003BTG Is Fiction Better than Nonfiction?

Hi, I’m Mignon Fogarty and this is Behind the Grammar, the podcast where I talk about language, marketing, social networking, interview interesting people, and talk about whatever else strikes my fancy. This show is not scripted, so I be warned…I may misspeak. Today I’m talking about ghost-writers for novels, how JD Salinger is trying to block the publication of a sequel to Catcher in the Rye, an update about the word “tweet” being capitalized, some struggles I have with the Grammar Girl podcast, my friend Scott Sigler’s new novel, and why it’s difficult to start a podcast.

If you’re buying stuff at GoDaddy–say a domain name or hosting–and you’d like to get 10% off while supporting this podcast, use the code POD115 when you check out. That’s POD115 for a 10% discount.


Last week I met a fascinating, 94-year-old man who I’m profiling for my homeowners’ association newsletter.

Like a few other people I’ve met, Ralph has an idea for a novel and wants ME to write it for him. First, I don’t write novels. I write non-fiction and there’s a big difference. Ralph hears I’m a writer, and even though I explain what I do–I write about grammar–he insists that I should write novels, and then tells me his idea, which admittedly, is actually pretty brilliant.

Second, is there anyone out there who actually ghost-writes novels for people, or even co-writes them? I’ve heard of people ghost-writing celebrity biographies or even regular non-fiction, but despite the fact that people often ask me about how they can find a ghost-writer for their fiction idea, I’ve never actually heard of writers doing that. I imagine that writing a novel is even harder work than writing non-fiction, and it’s all about wanting to share YOUR creativity with the world. If someone is willing to work hard enough to write a novel, they’re going to have their own idea for one.

So I said to Ralph, “Write it yourself!” But he doesn’t think he can. English isn’t his first language, and although he speaks as well as most people I know, he doesn’t think his grasp of the language is good enough to write his novel. I think he should try.

And third, why does there seem to be this weird bias that you’re not a real writer unless you’re writing fiction. This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten the you’ve-written-a-best-selling-non-fiction-book-now-when-are-you-going-to-write-a-novel response. I might give it a try someday, but aside from the ability to complete a long writing project, I don’t think the necessary skills for good fiction and non-fiction overlap that much.

I’m curious what you think. Has anyone else run into this weird fiction-is-better idea, or do you know anyone who ghost-writes fiction? Would you ghost-write fiction? Let me know. Leave a comment on the blog.

(And yes, I know there about 100 more profitable things I could be doing with my time than writing an HOA newsletter, but I love my building and want to make it a more lively, friendly place to live. I figure if a NYT best-selling author steps up and volunteers to do something, maybe it will shame some of the people with ten times more time on their hands to actually contribute. And yes, I know I’m delusional.)


There was big news in the publishing world this week. After J.D. Salinger’s huge success with Catcher in the Rye, he apparently found he didn’t like all the attention and became a recluse. He’s known for not giving interviews, and he eventually stopped publishing his work. (I wonder if he stopped writing, or just stopped publishing, but that’s a different topic.) Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 and according to Wikipedia, Salinger hasn’t published an original work since 1965.

Now, a Swedish author named Fredrik Colting has written a book called 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye that features the main character from Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caufield, as an old man.

Salinger is suing to stop the publication of this unauthorized sequel, and last week a Second Circuit judge temporarily barred the publication of the novel, essentially saying for the first time that it’s possible to copyright a character from a single work, and she is expected to rule soon on whether Colting’s use of the character could constitute fair use. An excellent article in Publishers Weekly has more details and ends with this statement, which I find fascinating:

“Attorneys for Salinger argued forcefully … for the author’s right “not to publish… [Salinger has a right] to keep The Catcher in the Rye or Holden Caulfield frozen in time for the life of his copyright.” I’ll put a link to the whole Publishers Weekly article at behindthegrammar.com: http://cli.gs/0S9qJR

The legal system will determine what happens, but I can’t seem to decide how I feel about the case. One the one hand, I can see Salinger’s right to control a character of his own invention–Holden Caufield–but on the other hand, it seems heavy handed to not allow derivative works. It makes me think of Mysts of Avalon, which tells the story of King Arthur from the point of view of the female characters, Wicked, which tells the story of The Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West, and Grendel which does the same thing with a character from Beowulf. Are those books allowed simply because the stories are so old they’re out of copyright, or because nobody cared enough to sue over it? I’d hate to see that genre go away, but I still find myself feeling sympathetic to Salinger, and it seem as if there is something different about taking a minor character and writing a book around them versus essentially writing a sequel.

