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How to Read Fiction Responsibly

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Reading is a great hobby. 

It certainly always has been of central importance in my life.

But readers do have responsibilities.

Many people enjoy reading about different people, places, and events in order to learn about them.  Learning is a wonderful thing, no question, but if you are reading to learn, you need to be sure before you read that you will learn what you intend to learn through the book you are reading.

Got it?

You can’t rely on publishers: it’s their job to sell books. While they do make reasonable effort to ensure accuracy, the more unusual the topic, the more limited the publisher’s ability to ensure accuracy is going to be.  And there is a point where the publisher has to trust the author’s work; no one has the resources to validate every single thing in the book. 

And in truth, some publishers are more reputable than others. It’s a business, just like anything else.

Technically speaking, as soon as the publisher has put the word “novel” or “fiction” on the cover, the publisher and the author are covered.  They aren’t making claims as to the authenticity of anything in the story.

What is a good reader to do?

One thing you could do is just accept that the fiction you read is just that, a fiction, and enjoy the story the same way you would a fairy tale, or something you know is not true as entertainment, without fooling yourself into thinking you’ve had a great learning experience.  For example, I watch HGTV sometimes because I enjoy seeing all of the homes even though I know that the “plot lines” of the shows are at least partly faked, and this is supposed to be reality TV!

Remember that publishers are aware that there are many people who are happy to read a “trashy” read* dressed up with intelligent looking covers, so be honest about your purpose for reading, and read responsibly!

*Trashy read: a book that pretends to be educational or offer insight into a group of people that is biased or inaccurate and mainly seeks to titillate the reader.

But if you want to continue to read fiction AND want to learn from your experiences, here are some guidelines:

1.  Pay attention to the front matter/end matter. 

Responsible authors will provide notes on their research and let you know something about their method or what they changed to improve the narrative. It’s perfectly fine to read this after you’ve finished the book, even if the material appears at the beginning.  I do it as a matter of course because sometimes the author gives away too much of the story. 

If the book is historical, there should be notes on the resources used and at least some references.

If the story is about an ethnic group or a place that is unfamiliar to you, you should just take it as nothing but a story unless the author explains how research was collected. Very often authors use their own experiences, but they should state that.

2. Try reading books that were written about the place/time as contemporary fiction. 

A lot of them are not as difficult to read as you think, and very often copies are easy and very inexpensive (or free). 

You aren’t going to see these books commercially promoted because they don’t have marketing budgets, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good.  You just have to dig more.  Books go into the “public domain” 70 years after the death of the author unless the author’s estate renews the copyright.  Once that happens, print copies of the book sell very cheaply and digital copies are often free.

When you read older fiction books, sometimes you might encounter things that are now considered offensive or inappropriate, but at least you see what the people of the time really thought and felt rather than “historical” fiction with a politically correct cast to it, which isn’t realistic at all.

Follow The Lois Level on Facebook to find some great ideas.

3. Try watching video clips or finding photos on the Internet when you read about something new to help you visualize.

Lots of these have been made both professionally and as school projects, so you should be able to find what you want fairly easily.  Visuals can help make older texts more understandable.

If you like to read about a certain time period, you can also find books that describe these periods, including exactly how people lived their lives, for you.

Keep in mind the way the author includes these descriptions. It should be done in a realistic way…characters would not go around describing things they would see everyday!

4. Try reading narrative nonfiction. 

“Narrative nonfiction” is a fancy way of saying “true story”.

Labelling something “nonfiction” means that the author and the publisher have to be responsible for what’s in the book, so you can trust it more.

Start with memoir, biography, and autobiography as these are the most “narrative” nonfiction genres.  Keep in mind that of the three, memoir is the most impressionistic as the author may simply record memories, which are probably not very factually accurate.  Other authors combine memories with research. 

If a book is labeled “autobiography”, it means that the author has tried to maintain an even more objective point of view and did more research. 

A good biography, of course, should be thoroughly researched and documented.  It’s worthwhile to check out several biographies on the same person before selecting one to read: sometimes authors have a certain bias that might affect the book, very often new biographies appear on long-dead subjects if new documents are found or released, which does happen. 

5. Understand the writing style in non-narrative nonfiction books.

I call books that don’t fit in the above categories “straight nonfiction”.  This type of book can be confusing the reader because they cover my promote the book’s main story, but once you dive into it, you find yourself going down lots of different “rabbit holes” that divert from the main story.  What you are supposed to do is kind of suspend the main story to follow the side story, confident in the fact that they will all come together at some point. 

I enjoy this type of read, but if you don’t, try skipping the side stories and coming back to the ones that interest you.  More and more films are being made of popular nonfiction books, so another think to try is actually WATCHING THE FILM FIRST, and then read the book to get the backstory.  You might enjoy the “rabbit holes” more if you aren’t having to keep track of the main story. 

