Librarians are frequently asked a seemingly simple question. “What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction?” Exactly how we answer may depend on the age of the questioner, how busy we are at the moment or how really interested the person is in the philosophy of library organization.

Answers range from the simplistic, fiction is made up and nonfiction is true. to the wry, “the only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible,” Mark Twain.

However, there is a more than a whiff of imperfection in either answer. Even a quick google search reveals over 70,000 attempts to explain the difference. Then you have to consider who determines the genre of a book. The author? Critics? The publisher? Can a book be both fiction and nonfiction? Or change from one to the other? It’s been said that trying to fit a book into a narrowly defined box can be a fool’s errand.

Does strewing occasional facts throughout a novel make it nonfiction? Does adding florid passages to a true story change a work of nonfiction into a novel? When a memoir is based on memories later determined to be “enhanced,” is the book still nonfiction? And, just how do we deal with “alternative facts”? Can nonfiction be fake? Is truthiness measurable?

Classifying, cataloging and even casually describing a genre-bending book is, like old age, not for sissies. Librarians try to be objective in determining the genre of a book, but it is a tricky business. Without the unsung heroes of the library world, the catalogers, libraries would be just storage rooms for books in no particular order.

So, let’s applaud catalogers’ efforts to corral and organize those pesky books that seem to elude definitive classification. Stop in and let us help you through the world of literary fiction, creative nonfiction, historical fiction, metafiction, autobiographical novels, cult literature, realistic fiction, auto-fiction, narrative nonfiction and novels based on true stories to name just a few of the interesting ways authors and publishers self-describe their latest works.

For more information about any of our services or for upcoming programming schedules, visit the La Crosse County Library website at or call our Administrative Center in Holmen at 608-526-9600.


Tobias Mann is a reporter with the River Valley Media Group. He can be reached at or at 608-791-8216.

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