Fiction or Non?

It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick. So you might as well write Moby-Dick.

Annie Dillard, “Write Till You Drop” May 28, 1998, New York Times

Last week, I was browsing in a small used book store, and came across Annie Dillard’s book, Teaching a Stone to Talk. I removed it from the shelf, and took it to the front desk. I didn’t want to buy the book, I have a copy. I said to the clerk, “This book was in the fiction section, and it’s not fiction. It’s a book of essays.” The clerk was in his early twenties. He gave me a look that I’m familiar with — I’m positive that I know more than you do.

“Okay,” he said, “I’ll put it with the short stories.”

“No,” I said, “they are not short stories, they are essays. Non-fiction.”

“Yeah, short stories.”

“No. Short stories are fiction, they are made up. Essays are non-fiction, factual.”

I knew that my voice was getting a little loud for the small shop. But this was such a weird conversation to occur in a bookstore. Aren’t potential clerks quizzed on the difference between fiction and non-fiction?

At this point, another clerk appeared. She was older. She asked me, “If you were looking for this book, where would you look?”

I thought about this a second, and then answered, “Dillard is a bit hard to classify. She’s part naturalist, part mystic. But I would look in non-fiction.”

“Okay then,” she said. “i’ll re-shelve it.”

This encounter got me to thinking about fact and fiction. Classification systems are always limiting, especially binary ones. A database designer once told me that he never used the option, “other” because most people would choose that, rendering the search capability mostly useless.

But I like binary systems. Fact or Fiction. True or False. Up or Down. In or Out. Right or Left.

Even knitting has its own set of binaries. Knit or Purl. Flat or Round. Double Points or Circulars. Pick or Throw.

See, there is knitting content.


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