Naturally, films on books of these type leave out a lot simply because of time, and often they telescope events as well, which is when they take events that actually happened over a long period of time and push them together so it seems like they happened close together. Watching a film based on a nonfiction book won’t ruin the suspense in the book nearly as much as a film based on a novel, so you can have both!

Note that “straight nonfiction” should have a lot of notes explaining and documenting sources.  Sometimes this material takes up as much as a third of the book, so the part you’re actually expected to read word for word is much shorter than you might expect, either to your delight or disappointment.  You only need to read the notes when you want to know more or you disbelieve something.

6. Try reading “children’s” nonfiction.

Because new American teaching standards require students to read more nonfiction, more is being published. Some of it is really good. Just be careful about checking the back matter to make sure references are included, and pass on any books that don’t have them. Standards in children’s nonfiction can be shockingly low.

6. Try “Young Readers” editions.

There are great “Young Readers” editions of many popular adult nonfiction books that are usually written by the same author. These editions have a much shorter reading time…and fewer “rabbit holes”…but the key information is the same. They are definitely enjoyable for adults.

7. Try “graphic literature”.

Many stories and books on all subjects are being published as “graphic” literature, or in “comic” format. These books can help you picture unfamiliar things. If the book is nonfiction, be sure to check the references.

8. Try reading a “nonfiction novel” .

Truman Capote’s supposedly invented this genre with In Cold Blood. A nonfiction novel is a sort of made up term that means that the author did a lot of research but wrote the story in a way that seems like fiction.  Look for the term “new journalism” or “creative nonfiction” in book descriptions for this type of story.  Also remember that the author may be taking liberties with the exact facts of the story and is not especially trying to be objective.  At all.  The journalist/author may even become a character in the story.

9. If you really want to read historical fiction, choose your authors carefully.

Obviously, the more you write about one subject, the better you will understand it and the more authentic your work will be.

For example, Alison Weir is a historian who writes both highly regarded biography/history and historical fiction. 

Lisa See focuses on historical stories about East Asian women but has also written a nonfiction book about her own family’s history, including their immigration from China. She was a journalist who studied history before she became a fiction writer.


Check out these posts from The Lois Level on some excellent graphic memoirs that mix drawings and photographs…so you can definitely picture what’s happening!

On Mira Jacob’s Good Talk

On Nora Krug’s Belonging

 

 

 

 

 

American Dirt brought forth a media frenzy in early 2020 along with threats against the author.

While threats or attacks are wrong, the argument itself is a good reminder to check sources before you believe what you read.

Yes, this book is labelled as “fiction”. The problem stems from its being promoted as a book readers should learn from rather than nothing more than a good story.

This article from Texas Monthly explains the issue well: The Real Problem with “American Dirt”

Sustained Read

There was a similar kerfuffle fifteen years ago when A Million Little Pieces was published as memoir and later revealed to be largely fabricated.

Free Read

Quick Read

Read more about the scandal here, in The Guardian:

The Man Who Rewrote his Life

And from The Boston Globe:

Oprah needs to clean up her American Dirt Mess

And LitHub:

Letter to Oprah from 183 authors (as of publication)

Sustained Read


Free Read

Quick Read

The Lois Level on problems with another popular novel:

There’s more to Japan than Memoirs of a Geisha. There have been issues with Golden’s research being discredited.

The Lois Level on the graphic adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle:

The Graphic Adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” shows how hard work can lead to poverty.

Lisa See takes a more responsible approach to her historical novels on China and other Asian countries, including Japan and Korea.

Check out this FAQ from her home page on her approach to fiction writing.

I read Shanghai Girls in Shanghai, and while I’m not expert on Chinese history, the descriptions certainly jibed with what I saw and heard while I was there.

Sustained Read

Sustained Read

If you’ve read In Cold Blood, you know it’s not objective. But it is researched properly. There’s even been a movie about it.

Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, was his assistant.

Sustained Read

Alison Weir has turned her passion for research into a passion for novel writing….

The first book is a historical study, the second the first in a series of novels about Henry VIII’s six queens.

Long Read

Sustained Read

Unbroken is an example of a wonderful story that has been meticulously researched…the top version is the original, and the Young Readers edition is below.

For more ideas, check out this board on Pinterest, where The Lois Level collects all of these books that cross our paths!

Long Read

Sustained Read

More on this subject from The Lois Level:

If you dream of living in a castle:Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle”: What Jane Austen would have written in the 20th Century

When you pick up a book in order to learn, even if it’s just a little, be aware, and support those authors who put the time in and care about more than making a buck.


Cover photo credit: San Jose Public Library

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