fiction and non-fiction to help them learn about the world they live in and to inspire their creativity. This is why I love Jason Chin's narrative non-fiction books for young readers, REDWOODS, CORAL REEFS and ISLAND: A STORY OF THE GALAPAGOS. They do a wonderful job introducing non-fiction content with imaginative fictional illustration.

Nov. 28 2012 03:27 PM
Nathan Burns from portland oregon

it is in my personal opinion that students should have to find a book that was fiction but is now 1984.

Nov. 28 2012 01:42 PM
Maia Zampini from Portland, OR

I think some are portraying a false dichotomy between reading fiction and an inability to think critically. I went to a public high school that used analysis of literature to develop my critical and analytical thinking skills along with analytical writing skills. (I am now an Master's of Business Administration student.) You can analyze anything, but fictional literature offers an opportunity for more depth and for incorporating emotions into a critical assessment. The world is not black and white. Non-fiction reading is not more "practical." Hard skills are necessary, but the ability to think critically is the most important skill anyone can have and reading non-fiction is not necessarily the best means to to developing this skill.

Nov. 28 2012 01:09 PM
Simon Grant from Aiken, SC

You had a caller refer to Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried as non-fiction which is a testament to O'Brien's brilliance since The Things They Carried %100 fiction. O'Brien's discussions of story truth vs. happening truth in "How to Tell a True War Story" and in his discussions elsewhere about The Things They Carried are perfect for arguments about the value of fiction over non-fiction. There are some things you simply can't communicate -- such as the experience of war -- using so-called fact.

Nov. 28 2012 10:40 AM
Austin Gotcher from Oklahoma City

I think every high school student should read 'The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich' because of the historical importance Nazi Germany's defeat shaped our country today. That book illustrates how in times of a massive national debt along with a weakening currency terrible things will happen under poor leadership. The youth of this nation need to understand that if we're not careful, history will repeat itself.

Nov. 28 2012 10:14 AM

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