Oh, what a tangled web we weave when…we bastardize the language to soothe our own egos. I am sick and tired of hearing people refer to “fiction novel” and “nonfiction novel.”
I am grateful that the folks who create the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary have still not succumbed to this idiocy. MW clearly defines a novel as “an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events” and fiction as “something invented by the imagination or feigned; specifically : an invented story.”
But then there are those who insist on muddying the waters, notably the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, which has yielded to the 40-year-old silliness of the “nonfiction novel” by defining it as “A factual or historical narrative written in the form of a novel.” AHD even uses Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood as an example (more on that in a moment).
And we mustn’t forget the once prestigious Encyclopedia Brittanica that, in its online edition, calls a “nonfiction novel” a “story of actual people and actual events told with the dramatic techniques of a novel.”
The genesis of the term “nonfiction novel” is usually credited to Truman Capote, he of the towering ego pandered to by the fawning liberal elites. In a 1966 interview in the New York Times, Capote insisted he invented the “nonfiction novel” with — you guessed it — In Cold Blood. He claimed this new genre consisted of creative, narrative reporting. Then why not just refer to it as narrative reporting (which it is)? Because, in my opinion, Capote’s ego demanded he invent something new to help bolster his literary status.
Thus, the “nonfiction novel,” which is an oxymoron. In the 1966 NYT interview, Capote says:
The nonfiction novel should not be confused with the documentary novel–a popular and interesting but impure genre, which allows all the latitude of the fiction writer, but usually contains neither the persuasiveness of fact nor the poetic attitude fiction is capable of reaching. The author lets his imagination run riot over the facts! If I sound querulous or arrogant about this, it’s not only that I have to protect my child, but that I truly don’t believe anything like it exists in the history of journalism.
I have no particular quarrel with Capote’s (or anyone else’s, for that matter) use of fictional techniques in nonfiction writing. In fact, I think the best of nonfiction reads like a well-done narrative novel. However, Capote’s insistence on defining a new genre — the “nonfiction novel” — sounds much like the equally muddy waters Hollywood all-too-often dives into with “documdramas” and movies “based on actual events.”
And let’s not forget the truth-be-damned, invented stories of far too many memoirists.
I think it is dishonest, misleading, and disingenuous to call anything a “nonfiction novel,” regardless of the American Heritage Dictionary or the Encyclopedia Brittanica.
What’s your opinion? Mine is, of course:
Damitall, a novel is fiction.