“Is your novel fiction, or did any of it really happen?”
I’ve started doing readings of my new novel, A Sister to Honor, and sure enough, the question came from one of the attentive listeners waiting in line to buy a signed copy. I can’t blame her for her confusion. I’d like to blame Truman Capote, who came up with the term nonfiction novel to describe his new-journalism book In Cold Blood:
It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the “nonfiction novel,” as I thought of it. … 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.
Needless to say, Capote’s definition runs counter to what you’ll still find, almost 50 years after that interview, in most definitions of the term, including that of my colleague Ben Yagoda, who wrote of the confusion he discovered among his students trying to distinguish between novels and books.
That confusion hasn’t been cleared up any by the emergence of the often autobiographical graphic novel—which fits neither the old-fashioned definition of a risqué tale to which the moniker graphic novel once applied nor the description of an autobiographical novel, but is rather an autobiography or memoir in comics form. Amazon files comics-style “Biographies and History” under the umbrella “Graphic Novels.”
Nor has the trend of streaming short stories to create “novels in stories” helped much, since many readers will now consider any book comprising made-up narratives (short stories, short plays) to be a novel. And then if you throw in the nonfiction novel, and the graphic novel … well, you can see where the reader in the line starts getting her question.
What I would like to have told her is that the word came from the Italian word for “new,” because the novel in its early period was meant to be something new, and in its way it’s always looking to push the baggy envelope of a form whose rules have never been nailed down so tightly as those of verse or drama. That’s what makes the novel so daunting to attempt: not just length or characters or multiple story lines, but the inherent imperfection of a form whose Platonic ideal has yet to be limned. Though many European languages retain something of the earlier word, romance, in their term for the novel, Hawthorne famously distinguished between the two in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables:
When a writer calls his work a romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former … has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.
Hawthorne’s distinction is lost, needless to say, on contemporary bloggers like MyReadersPress.com, which opines:
There is a difference between a novel and a book. Physically, they look the same, but inside they are different. A novel is a collection of many ideas, stories, characters and fantasies, bound together with the writer’s imagination to become a novel. It is always a fiction novel. While a book is like a novel, a book has many pictures or images inside the pages. It has been written for fiction or non-fiction ideas. . . . A book could be a dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, atlas, science textbook, calculus textbook, algebra textbook, etc., while a novel is composed only of one aspect: romance. Many books are not a novel itself, but a novel is also described as a book for everyone. . . . A novel . . . has only one meaning, and that is the story of how love begins and ends in a very special event.
Oh dear. One hates to think where, say, War and Peace or Cloud Atlas should be shelved now.
But I suppose, if we have the effrontery to name a literary form “the new,” we should expect kaleidoscopic definitions over the centuries. And let’s not even start on the questions that follow, like What kind of novelist are you? What genre is this novel?
I am so delighted that this person came to hear me read. I am so happy that she’s buying a book. I smile. I tell her I made up everything that happens in the book, but it’s all become real to me, and I hope it will for her, too.
N.B. The title of this post is a play on Robert Creeley’s similarly titled poem, taken also from a question posed to him by a listener.