“Fact vs Fiction” had apparently been a teaching topic for my two oldest little kids at school. They were telling me about it…

“Fact is, like, real.  But fiction is not real.  Fiction is stuff that’s not true.”

I took offense.

“You mean,” I asked, “fiction is not true at all?”

“No, Dad, of course not.  That’s what ‘fiction’ means—not true.”  This intellectual pair of a 7- and 9-yr old were apparently having to interact with an ill-educated buffoon.  “And fact is much better than fiction,” they continued, “since fiction is just made-up… like make-believe.”  They sounded so sophisticated.

“But just because fiction doesn’t describe what actually happened, does that really make it bad or untrue?” I was prodding at their air-tight assurance of fiction’s inferiority to fact.  My question was parried with this from my daughter,

“Dad, if someone wrote a history about me, your own daughter, or a book about fairies and silly things that are just fiction, then which book would be more important?”

Ooooh… she’s good.

I attempted a response: “Look, I would of course prefer to read a book about you than one about fairies.  I admit it.  But even though fiction may not record exactly what happened once, fiction can be powerfully true.”

They did not understand.  So I gave them a factual report.

“Okay, what about this….”  I took my 7-yr old son in my arms.  “There was a young boy once, with red hair and a wonderful personality.  He moved to England for a few years and lived there with his family while his father did doctoral work.  He made many friends, played lots of football, and hiked lovely footpaths.”

Fact.  True.  But then a story….

“What about this…,” I began.  “Once upon a time there was a boy who lived in a faraway kingdom, and his father was the great and mighty king.  Both his mother and father loved him very much.  But every day on his walk home from his lessons, a group of mean bullies grabbed him, beat him up, and threw him in the muck down the same hill.  They did not know that he was the crown-prince.  And those mean guys did this to him every day.  When he got home, his mother always scolded him for having soiled his fine clothes.  But he never told his mother about the bullies.  He always apologized for being clumsy on the hill and never said a word.  You see, he wanted to protect those cruel boys.  He wanted to save them….”

Fiction.  But untrue…?

Now, I just made up that story on the spot for the kids.  What I was hoping to do was to show them what they already knew to be true just before they were so enlightened by the Western educational system.  As kids, the lines are actually quite blurred between certain categories we adults turn into dichotomies.

Fact and fiction are both conduits for truth. But sometimes, truth is too capacious for the bare facts.  Sometimes, a mystifying story can do better justice to truth than a hunk of data. 

So, I know there is no Middle Earth.  I know the wardrobe in my room will take me nowhere.  I know that no actual boardings take place at King Cross’ Platform 9 3/4. But in many ways, the respective stories just referred to are true.

I just finished reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  I know it is fiction.

I also know it is true….



5 thoughts on “Fact vs. Fiction”

  1. I love this, Andy…as someone who prefers to spend a lot of my free time reading fiction (and doesn’t often finish the non-fiction books I start), it’s good to think about the truth in stories. Your post also made me excited for future conversations with my daughter when she’s big and knowledgeable!!! :o)

  2. Found this post through Mark Stephens. As an educator and lover of fairies and trolls and middle earth (as well as the difference between fact and fiction), this is an excellent piece. Thank you.

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