That makes me think of the book Scarlett, which is a sequel to Gone with the Wind, and as I started reading about it, that turned into an interesting and similar story. The author, Margaret Mitchell, is said to have refused to write a sequel, and after she died her brother became the owner of the copyright in something called the Stephen Mitchell Trusts. He refused to allow any sequels to be made to the book or the film, but apparently after HE died in 1991, whoever gained control of the estate allowed a sequel to be written.

Between 1991 and 2007 when the Scarlett book came out, the trust twice sued at least two times to prevent the publication of other sequels or derivative works. In 2000, the courts blocked the publication of a book called The Winds Done Gone, which tells the original story from the point of view of the slaves; but another court appears to have overturned that decision, and the book was ultimately published after the parties reached a settlement in which the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, apparently agreed to make a donation from the proceeds to Morehouse College, one of the historically African-American colleges in Atlanta to which the Mitchell family has long-standing ties.

Then, in 2002 the trust successfully blocked the publication of a book that was a direct sequel to Gone with the Wind. It was called The Winds of Tara and much like the Catcher in the Rye sequel, it follows the main character, Scarlett, after the end of the original book. I’m not certain, but it sounds as if that never went to trial, but instead the author or publisher just caved after being initially sued or threatened with a suit.

And, then I came across a similar case in which an Italian author named Pia Para tried to publish a sequel to Nabokov’s Lolita titled Lo’s Diary and Nabokov’s son tried to block publication. Those parties also settled and the book was published. So it seems this isn’t an uncommon problem.

Interestingly, although I tend to sympathize with the original authors, my husband is in favor of allowing people to publish sequels if the author doesn’t. He comes from a biotech background and has been awarded a few patents, and his rationale come from that experience. He says if you file a patent, you’re required to show that you’re working toward commercializing the product, and if you don’t, you can lose your patent. That the purpose of patent protection is to encourage commercialization, so he sees copyright the same way. The government is giving creators rights so that they will do something for the greater good with those rights. It should give the holders the right to exclusively “commercialize” their ideas, but if they fail to commercialize them or refuse to commercialize them essentially by refusing to write more books, he thinks they should lose that protection after some reasonable amount of time, say 10 or 20 years.

I disagree. I see a creative work like a novel or character as different from something like a heart valve, but I can’t exactly say why. With the heart valve idea you can make the argument that it’s in the public’s interest to have the product developed and if the patent holder isn’t going to, then someone else should be able to, and that’s different from a creative work. It’s not necessarily in the public interest to have a sequel to Gone with the Wind or Catcher in the Rye, but all kinds of things are patented that aren’t as useful as heart valves, so that argument kind of breaks down when you’re talking about the bendy straw or something like that. The public good from commercializing the bendy straw seems no greater or even less than that from a book sequel.

Anyway, it’s interesting stuff and I’ll be curious to see what happens with the Salinger case. Unlike the other cases I found, nobody seems to have the impression that Salinger is open to settling and since Catcher in the Rye supposedly still sells about 250,000 copies per year, he probably has the resources to fight it for a good, long time


Next, if you listened last week, you know that I commented that I thought it was weird that the Associated Press said the word “tweet” should be capitalized when it’s used as a verb. Well, they changed their mind! I’d love to say they heard my show and were swayed by my elegant argument, but it turns out it was just an error that slipped through their editing process. So, if you are writing that you posted a tweet, “tweet” is lowercase because it’s not derived from the company name.



Next. I’m having some struggles with the Grammar Girl podcast. I’m discouraged this week because the transcript was posted with a punctuation error and a typo. I rushed it out because I was waiting for a quote from the AP, so it was already a day late, but the bigger problem is that I spend hours every day answering grammar questions online and then I end up rushing my show out EVERY week.

I started the free daily e-mail newsletter with a grammar tip so I could answer one question every day and help more people by getting it to lots of people instead of answering lots of individual e-mails or messages on Twitter or Facebook. But it’s backfired because now I’m committed to writing that one tip every day AND the e-mail newsletter has caused many more people to send me questions. I don’t know what to do.

