I have a friend that only reads non-fiction. He likes biographies, news articles, and reports published in academic journals. Why waste time, he wonders, with things that are not real, with stories that are made up? For him, one should just stick to the facts.
Naturally, I don’t agree with him. Quite obviously, given our previous episodes of this podcast, I find that fiction can actually capture truth in ways that non-fiction cannot, helping us to enter into a reality far from our own to learn something new about ourselves and others. But I think it’s more than that. Not only can fiction capture the truth, but there is a misconception about non-fiction that just because it is “factual” that it is without bias or subjectivity. This is patently false.
Unfortunately, many viewers/readers of non-fiction tend to approach these works of art without a critical eye; they tend to accept what is shown as the truth without reflection because, well, it’s “non-fiction.” In documentaries, for example, one is able to see with their own eyes the primary sources. They can watch the actual events, hear the actual historical figure speak. It must be true, we tell ourselves.
The fact of the matter is that works of non-fiction and fiction—while using opposite approaches—essentially seek to do the same thing: they tell stories to transmit truth. They choose what to be included and what to leave out. They build story arcs, build drama, make arguments, and seek to evoke a response from the viewer/reader. Works of non-fiction may use nothing but factual pieces of information, but in choosing what to present, and more importantly, what to leave out, they inevitably share a truth that is incomplete. No one is able to share everything about every situation that influenced the topic at hand.
That’s where things get interesting, and what Br. Tito and I discussed in this week’s podcast. How do documentaries reveal much-needed truth, but how do they also leave us with more questions than answers?