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The non-fiction novel is a literary genre which, broadly speaking, depicts real historical figures and actual events woven together with fictitious conversations and using the storytelling techniques of fiction. The non-fiction novel is an otherwise loosely defined and flexible genre. The genre is sometimes referred to using the slang term faction, a portmanteau of the words fact and fiction.
In modern literature, it is commonly thought[who?] that this genre was formally established with the 1965 publication of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. That the genre was widely recognized in 1965 is undeniable, but influences on the genre can be traced much earlier.
Works of history or biography have often used the narrative devices of fiction to depict real-world events. Scholars have suggested that Operación Masacre (1957) by Argentine author and journalist Rodolfo Walsh was the first non-fiction novel.
Capote's In Cold Blood
Truman Capote was one of the first authors who was recognized for nonfiction novel writing. Capote read the story of the Clutter murders in a newspaper and was immediately hooked. He used the events surrounding the crime as a basis for In Cold Blood. He spent years tracking the story and spent considerable time with the people involved. He watched hours of film footage, listened to recordings, and read transcripts and notes. He once claimed that everything within the book would be true, word for word. Although this is impossible, the majority of information is accurate and extremely detailed. Capote was able to interview the murderers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. This meant that he was able to establish their characters, making the details within the book extremely accurate. The way in which the book is written objectively means that Capote has little influence over the granular facts of the case. The creative choices he can make are those of tone, tenor. He can modulate the readers' sympathy toward the subjects, the killers.
Capote argued that the non-fiction novel should be devoid of first-person narration and, ideally, free of any mention of the novelist. After the publication of In Cold Blood, many authors tested the form's "original" concept; notably including Hunter S. Thompson (1966's Hell's Angels), Norman Mailer (1968's Armies of the Night) and Tom Wolfe (1968's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test).
20th century examples
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Another example of faction is the book According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge. This book describes the last few years of Samuel Johnson's life as seen through the eyes of Queeney Thrale, eldest daughter of Henry Thrale and Hester Thrale.
In Tom Wolfe's school of New Journalism (often characterized as an invention of the mid-sixties), the novel is hybridized with journalistic narration, which, like Capote's prose, places little emphasis on the process of narration (though Wolfe, unlike Capote, occasionally narrates from first-person). Thompson's approach of "Gonzo Journalism" abandoned Capote's narrative style to intermingle personal experiences and observations with more traditional journalism.
Other examples include the story of author Alex Haley and his entire family history for 9 generations in the book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, and The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer.
In the 1970s, authors began to re-publish essays or articles by uniting episodic works into a more cohesive whole, such as Michael Herr's non-fiction novel, Dispatches, which reflected on the journalist's reporting from Vietnam.
Since the '70s, the non-fiction novel has somewhat fallen out of favor. However, forms such as the extended essay, the memoir, and the biography (and autobiography) can explore similar territory: Joan Didion, for instance, has never called her own work a "non-fiction novel," while she has been repeatedly credited for doing so with what she generally calls "extended" or "long" essays.
Later works classified as non-fiction novels include The Mystery of Beautiful Nell Cropsey: A Nonfiction Novel by Bland Simpson, published in 1993, which tells the dramatic story of the disappearance of nineteen-year-old Nell Cropsey from her riverside home in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in November 1901. A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr, published in 1996, described the drama caused by a real-life water contamination scandal in Massachusetts in the 1980s. And In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, fictionalized the lives of the Mirabal sisters who gave their lives fighting a dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, based on their accounts.
Norman Mailer's Pulitzer Prize-winning Armies of the Night is perhaps the most critically appreciated non-fiction novel, a narrative which is split into a history and a novel, and which autobiographically recounts the March on the Pentagon in 1967 from the third person.
I Married Wyatt Earp
After her husband Wyatt Earp's death, Josephine Earp sought to get her own life story published. When she refused to be more forthcoming about details of her life in Tombstone, her collaborators gave up and Josephine asked them to burn all the copies. Wyatt's cousins Mabel Earp Carson held back a copy, which amateur historian Glen Boyer eventually acquired the rights to.
The University of Arizona Press published it in 1967 as a memoir I Married Wyatt Earp giving Josephine Earp credit as the author. In the book's epilogue, Boyer said he integrated two sources, Josephine's and a second, the so-called "Clum manuscript", which he said had been written by The Tombstone Epitaph publisher John Clum based on conversations with Josephine.
In the 1980s, critics began to question his sources and methods. When Boyer could not prove the existence of the Clum manuscript, he equivocated, saying that he did not receive the Clum manuscript from Colyn after all, instead it was given to him by one of Earp's nieces. Then he changed his story further, saying, "the Clum manuscript is a generic term," Boyer told Wildcat student-reporter Ryan Gabrielson. "This-in addition (to other source materials)-was supported by literally hundreds, maybe thousands of letters and documents."
When confronted with allegations that his book was a hoax, Boyer said he had been misunderstood. "My work is beginning to be recognized by all but a few fanatics and their puppets as a classic example of the newly recognized genre 'creative non-fiction.'" In March 2000 the University of Arizona Press removed the book from their catalog.
- Waisbord, Silvio (2000). Watchdog Journalism in South America: News, Accountability, and Democracy. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 282 pages. ISBN 0-231-11975-5.
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