The logical answer is that I should stop answering so many individual questions, but that doesn’t feel right either. I can’t relax; these questions just hang over my head until I answer them. I see that people need help and I have to help them. The only way I’ve ever been able to get out from under it is when I don’t see the questions. I already have an assistant who intercepts some of my messages, but these days there are too many different ways for people to reach me. I don’t know what to do, but what I’m doing doesn’t seem sustainable.

I probably shouldn’t have started this podcast–it’s one more thing to do–but I really wanted to. I wanted to talk about all this interesting stuff I come across every week. What I need to do is resist the temptation to post a transcript like I do with Grammar Girl. That’s what takes so much time. If I hadn’t posted the transcript to the Grammar Girl podcast there wouldn’t have been punctuation errors to see, and there wouldn’t be typos to see. Having the script there helped grow that show, but I don’t need to grow this show. This is my fun show; this is my just-be-me-laid-back show. So in the future–no script. I shouldn’t have to have a script to laid back and be me anyway! I’m completely dependent on having a script, and that seems bad. I guess it really means I’m a writer at heart, but still. No script.


Next, my friend Scott Sigler has given me a discount code so you can get $3 off his new book, “The Rookie.” The story is set in a lethal pro football league 700 years in the future. Scott says it combines the intense gridiron action of “Any Given Sunday” with the space opera style of “Star Wars” and the criminal underworld of “The Godfather.” In it, aliens and humans play positions based on physiology, creating receivers that jump 25 feet into the air, linemen that bench-press 1,200 pounds, and linebackers that literally want to eat you. Organized crime runs every franchise, games are fixed and rival players are assassinated. The story of “The Rookie” follows Quentin Barnes, a 19-year-old quarterback prodigy who’s been raised all his life to hate, and kill, those aliens. He has to deal with his racism and learn to lead, or he’ll wind up just another stat in the column marked “killed on the field.”

So, go to scottsigler.com/therookie to get a signed, limited-edition copy of “The Rookie” from Scott Sigler. Only 3000 copies of this book have been printed. They have an embossed, hard cover with eight color plates inside. Scott’s last book was a New York Times bestseller, so these limited edition books are a neat deal, and you can get $3 off with code “grammar.” So again, that’s scottsigler.com/therookie, and then use the code “grammar.” I’ll have all that info on the Behind the Grammar website too.


Finally, For the time being and for the most part, I’m intentionally not using my existing networks to get the word out about this podcast. It’s essentially my hobby and a side project, and it’s not part of the Quick and Dirty Tips network, so I feel a little weird about using Grammar Girl or QDT to promote it, and it’s not really necessary because getting a big audience isn’t one of my top priorities for the show. Sort of.

But the experience has reminded me how difficult it is to launch a new podcast all by yourself. When we launch a new Quick and Dirty Tips show, it immediately has five to ten times the traffic I’ve been getting for this show. And, I think like most podcasters, there’s a part of me that is obsessed with stats, so although I say I don’t care about the traffic, I still find myself checking the stats and the iTunes rank at least a few times a day. My husband kids me that I’m not capable of having a hobby; that I turn every hobby I’ve ever had into a job. I’m fighting it, but I can also feel the lure of wanting to be successful. So with that said, if you enjoy the show, please leave a review at iTunes.

And remember the GoDaddy code if you need a domain name or website hosting. It will get you 10% off and throw me some change: POD115.

That’s all. Thanks for listening.

This entry was posted in BTG Podcast. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to 003BTG Is Fiction Better than Nonfiction?

  1. Amber says:

    You mentioned “Mist of Avalon!” That is my second favorite book, behind “The Bell Jar.” You, my friend, just made the Top 12 on my favorites.

  2. Steve Bell says:

    There are ghost-writers for fiction; they’re called editors. Tell Ralph to write up his novel, no matter how badly he thinks it’s expressed; perhaps get an advisor* like yourself to run over the grammar and spelling and maybe edit lightly for felicitous expression. Then have him find an editor (they do exist) to advise at a deeper level on plot structure etc.

    Editors play a larger role in much fiction than they’re generally given credit for.

