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BAND December 2011: Truth in Nonfiction

December 19, 2011

B.A.N.D., Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees, launched in July and is being run by a small group of bloggers as a way to promote the love of nonfiction amount bloggers. Each month a discussion question will be put forward giving everyone and anyone the chance to respond. If you are interested in hosting a month do check out the tumblr site and let us know!

Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness hosted the first discussion, asking What’s your favorite type of nonfiction? in July. In August I led the discussion, asking How did you get into nonfiction? In September Cass wanted to know about nonfiction audiobooks, asking if we had listened and enjoyed. In October Ash asked what our favorite nonfiction anthologies were. In November Amanda asked if we read nonfiction to help support a cause. This month Erin guest hosts from Erin Reads and asks (leave your response on her post here):

How you determine truth in nonfiction? Is the “true-ness” of a book important to you? If you’re a nonfiction veteran, do you have any pointers to offer nonfiction newbies?

Ahhh… truth in nonfiction. This seems to come up a lot with memoirs and auto-biographies. I usually approach those with caution and treat them with a grain of salt because we are talking often not only about ourselves but about others as well, and sometimes memory is flawed. The actual big lies usually come out too.

In narrative and scholarly nonfiction it can sometimes be harder as often you have no frame of reference of knowing. I like extensive bibliographies, end notes, and an index, as a start. The presence of these tells me that the author is serious and isn’t worried about you checking for more information. I also like to check WHERE they got their information. Often the bibliography will show a huge bias in one direction or another, or the author’s academic background and education may be something that has no relevance to the topic which he is discussing. Things like that can raise a red flag and cause me to go look up more information on the topic of the book.

I think the only real thing I can suggest other than that is to read widely. If you are interested in a topic, read as much as you can by a variety of authors, including a variety of views both for and against / positive and negative. Doing this will ensure you have a rounded view of a situation or topic. Maphead is an inspiration in this!

What about you – How do you determine the truth in nonfiction?

27 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2011 10:22 am

    I think “read widely” is the best advice there is. Once you read enough books on a topic, it starts to become clear when an author or book seems totally off the mark on the topic. I also like checking an author’s background to see if they have credentials for writing on a topic, but that’s not always a necessity when it comes to narrative nonfiction (especially those written by journalists).

    • December 19, 2011 9:19 pm

      Thanks Kim, it’s really what I keep falling back on too. I’m always so jealous of maphead reading so extensively both on the pro and con side. Something I used to do before blogging but it’s really just fallen aside.

      And you are right, narrative nonfiction can be more difficult :)

  2. tammie permalink
    December 19, 2011 11:31 am

    I like to look at the date of publication because the most current, or the closest to the date of the action (ie Greek classics) will often have the best information. I also like to see about things like long-term reaction (see: What to expect when you’re expecting – still a pregnancy bible), and the number of primary sources cited.

    • December 19, 2011 9:20 pm

      Oh yes also a great recommendation Tammie! The date can tell a lot.

  3. December 19, 2011 1:12 pm

    I tend to think that a lot of what I read in nonfiction is the truth, and don’t examine it as much as I would other types of books. I guess this is not the right way to be, but I do like to read widely in areas that I am interested in, and have not encountered too many discrepancies between different books on the same subject! Very interesting response to this question, Amy!

    • December 19, 2011 9:21 pm

      Yes, I tend to just take most things as they are written zibilee unless it seems just odd… and lack of end notes / bibliography / etc does make me wonder. heh. Glad to hear you’ve not noticed too many discrepancies, congrats on picking good books :)

  4. December 19, 2011 2:33 pm

    Great answer. Good catch on glossaries – if a book about a subject doesn’t have one, I too get VERY suspicious. :)

  5. December 19, 2011 2:34 pm

    Ooops! My mind is going too fast – I didn’t mean glossaries but bibliographies indices notes of all kinds, etc… But I like glossaries, too. :)

    • December 19, 2011 9:21 pm

      Heh understood Care. I definitely feel you on glossaries too – they rock and should be in more books!

  6. December 19, 2011 11:49 pm

    Good question ! I have a hard enough time just trying to figure out what’s true when it comes to life in general ! But I would have to second Kim’s answer. I also pay attention to the recommendations on the back cover. if they are from individuals I trust and/or admire, it certainly does a lot to build my trust in the author.

    • December 20, 2011 7:46 pm

      Hah good point maphead, it can be tricky even in real life. I also loved Kim’s answer. I also use you as a bit of a truth measurer – if you’ve read it, I trust your opinion!

  7. December 21, 2011 3:48 pm

    I m a cynic at heart so tend to distrust most things unless I ve heard the whole from various sources ,I think most non fiction is the truth but some isn’t and is often the writers opinion not fact ,all the best stu

  8. December 21, 2011 6:54 pm

    I don’t think the issue is that ‘memory is flawed’. I think you’re either telling ‘your’ truth or you’re telling a lie. The truth can vary between two people that experienced the same event. I generally give people the benefit of the doubt unless I have a reason to doubt that what they are saying is what they remember. When we’re not dealing with absolutes, e.g 1+1=2, we have to accept that our own perceptions come into play. Otherwise, as you’ve suggested, getting as many accounts of the story as possible will help you put together the most unbiased picture.

    • December 23, 2011 9:18 pm

      Yes, that is a great point as well Shannon. Though I know my memory isn’t so good either, so that would be part of it for me, there is also the issue of truths, we all have our own for sure. It’s always scary to wonder what biases people have isn’t it?

  9. December 28, 2011 5:44 pm

    I’m honored by your calling attention to me in regards to my reading habits. Thanks for the praise ! In 2012 I’ll try to continue reading a wide spectrum of nonfiction.

    • December 29, 2011 8:52 pm

      You are most welcome maphead, your reading truly inspires me!

  10. January 20, 2012 12:31 pm

    Great discussion. And an important one, as we DO tend to think that non-fiction is by defition “true.” Another point to consider is what is the author’s perspective on the material presented. It may be his or her “truth” but be false from another or a larger perspective. That is probably part of the appeal of memiors and oral history for me; they tell “a” truth, but not “the” truth. I just read a line in Map of Love by the Eygptain novelist, Ahdaf Soueif. The narrator is sorting through old documents and says she prefers the past to the present because “you tell the story that that they, the people who lived it, could only tell in part.” Most of what any of us tells, we only tell in part. That is not to excuse self-serving lies, of course.

    There always are details that can be proven or disproven, but the more interesting question to me is in what ways is this true and in what ways is it false. The particualrs may be true but how does this account fit into the wider picture which you can only get from reading more widely.

    • January 21, 2012 11:44 am

      Yes!! So well put mdbrady! That is a big reason why I often avoid memoirs, because I can’t stop thinking about the other people and ‘truths’ to the story. I love that line you quote from The Map of Love. Clearly I should pick that book up:)


  1. BAND December Discussion: Truth in Nonfiction
  2. December 2011 Reading Wrap-Up « Amy Reads
  3. Band January 2012: Reading for Projects and Goals « Amy Reads
  4. BAND February 2012: What Nonfiction Don’t You Like « Amy Reads
  5. BAND April 2012: Quirky Readomg « Amy Reads
  6. BAND May 2012: Nonfiction I Hate to Admit I Enjoy « Amy Reads
  7. BAND June 2012: When Bias is a Good Thing « Amy Reads
  8. BAND: Truth in Nonfiction

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