The Sunday Salon: What Makes Fiction, Fiction, and Nonfiction, Nonfiction?

Earlier this afternoon I took cover from intermittent showers (it’s true I might have melted) at my local library and checked out a Texas literary classic, John Graves’s Goodbye to a River, an account of a trip down the Brazos River.

The book is subtitled “A Narrative” as if it defies either being fiction or nonfiction. In the front matter is a note from Graves, a caveat of sorts:

Though this is not a book of fiction, it has some fictionalizing in it. Its facts are factual and the things it says happened did happen. But I have not scrupled to dramatize historical matter and thereby to shape its emphases as I see them, or occasionally to change living names and transpose existing places and garble contemporary incidents. Some of the characters, including at times the one I call myself, are composite. People are people, and if you put some of them down the way they are, they likely wouldn’t be happy. I don’t blame them. Nevertheless, even those parts are true in a fictional sense. As true as I could make them.

This note made me wonder if this book, originally published in 1959, would fly as nonfiction today, given some of the unscrupulous (and you know who you are, or maybe you don’t and that’s the real problem) reportage being passed off as memoir and other forms of nonfiction in recent years.

What makes a book nonfiction? What makes it fiction? Obviously some books are clearly fiction. The best-selling Da Vinci Code is clearly fiction (and not so great fiction, either). But often novelists blur fiction with reality — I’m thinking at the moment of the note in Hemingway’s (and Hemingway notoriously blurred fictive lines) novel To have and Have Not:

In view of a recent tendency to identify characters in fiction with real people, it seems proper to state that there are no real people in this volume: both the characters and their names are fictitious. If the name of any living person has been used, the use was purely accidental.

In one form or another, you see a similar caveat in many novels today. A just-in-case that might prevent a hurt figure from suing for libel.

But what is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood? Capote called it a nonfiction novel. It’s not fiction. It recounts the true story of multiple murders in Holcomb, Kansas. But is it nonfiction? Are, for that matter, the essays of Ian Frazier collected in Coyote V. Acme? The title essay is written as a legal brief concerning the lawsuit of Wile E. Coyote v. the Acme Company. (It is one of the funniest pieces of writing I’ve ever read.)


2 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: What Makes Fiction, Fiction, and Nonfiction, Nonfiction?

  1. That’s like, the ultimate question isn’t it? Given that description, I don’t know if I’d call Goodbye to a River nonfiction, necessarily, but it’s hard to say without reading it.

    The issue with fiction versus nonfiction to me, is an issue with trust for the reader. Readers don’t like to be duped, so if you tell them something is true then it ought to be true and other people involved with the incident ought to believe your telling of it is true, or at least as accurate and honest as possible.

    • It’s a hard question to answer. Obviously we want straight journalism to be factual, although magazines often used to use composite characters. I don’t know how often that is practiced any more, if at all.

      As far as Goodbye to a River goes, the narrative so far (I’m only a few chapters in) is primarily about the trip, and few people are involved. Most of it is Graves reflecting on the history of Texas, as he travels down the river. In particular he reflects on mid-18th century history and stories of Comanches, which are often recollections of early settlers or of Native Americans.

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