    And as for fiction being more highly regarded than non-fiction; it may be part of a general move away from the rigidity** of science. Philosophers such as Richard Rorty suggest it’s now commonplace ofr people to look to literature rather than science as a guide to life. It’s all part of post-modern relativism 🙂 I’m not sure he’s right but it’s an interesting point of view.

    Steve B.

    *advisor/ adviser? I’ve worked with (newspaper) editors who insist vehemently on one or the other.

    **I find _id/_or pairs of words (torp_, squal_, stup_, liqu_, vap_…) fascinating. One wrinkle is that rigo[u]r is generally considered good but rigidity bad.

  3. Bethany says:

    I loved your discussion about copyright! I also want to encourage you to leave out the transcript. Doing a podcast and a transcript is like having a blog in addition to the podcast. No wonder it’s so much more work!

  4. Mignon says:

    Thanks, Steve.

    Here’s what I wrote about “advisor” and “adviser” in my forthcoming book:

    The short answer is that “advisor” and “adviser” are interchangeable. The long answer is that a few sources prefer “adviser” with an “e,” so it’s probably better to use that form; but don’t let anyone tell you “advisor” is wrong.

  5. Mignon says:

    A listener pointed me to a person who actually does ghost-write novels, so I’ll be passing that along to my 94-year-old friend! I do hope he achieves his dream and writes his novel (or writes it with someone).


  6. Tami says:

    I would love to ghost write for someone else. Keeps you from having to come up with all of the good stuff. 🙂

    Thank you for another great podcast!


  7. lucyanddutch says:

    I actually think fictions are superior! And don’t worry about the show notes/transcripts, I can always re-listen to your podcasts if I miss something.

  8. In my freelance editing work, I come across many opportunities to ghost-write novels. I usually succeed in transforming these ghost-writing clients into authors who then become my editing clients. Depending on the quality of the work, editing often comes very close to ghost-writing!

  9. Steph says:

    Well, in this comment, I’m going to address pretty much everything covered in the blog, mostly because I was listening to the podcast in bed about two minutes ago, trying to go to sleep, but this podcast was just so interesting and thought-provoking that I found myself having an opinion on every single thing you brought up! (Or, anyway, I had something to say about it, which is not always the same thing.) Be warned- I’ll go into a few tangents, and have plenty of brackets along the way. But since this is your fun podcast, I guess I get to be reasonably relaxed.

    I may as well do headings, though. Since this is going to be so long.


    With the ghost-writing thing, I know that Peter Lerangis, an author in his own right, practically does it for a living (he wrote like a million of the Baby-Sitter’s Club series), and Scott Westerfeld, the author of the Uglies trilogy, does it, too (you can find his ‘tell-all-without-getting-sued’ rant/explanation about it at scottwesterfeld.com). I think you’d just need to do a bit of networking to find a ghostwriter, and since you as GG have credence, I’m sure you’d get a response.

    My thoughts on ghostwriting? I personally would never do it, as I’m too credit-hungry.

    I, too, think that Ralph should try writing his novel himself. (Wow, that sentence had to be reworked a couple of times, and I’m sure I’ve still missed a comma!) I mean, at least he’s getting it all down, and he can edit it, or get someone else to edit or even co-write it later. I think he needs some more encouragement. After all, he’s not getting any younger!

    Don’t tell him I said that. But you can tell him I said hi, and that the worst thing would be for it to never get written than for it to be written what he perceives as ‘badly’.

    If he speaks well, but is worried about his writing ability, has he tried recording, or even dictating it? He could even write it in his first language instead of English!

    I feel sorry for you as a non-fiction writer. Until I heard this episode, I was of the fiction-is-better persuasion. But that’s probably just because I want to write fiction (speaking of which, I just have to say that I began my first JulNoWriMo today! Four hours later I had 1851 words, and a very sore back. Must remember to sit up straight.).

    After this, however, I’m going to do a Nick Carraway and reserve all judgement. Ha ha. Fancy-schmancy literary reference there.

    I think maybe people think this way about fiction because when you write it, you’re creating something completely out of your own mind. You make the rules, you design the characters, you control the events. And it’s up to you to make sure everything runs smoothly. Plus it’s easier to inject personality and expression into a work of fiction than into a non-fiction work, not to mention you can craft beautiful sentences and do things like word association in fiction. If, when writing about the pros and cons of different types of garden equipment, you started going off into flights of fancy about something like a garden hose, people would call you insane. Things can have multiple layers of meaning. For all these reasons, it’s easier for people to empathise with fiction rather than non-fiction.

