The non-fiction novel is a literary genre which, broadly speaking, depicts real historical figures and actual events woven together with fictitious conversations and uses 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.
The genre goes back at least as far as André Breton's Nadja (1928) and several books by the Czech writer Vítězslav Nezval, such as Ulice Git-le-coeur (1936). One of the early English books in the genre is Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941). Jim Bishop's The Glass Crutch (1945) was advertised as "one of the most unusual best-sellers ever published—a non-fiction novel." Perhaps the most influential nonfiction novel of the twentieth century was John Hersey's Hiroshima (1946). Scholar David Schmid writes that "many American writers during the post-World War II period, including Didion, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer, [chose] to follow Hersey’s lead."
In The New York Times, Herbert Mitgang referred to Paul Goodman's Making Do (1963) as falling into "the category [that] is that growing one which might be called the nonfiction novel." The next year, he applied the term to Leon Uris's Armageddon (1964).
Early influences on the genre can be traced to books such as Ka-tzetnik 135633's (Yehiel Dinur) novellas Salamdra (1946) and House of Dolls (1953), Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart (1946), and John Dos Passos's USA trilogy (1930–36). House of Dolls describes the journey of the young Daniella Parleshnik during the Holocaust, as she becomes part of the "Joy Division," a Nazi system keeping Jewish women as sex slaves in concentration camps. The book's plot was inspired by the Dinur's experience from the Holocaust and his younger sister, who did not survive the Holocaust.
Works of history or biography have often used the narrative devices of fiction to depict real-world events. Scholars have suggested that the novel Operación Masacre (1957) by the Argentine author and journalist Rodolfo Walsh was the first non-fiction novel in Spanish.
Walsh's Operación Masacre ("Operation Massacre")
Operación Masacre (1957) details the José León Suárez massacre, which involved the 1956 capture and shooting of Peronist militants, including the rebel leader Juan José Valle. These events followed a 1955 military coup, known as the Revolución Libertadora, which deposed the Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón and eventually brought the hard-line general Pedro Eugenio Aramburu to power.
Capote's In Cold Blood
Truman Capote later adopted the genre. He argued that the non-fiction novel should be devoid of first-person narration and, ideally, free of any mention of the novelist. He was immediately intrigued after reading the story of the Clutter murders in The New York Times, and used the events surrounding the crime as a basis for In Cold Blood (1965). He spent years tracking the story, spent considerable time with the people involved, 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. To gather details, Capote interviewed the murderers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. But Ben Yagoda notes that "almost from the start, skeptics challenged the accuracy of In Cold Blood. One early revelation (acknowledged by Capote before his death in 1984) was that the last scene in the book, a graveyard conversation between a detective and the murdered girl’s best friend, was pure invention."
In his review of the book in The American Scholar, Robert Langbaum wrote, "Once we look at structure, we find many nonfiction works as artful and sometimes more artful than many novels. Northrop Frye has, in his influential Anatomy of Criticism, gone so far as to apply the word fiction to any 'work of art in prose.' ... By taking [Capote] at his word and comparing his book to a novel, we can both appreciate his achievement and see its limits. For its best effects are novelistic and it falls short just where it is not novelistic enough."
Other 20th-century examples
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Other examples of the form are:
- The Armies of the Night (1968), Norman Mailer's Pulitzer Prize-winner and perhaps the most critically appreciated non-fiction novel, is a narrative which is split into a history and a novel, and which autobiographically recounts the 1967 March on the Pentagon in the third person. Later, he wrote The Executioner's Song (1979).
- Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976) by Alex Haley, which relates the story of the author and his family history for nine generations
- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994) by John Berendt
- According to Queeney (2001) by Beryl Bainbridge, which describes the last few years of Samuel Johnson's life as seen through the eyes of Queeney Thrale, the eldest daughter of Henry Thrale and Hester Thrale.
Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) was an example of the school of New Journalism (often characterized as an invention of the mid-1960s), the novel is hybridized with journalistic narration, which, like Capote's prose, places little emphasis on the process of narration (although Wolfe, unlike Capote, occasionally narrates from first-person).
Hunter S. Thompson's approach of "Gonzo Journalism" (in books like Hell's Angels (1966)) abandoned Capote's narrative style to intermingle personal experiences and observations with more traditional journalism.
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 (1977), which reflects on the journalist's reporting from Vietnam.
Since the 1970s, the non-fiction novel has somewhat fallen out of favor. However, forms such as the extended essay, the memoir, and the biography (and autobiography), as well as autofiction, can explore similar territory. Joan Didion, for instance, has never called her own work a "non-fiction novel", while she has been repeatedly credited[by whom?] for doing so with what she generally calls "extended" or "long" essays.
A Tomb for Boris Davidovich
A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (Serbo-Croatian: Grobnica za Borisa Davidoviča / Гробница за Бориса Давидовича) is a collection of seven short stories by Danilo Kiš published in 1976 (and translated into English by Duska Mikic-Mitchell in 1978). The stories are based on historical events and deal with themes of political deception, betrayal, and murder in Eastern Europe during the first half of the 20th century (except for "Dogs and Books", which takes place in 14th century France). Several of the stories are written as fictional biographies wherein the main characters interact with historical figures. The Dalkey Archive Press edition includes an introduction by Joseph Brodsky and an afterword by William T. Vollmann. Harold Bloom includes A Tomb for Boris Davidovich in his list of canonical works of the period he names the Chaotic Age (1900–present) in The Western Canon. The book is featured in Penguin's series "Writers from the Other Europe" from the 1970s, edited by Philip Roth.
Later works classified as non-fiction novels include The Mystery of Beautiful Nell Cropsey: A Nonfiction Novel (1993) by Bland Simpson, which tells the dramatic story of the disappearance of 19-year-old Nell Cropsey from her riverside home in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in November 1901; In the Time of the Butterflies (1995) by Julia Alvarez, which fictionalizes the lives of the Mirabal sisters who gave their lives fighting a dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, based on their accounts; and A Civil Action (1996) by Jonathan Harr, which describes the drama caused by a real-life water contamination scandal in Massachusetts in the 1980s.
Homer Hickam, author of Rocket Boys (1998) and other well-known memoirs, has described his work as novel-memoirs or "novoirs", wherein he uses novelistic techniques, including fictional conversations, to allow the essential truth of his stories to be revealed.
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, to which amateur historian Glen Boyer eventually acquired the rights.
The University of Arizona Press published it in 1976 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.
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