11 August 2007

Classifying Fact as Fiction

This summer Publishers Weekly ran an article on how the publishing industry on the European continent treats some memoir, autobiography, and other books that might be called "literary nonfiction" as fiction.

In France, it is "the literary character and the novelistic dimension which define a work as 'fiction,'" explained Fabrice Piault, deputy editor-in-chief of the book trade magazine Livres Hebdo. . . .

[Orhan Pamuk's memoir] Istanbul, as Piault notes, "absolutely has its place on a fiction list as a novel" because it is not the result of learned research but "an intimate vision of a city, hence a work of literature."
Yet many continental lists also classified John Grisham's The Innocent Man, which was researched rather than remembered, as fiction.

The magazine cites Olivier Nora, head of the firm Grasset, as noting that there's a big incentive to classify books as fiction in France: book prizes drive book sales, and some of those prizes are open only to fiction.

Bernhard Fetz, an Austrian author, claims to see longstanding cultural differences:
"While Germany or France have a mostly idealist tradition in culture, Britain, and hence the U.S., have always had a more pragmatic approach." Essays by Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Goethe always combined factual accounts with personal intuitions and self-reflections of the author, giving autobiographies also a political angle by defining a life story as exemplary for a nation. The Anglo-Saxon tradition was instead much more and much earlier influenced by science, and therefore supposed to rely on facts and less on intentions, Fetz said.
So where does that leave James Frey's A Thousand Little Pieces? Would the European literary world be as upset about the confabulation of that "memoir" as America's was?

Or do we see the European attitude slip out in the way some Americans refer to any book of a certain length, whatever its literary genre, as a "novel"?

1 comment:

David Lee Ingersoll said...

I used to work at Half Price Books. On a fairly regular basis we would have people come in looking for a book but they wouldn't be able to remember the title. They could usually provide some description as to what the book was about. At some point I would ask whether the book was fiction or non-fiction. It's amazing how many people would ask what the difference was.