    Non-fiction is very important, though. For one thing, it tells us how to write fiction! (Yes, that is the first thing I thought of. I guess I’m incurable.) For another, how are we supposed to bake that scrumptious carrot cake or find out the different types of aeroplanes if all we’ve got is stuff like: “Harry walked to the shore to find Linda crying as though her heart would break.” (Bad writing, but you get what I mean.)
    Interesting, yes. Useful? No.

    And fiction writers utilise non-fiction in their research all the time. So I guess you could say that non-fiction is the backbone of all writing. Which definitely makes it worth your while. As I said, I’m now reserving all judgement.

    Good on you for doing the HOA newsletter! (But remember that if it gets too much, you can always say no. And surely that will shame more people into doing it themselves!)


    I don’t blame JD Salinger one bit for suing, and I think he’ll win the case. Coming Through the Rye is nothing but fanfiction. If you read this: [http://www.whoosh.org/issue25/lee1.html#21] it says that if people are reading something because of the characters, it’s protectable. Salinger is well within his rights to sue, and I think he should.

    I haven’t read the book yet, but keeping Holden Caulfield ‘frozen in time’ is something I agree with, just as a matter of principle. I mean, do you want to wreck the magic by reading something that may not live up to what you’re hoping for? It’s like the time I began Collen McCullogh’s The Emancipation of Miss Mary Bennett, and was actually horrified when I realised that Darcy and Lizzy were having marriage problems.

    Far better for Colter to post it on fanfiction.net and publicise it. Publishing it in a book just makes it seem more ‘real’ somehow. And readers may not want that, especially since it’s not even written by the original author.

    The original author may not want his characters to be messed around with, as he does in this case. And since he’s written the book in the first place, surely that should count for something?

    I don’t see why they can’t make a law that states that derivative works are only allowed if the author agrees, and if they aren’t, that normal copyright law follows.

    “Are those books allowed simply because the stories are so old they’re out of copyright, or because nobody cared enough to sue over it? I’d hate to see that genre go away, but…it seems as if there is something different about taking a minor character and writing a book around them versus essentially writing a sequel.”

    I think it’s because the derivative works you mentioned based on a minor character bring a fresh perspective to a tale that belongs to everybody in general and nobody in particular. In the case of King Arthur and The Mysts of Avalon, it’s because, like most fairy-tales, the work is so old that nobody has a claim on it. The Wizard of Oz and Beowulf have faded into fairy-tales themselves (they have actual authors, but nobody thinks of them like that), so Wicked and Grendel are just seen as an extension of those tales.

    It’s not a matter of who cares, it’s just a matter of perspective. Holden Caufield, The Catcher in the Rye, and J.D. Salinger are all equally as famous as each other, and I believe (though I’m not absolutely sure) that what they stood for spoke a lot to people. Whereas more people will recognise The Wizard of Oz than they will L. Frank Baum, and the work doesn’t have as much meaning.

    The J.K. Rowling vs [insert name of the guy who wanted to publish a Harry Potter lexicon] case is also similar to this one.

    My opinion of Scarlett? Again, it’s a matter of perspective. Though I don’t think it did GWTW justice, I don’t mind it and I consider it the definitive sequel (though how that would matter to anyone else is beyond me). But GWTW is different to all the other books mentioned so far, because it’s still famous and the author is dead, but still very well-known. It’s more subject to disagreement.

    Blech. I have no idea what I’m trying to say here. Let me know if you get what I mean anyway, otherwise I’ll come back some other time and try to frame a more coherent response. (And that’s a threat.)

    With regard to what your husband says about creative works and patents, (oh, look! Now I’m getting formal!) in my opinion, a creative work is not the same as a patent. It isn’t really for the public good (unless you’re going into allegory, etc, but I’m trying to generalise here!) or for commercialisation (unless you’re talking about Mills & Boon, in which case, who cares?). It’s the author’s expression. Saying that the government ‘gives creators rights’ just sounds wrong to me on so many levels. They don’t have an obligation to produce something for the public good, anyway. It’s not about commercialisation.

