Years ago, before the age of self-publishing, someone told me that only about 15 percent of books published in America are fiction, in all genres, while the vast majority of books fall under nonfiction. I imagined that those statistics indicated that editors slave more thoroughly over fiction than facts, parsing more sentences, correcting more errors, enhancing more nuances.
So I read fiction, I tell myself, because the writing is intrinsically better than in nonfiction. I am more likely to encounter a memorable phrase or aptly used arcane word in contemporary fiction than in heady books penned by politicians, potters and patients for whom writing is not a first language.
Recently I asked librarians and booksellers if I was correct about the ratio of domestic books. They had never considered the question and had no answer. So I wrote to the Library of Congress.
A librarian named Abby Yochelson responded: “I think the quality of editing probably depends on the publisher rather than fiction vs. nonfiction. I know plenty of people who complain about the quality of fiction editing, too!” She asked Andy Lisowski, of the institution’s information-technology staff, to run a search.
“In terms of figuring out percentages,” she wrote later, “you would have to figure out the number of books we have compared to our overall collections.” The most current compiled information is for Fiscal Year 2013. “Fascinating Facts about the Library of Congress” reports that the Library of Congress owns about 160 million items, about 37 million of which are books and other print materials.
The library’s annual report includes an appendix listing books by class. Class P covers language and literature: English, American, etc., plus fiction, literature, children’s literature, poetry, drama, essays, literary criticism, biographies of writers, etc. Andy could not identify fiction specifically, Abby says. The two of them “Concluded that trying to count genre fiction would not work. Including a genre category is fairly recent in terms of library cataloging. Many works have multiple genres, so something could be categorized as a love story and suspense fiction.”
Abby went all out, making me value this remarkable federal resource. Who knew all this stuff even existed? Not I.
“I also attempted to make use of the subdivision fiction as it can be used with subject headings: libraries-fiction, railroad trains-fiction, writers-fiction,” she wrote. “I used the advanced search in our catalog. I typed fiction in the search box and used the pull-down menu to indicate SUBJECT ALL (KSUB).
“Unfortunately, the maximum number of records the catalog can retrieve is 10,000, with no idea of how many records there are over that number. In addition, fiction didn’t always appear in subject headings, so this search would miss thousands of older books.”
Abby even searched OCLC WorldCat, a database showing the holdings of more than 70,000 libraries. (Here’s the free version.) When you use the advanced search, you can limit to fiction or nonfiction and to adult or juvenile. Unfortunately, you can’t just click on the limits without searching on something.
“I don’t really ‘trust’ any of the numbers above about the Library of Congress holdings or think they are sufficiently accurate to quote.”
So there are no facts on which to base my preference for reading fiction while continuing to write nonfiction. And that’s the truth.
What about you?