Fact, Fiction And Memoirs Masquerading As Novels
April 23, 2003 9:14 PM   Subscribe

Is It Fiction If It Says "Fiction" On The Cover? Jorge Luis Borges brilliantly obscured fact and fiction presenting fiction as fact. Things seem to have swung round 180º and fact is now increasingly being sold as fiction. This certainly seems to be the case with Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved. She's Paul Auster's second wife and... Well... now even critics, like The New York Observer's Joe Hagan have joined the fun, as Slate's Katie Roiphe duly noted. Fact is now presented as fiction, without the traditional disguise of the roman à clef. I think it's sad. In fact, it's an attempt on the life of imagination itself. Perhaps these authors who write memoirs masquerading as novels could be sued under the Trade Description Act? [With thanks to the always excellent Literary Salon weblog. Thanks to ColdChef for pointing it out to me.]
posted by MiguelCardoso (28 comments total)
Is It Fiction If It Says "Fiction" On The Cover?

You can't judge a book by its cover.
posted by banished at 9:41 PM on April 23, 2003

What's the Trade Description Act and what country does it apply to?
posted by nyxxxx at 9:42 PM on April 23, 2003

Why do you think it matters, Miguel? Doesn't the form in which one chooses to write have more to do with one's purpose and intent in writing than with the specific origins of one's plot/characters/themes/whathaveyou? After all, everything is recycled from somewhere. Please explain the nature of your objection.
posted by rushmc at 9:47 PM on April 23, 2003

(I guess what I'm saying is it's ALL fiction.)
posted by rushmc at 9:50 PM on April 23, 2003

Rushmc: Fiction should be an act of invention and imagination. Unconscious influences apart, it should all be made up in one's head. I know you hate labels and classifications of any kind - good writing is good writing - but there are many literary categories and they should be respected.

The climate changed so much in the 20th Century, as more and more novelists used greater and greater chunks of their own experience, that I fear it's now reached the bottom. It's very boring, in interviews and such, to be repeatedly asked who character X "really" is and what episode Y is "based" on. The truth is there is a panoply of formats in prose, no less rigorous than in prose.

I guess I can't stand these new so-called novelists who, if pressed to actually invent a story with invented characters, probably couldn't come up with anything worth reading. I like to know if something is true (a rendition of percieved truth or direct experience, whatever) or not.

If it's all fiction or nonfiction, then why bother at all? It seems a great loss to me, this confusion. Will fiction proper be used only for SF, Fantasy and detective novels? Ugh!

Sorry, nyxxxx: it's a UK law, passed in 1968, the purpose of which is "to prohibit midescriptions of goods, services and accomodation; to prohibit false indications as the price of goods and to require information to be published about advertised goods."

I'll keep quiet now - butting in on one's own threads is a very bad habit!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:03 PM on April 23, 2003

no less rigorous than in poetry, I meant.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:03 PM on April 23, 2003

but there are many literary categories and they should be respected

Otherwise Borders has no way of arranging their books.

Seriously, I see where you're coming from, but I just don't think that fiction is as dominated by "personal influence based fiction" as you do. We're probably just aware of different things, but the fiction I read (and it's outside of SF/fantasy/etc) is fairly creative and imaginative. And the fact is fairly obviously noted to be fact, or fact-based if that's the case.
posted by dogwalker at 10:11 PM on April 23, 2003

Been trolling Bookfilter for material again, have we Miguel? (just pointing out the other Borges discussion, in all seriousness...)
posted by kaibutsu at 10:16 PM on April 23, 2003

If it's all fiction or nonfiction, then why bother at all? It seems a great loss to me, this confusion. Will fiction proper be used only for SF, Fantasy and detective novels? Ugh!

So what happens when you have an author who wants to tell a true story, but thinks that, like many true stories, a few changes to the pacing or plotting would help it out enormously? Given present criteria for non-fiction, that author would be treated very harshly if his embellishments were found out. There was an essay/ short story called "My Fake Job" where exactly this happened in its aftermath: the author decided not to include information on a safety net he had in place, and changed the order of events a bit to improve the narrative. When this was found out, the author was discredited, and the magazine that carried the story was left in kind of a huff. As it is, "non-fiction" is a (rightly, I think) very narrowly defined category, designed to keep people from being intentionally mislead, whereas in the fiction category, pretty much anything goes. Really, should we put stylistic limits on how near or far a person is to wander from the "real world?"
posted by kaibutsu at 10:26 PM on April 23, 2003

it should all be made up in one's head

Um, well, maybe.

Fictive prose is a pretty resilient medium, and I think it's survived well the occasional flirtation with the historical record. Would you rather that the work had been published as non-fiction? With all the author's interpolations and fortifications presented as bare fact? Ever made sense of an event in a truly personal, skewed way? Ever told a story that was better when slightly embellished?