    “…[the author of a work] should lose [the protection of the government] after some reasonable amount of time, say 10 or 20 years.” I can’t imagine anything more damaging to a writer’s soul than having the right to his or her characters taken away from them. There is no such thing as a reasonable amount of time whilst the author is still living. (Incidentally, in Grammar Girl, would you mind covering the difference between ‘while’ and ‘whilst’? I’m sure I’ve used that wrong.)


    If you’re being overwhelmed by questions for your daily e-mail, maybe you could get a couple of guest writers to help you, and only contribute once or twice a week. You could even make it a six day per week email instead.

    As regards the no-script thing, whatever floats your boat. It’s your podcast! (Let me just say that it’s awesome, very thought-provoking, and I fully intend to subscribe. I’ll write an iTunes review, too, but I’m not sure if you’ll get it, since I use iTunes Australia. This you would expect, being, as I am, Australian.)

    Looking forward to another podcast, but I won’t scream and flame you if you don’t do another one for a while.

  10. Hi, Grammar Girl.

    I felt that I needed to write to you regarding the Salinger question. I feel that the patent example your husband gave is not really analogous. A creative work has a human element that can’t be replicated, no matter how talented the person making the attempt. I can study TS Eliot’s writing style, influences, etc. my entire life, but I can never write The Waste Land II: Electric Boogaloo. That unnameable element that made TS Eliot unique died with him. Steven King’s son wrote a great thriller, which shared some characteristics with his father’s work, but I wouldn’t confuse the two, and that’s a good thing. Thus, I think Salinger should have the right to control the use of his characters.

  11. Hi Mignon,
    I am a big fan of GG and am delighted you have this Podcast as well. You asked for some thoughts on Ghostwriting and worrying about mistakes, so here are mine.

    1) Ghostwriting: See Carolyn Keene (Nancy Drew series). Most were written by a stable of writers, so, were Ghost Written in my book.
    2) Blacklisted Writers often Ghost Wrote scripts to get any work.
    3) Look in Writers Digest and see if they still carry ads for Ghost Writers. They used to.
    4) I do it now. I would also do it for Ralph, but only for an upfront fee, just like paying a proofreader for their work.

    And mistakes – worry not. You provide 99% ‘Excellent’ advice and that is way above average in any aspect in life. So, if a few ‘slips’ slip in, they just remind me to keep on my toes and THINK before taking all advice for ‘absolute truth’.
    I perform as Benjamin Franklin and William Shakespeare and if I mess up on a small detail, I just have more motivation to go get the right fact.
    You do great and important work. Thank you!

  12. Dear Mignon,
    Hello again. I wanted to post this specifically about what makes a writer a Writer.

    I have read that Writers can only be those that write Literature.
    I have read that Literature can only be fiction.

    Bah! Humbug!

    A Writer is one who writes. You qualify for that and, further, you are a writer of skill and merit. You are a writer who communicates efficiently and effectively both your message and your unique voice. You are a writer whose audience benefits significantly from your work. I say my writing, flawed as it is, would be even more flawed and less effective if I did not have your advice streaming to me several times a day.

    So congratulations, you have the approbation of someone who has written over 1,000 Elizabethan Sonnets, a Shakespearean style 5-Act play, an educator and one who performs as one of the premier American writers – Benjamin Franklin.
    Like that will get you a cup of free coffee anywhere*.

    Thank you and Go! Go! Grammar Girl!

    (*Actually, if I ever make it to a book signing, it will, for I shall be happy to buy you a cup!)
    Most sincerely,
    Your happy listener, Robin

  13. Shauna says:

    I have a similar situation with my fiction writing, I tell people that I’ve written a novel but still there’s push coming from all directions to go into journalism. Every fiction writer I’ve talked to find non-fiction writing boring, with fiction we get to create a whole new world and people. If we can do that why would we write about what actually happens in this world?

    Non-writers don’t understand how the writing process works and how different fiction works both my parents are huge readers so they think they have some sort of insight, making them even more stubborn in their opinion that all writing is the same.

  14. Mark P says:

    I always got the opposite impression about fiction vs. non-fiction. I’ve heard more people sniff, saying “I don’t read fiction.” I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say the opposite with similar arrogance.

Comments are closed.