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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Nonfiction Novel

     Time Magazine's all-time best nonfiction list--a selection so politically correct it's virtually useless as a reading guide--contains just two books about murder. Both works, Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood can be found under the subcategory "Nonfiction Novels."  This begs the question: how can a novel, a work of fiction, be a work of nonfiction? Isn't the term "nonfiction novel" a contradiction?

     Al Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective in charge of the 1959 Clutter family murder, the Holcomb, Kansas mass killing upon which In Cold Blood is based, told my friend and colleague, Dr. John Kelly at the University of Delaware, that Capote's account is more fiction than fact. According to Dewey, Capote altered the story's chronology, created composite characters, and invented scenes and dialogue. While Capote based his book on the Clutter case, he intended it as a novel, and that was how it was published. So what is this book doing on Time Magazine's nonfiction list? Perhaps the list's compilers, unfamiliar with the true crime genre, had to include a couple of crime books by well-known novelists. At any rate, just how much liberty can a nonfiction writer take before his book slips into the fiction genre? This is a debate that has gone on for decades.

     Doris Ricker Marston, in A Guide to Writing History, defines what is alternatively referred to as narrative nonfiction, creative nonfiction, literary journalism and the new journalism as: "...a dramatic presentation of true reporting. There are real characters moving as they actually did in the events that actually took place, and with action dramatically presented."

     Book-length practitioners of this genre include Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joseph Wambaugh and Tom Wolfe. While Truman Capote claimed to have invented the "nonfiction novel," as Anthony Arthur points out in his book, Literary Feuds, others before him--Thomas Carlyle, Lytton Stachey, John Hersey, Alan Moorehead, Shelby Foote and Ernest Hemingway--had applied novelistic techniques to nonfiction. In his introductory essay to New Journalism, an anthology of narrative nonfiction work, Tom Wolfe predicted that literary nonfiction would replace "the novel as the number one literary genre, starting the first new direction in American letters in half a century." While the genre has gained respect and now outstrips the literary novel in the marketplace, it has not dethroned its fictional counterpart as a form of literary art.

     The following quotes about literary nonfiction are from professional authors who write in the genre:

Creative nonfiction requires the skills of the storyteller and the research ability of the conscientious reporter. Writers of creative nonfiction must become instant authorities on the subjects of their articles or books. They must not only understand the facts and report them using quotes from authorities, they must also see beyond them to discover their underlying meaning, and they must dramatize that meaning in an interesting, evocative, informative way--just as a good teacher does.
Theodore A. Rees Cheney

Some people criticize nonfiction writers for "appropriating" the techniques and devices of fiction writing. These techniques, except for invention of characters and detail, never belonged to fiction. They belong to storytelling.
Tracy Kidder

Creative nonfiction demands spontaneity and an imaginative approach, while remaining true to the validity and integrity of the information it contains. That is why the creative nonfiction form is so appealing to people with new ideas or fresh interpretations of accepted concepts in history, science, or the arts; people with an intellectual curiosity about the world around us or a fresh viewpoint or approach.
Lee Gutkind

Story-driven nonfiction is extraordinarily successful, and there's a huge market for it now. I think it's partly because when you publish a nonfiction book, especially one that's story driven as opposed to didactic or scholarly, you can target the market in an easier way.
Charlie Conrad

Creative nonfiction is frequently about people. We're all curious about how other people live, what they do, and how they think.
Rita Berman

...for the nonfiction-novel form to be entirely successful, the author should not appear in the work.
Truman Capote

I certainly always use novelistic techniques, but I also felt that the boundaries between fact and fiction should never be blurred.
Tom Wolfe

The line between truth and fiction has become so blurred that the public no longer knows what to expect.
Jack Olsen

I very often will have The Orchid Thief [a nonfiction book] referred to as a novel, and it drives me crazy.
Susan Orlean

    

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