Maybe I'm a little pissed off myself, but with the oft-espoused notion (most oft-espoused by the sci-fi crowd) that the highest fiction works are those that have no truck with the boring, quotidian world. I think there are plenty of true stories that could benefit immensely from the heightening power of the novelistic imagination. I'd rather read any of those than another disassociated fever-dream whose only purpose is to be removed from the world outside it.
posted by uhnyuftz at 10:51 PM on April 23, 2003

so what is the greatest-selling book of all time--the bible? ficition, or nonfiction? discuss.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 11:00 PM on April 23, 2003

How can you still be preoccupied with the idea of a hard boundary between fiction and fact in this post-post-modernism, post-metafiction, post-CNN, post-Spike Jonze world? There's good writing and bad writing, that's all.

The Slate piece is impressively stupid. Literary criticism has always been primarily about gossip. People are still following the timeworn tradition of earning their English Lit. PhDs by linking minor details of an author's fiction writing to minor details of his life, or for an honors thesis, to his meticulously uncovered secret homosexual trysts (although the demands of "theory" now require them to invest this gossip with much greater social significance).

The real trend is that the publishing industry has discovered that books are much easier to sell if they have a good back story. The days when authors hid behind their words are gone, replaced by the Eggers-Wurtzel Axis of Exhibitionism.
posted by fuzz at 1:59 AM on April 24, 2003

Ever since Whitley Strieber's Communion: A True Story I've decided that fiction and nonfiction are nothing more than marketing niches: They have no basis in objective reality.
posted by alumshubby at 4:07 AM on April 24, 2003

so what is the greatest-selling book of all time--the bible? fiction, or nonfiction? discuss.

An anthology, including fiction, poetry, legal scholarship, and historical essays/reporting. So both. Sort of. Also depends on the reader's beliefs, natch.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 6:43 AM on April 24, 2003

How is this not a manipulative roman a clef? The author has succeeded in firing up the gossip mill:

In an exercise of surprisingly thorough prurience, a New York Observer writer has pored over the novel with a yellow highlighter and a stack of old New York Posts: "Even the years closely coincide: Bill and Lucille"—the book's protagonists—"got married and have a son in the mid-70's."

Presumably this is what she wanted. "Literature" is often sordid. Then again, "write what you know," heh.

But I haven't read the book, so maybe I should not comment? Anyone read it? Recommendations?

I always appreciate more Bookfilter here, Miguel, but sometimes I think the interjection of clearly personal opinion ("I think it's sad") in your FPPs is questionable form. You're free to disagree, of course.
posted by Shane at 6:53 AM on April 24, 2003

I don't see the problem, either. Fiction has always been influenced by real life events, and I don't see Hustvedt's use of real events as a threat to the countless novels out there that aren't directly influenced by actual events.

But then, how do you know what influenes an author? How do you know that Hustvedt's novel is based on facts? Because you read about it in a newspaper? How can you be certain beyond the claim of the author that any memoir is even remotely factual? Even supposedly true events are always presented through the filter of the author, photographer, etc.
posted by drobot at 7:13 AM on April 24, 2003

Pynchon, from the introduction to Slow Learner: "Displacing my personal experience off into other environments went back at least as far as 'The Small Rain.' Part of this was an unkind impatience with fiction I felt then to be 'too autobiographical.' Somewhere I had come up with the notion that one's personal life had nothing to do with fiction, when the truth, as everyone knows, is nearly the direct opposite . . . for in fact the fiction both published and unpublished that moved and pleased me then as now was precisely that which had been made luminous, undeniably authentic by having been found and taken up, always at a cost, from deeper, more shared levels of the life we all really live."
posted by mblandi at 7:58 AM on April 24, 2003

Fiction should be an act of invention and imagination.

But as you've already conceded, it can never be 100% invention and imagination. So what we're really arguing is what percentage of raw imagining is required before it can be considered fiction. You want to insist upon more (70%+, perhaps?), while other will accept much less (10%, even).

I can understand the aesthetic appreciation of and commitment to established forms in writing, but such "forms," in both prose and poetry, come and go, and evolve into new mutant shapes. Were it not for this growth and recombination, we'd all be limited to incising tax records into clay tablets.

I have much more of a problem with fiction being passed off as fact than with fact being passed off as fiction. Which is worse: for history to be made up or skewed or for historical fiction to be rigorously based upon actual events?

The notion of factual characters alone strikes me as incredible. Do you honestly believe that anyone can capture or duplicate real people in words filtered through their own very different mind? And if the characters of a work vary from their sources of inspiration, does not the work itself necessarily vary as well, no matter how closely the plot might be structured to mimic what "really happened"?

