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Hold Up — Medium’s Top Story Is Fiction?

Should the platform and/or its writers designate between the fictional and the real?

Kelli Marshall
Aug 1, 2015 · 2 min read

Today, Rafael Zoehler’s “When I’m Gone” is Medium’s Top Story. The 2,000-word narrative about death, growing up, and parenthood is both engaging and touching. And from the point of view of a (lowly) professor with two degrees in English, it is well written.

For example, Zoehler takes his time fleshing out details: recounting his childhood, that box of letters, an intense fight with his mother, his father’s death at the far-too-young age of 27. The author also maintains a clear theme throughout — the effects of love and loss—but it’s not overly preachy. In other words, he doesn’t explicitly tell us the moral of the story.

What’s more, the characters in “When I’m Gone” are relatable: a young father who loves his son, an awkward teenager who misses his father, a mother who fails in romantic relationships, a sick old man who holds his memories dear. Along with Zoehler’s easy-to-read tone and first-person narrative structure, each of these elements contributes to the telling of a good story.

But here’s the thing: “When I’m Gone” is fiction.

At least that’s what Zoehler writes on his Twitter feed. In fact, the author — i.e., the dying old man in the story — is apparently 28 years old.

By itself, this is not a problem. Indeed, 28-year-old people pen engaging stories all the time. But when a first-person narrative such as “When I’m Gone” is not labeled clearly as fiction — as it would be in a bookstore, in an anthology of short stories, or in an online writing journal — do we now have a problem?

To date, “When I’m Gone” has been recommended over 2,500 times. I’m guessing the pageviews are also extraordinarily high. This is fantastic for Rafael Zoehler (and Medium, I guess?). But I wonder how many people who’ve read the story — and who’ve authored their own heartfelt responses in turn (see bottom of page) — know it’s a work of fiction.

On a network like Medium, in which nonfiction appears to be the dominant form of storytelling, should we have some sort of designation, other than tags, so that readers are not unintentionally misled into thinking something is real when it’s not? Or does this even matter — when we’re considering art and its effects on humanity?

N.B. To be clear, I am NOT saying the author of “When I’m Gone” deliberately tried to deceive readers by not labeling his story as fiction, nor am I saying the story doesn’t deserves thousands of reads (on the contrary!). I’m simply asking questions about the classification of fiction and nonfiction on Medium, two genres with which most readers engage very differently.

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