I know you hate labels and classifications of any kind

Close...I hate slavish devotion to/identification with what are ultimately fairly arbitrary classifications. I have never disputed that they can be very useful—even essential—in a limited way.
posted by rushmc at 8:05 AM on April 24, 2003

Once again the eternal question must be asked: Miguel, what the hell are you going on about? What do you mean, "without the traditional disguise of the roman à clef"? In what way is this different from a roman à clef? It's a novel based on real peoples' lives, with name changes and light disguising. So somebody has published a roman à clef, somebody else has written the traditional "Look, a roman à clef! Here, I'll connect the dots for you" review, and nothing is new under the sun. As the Slate review you link to points out: "These sorts of connections may be titillating, but they certainly shouldn't be news: Writers write about their families!"

In an attempt to broaden the discussion, and following up on sheauga's suggestion, I'll link to an interesting discussion going on among various blogs about whether it's important (or desirable) to be truthful in blogging. And it's led to at least one long and fascinating post about a genre of novels that looks more interesting than our pathetic Western romans à clef.
posted by languagehat at 8:13 AM on April 24, 2003

Miguel, with all due respect, this almost comes off as a troll. Why do we need to maintain strict boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, especially since such boundaries are largely fictitious? Are you really sad about this, or are you just trying to spur us all to make the counterargument?

Um, well, maybe.

I haven't read any of these three books, but they seem to be playing with the fiction/non-fiction overlap in a way reminiscent of one of my favorite authors, Robert Anton Wilson, co-author of the Illuminatus! trilogy. Specifically, DeLillo's Libra seems very related to the constant Kennedy/Warren/conspiracy japing in those works.

For anyone who hasn't plowed through, or even dipped a toe into, them, these books pretend to be science fiction, but weave into their ridiculous narratives (e.g. "meanwhile, 100 years in the future...") conspiracy theory, parapsychology and plain historical fact, challenging the reader to sort out which is which. And yes, that trilogy does kind of get sunk by its constant (Burroughs-infected) gimmickry and in-your-face audacity, but for anyone who gave up on RAW after that, I heartily recommend his later Historical Illuminatus Trilogy, which tells the story of the founding of the United States through fictitious characters (all of them the ancestors of Illuminatus! characters, of course) who wind up taking part in events both historic and fictitious. In this case the writing is much better, the characters have some depth to them and the dance between what you know, what you think you know, and what you think you know to be a lie, is exquisite. For this reason alone, I must dissent from Miguel's lamentation.
posted by soyjoy at 8:31 AM on April 24, 2003

Somewhere I had come up with the notion that one's personal life had nothing to do with fiction

Glad to see I am not the only one to see pynchons good advice from 'Slow Learner'
posted by clavdivs at 8:43 AM on April 24, 2003

I think the tendency to dissect fiction for insight into the life of the author is a relatively pointless exercise in most cases, however, I don't see what the harm is in presenting something that's (mostly?) factual as fiction. The idea here is the same one that causes people to criticize Shakespeare or Brecht for being "unoriginal," as if anyone were original. Everything is based on something else, in one way or another -- on your life, on other works of art, whatever.
posted by dagnyscott at 10:04 AM on April 24, 2003

I'm mystified, Miguel. Hustvedt's novel takes some non-fictional characters and situations, changes a few names and details, and tells a true story with an extremely light fictional gloss. In what way is this not a roman à clef? Because Hustvedt is a contemporary writer living in a memoir-ized literary culture? That's hardly her fault, and the form itself dates back to 18th century France. Because Hustvedt is writing about writers and that somehow strikes you as postmodern? Let's disinter Djuna Barnes and Thomas Love Peacock and put them on trial for failure of imagination!

Heavens, even critics are providing the key to a roman à clef! Roiphe's scolding tone struck me as bizarre when I read it, but her essay seems to have found at least one reader who seems to agree with it.
posted by snarkout at 1:22 PM on April 24, 2003

I like my antinomies half-baked, and full of imaginary ingredients.
posted by Opus Dark at 2:15 PM on April 24, 2003

(Thanks to languagehat for pointing to the same metabloggy discussions in which I have been taking some small part, and to which I had come here intending to link.)
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:52 PM on April 25, 2003

Thanks my ass, what you mean is "Damn you languagehat, you beat me to it!" And where's your long-promised contribution, huh? Huh??
posted by languagehat at 9:31 PM on April 25, 2003

I like my antinomies half-baked, and full of imaginary ingredients.

...."you mean to I say can have the part"
posted by clavdivs at 1:38 PM on April 26, 2003


the part.

{kinda not safe at work}
posted by clavdivs at 1:42 PM on April 26, 2003

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