Good Writing? Got to Be Fiction

Last week, Publishers Weekly (“Separating Fact and Fiction in the U.S., Europe,” by Rüdiger Wischenbart) examined the European solution to the problem of memoirs: put them in the fiction section. At the risk of being accused yet again of pandering to Europe, I have to say that this is starting to make sense to me. Not least because it allows us to enjoy some wonderfully Gallic explanations:

Nobody had any doubt about the veracity of Grass’s account – that is, Peeling the Onion was clearly not another Grass novel, despite his occasional and seemingly willful blurring of fact and fiction. Yet when the book instantly got on the bestseller list, it was listed as “fiction,” in accord with the general practice in most of Europe. But why is that the case? 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, the Turkish Nobel laureate of 2006, had a book out last year about his childhood memories in Istanbul, a particularly delicate and beautifully written book, with private black-and-white photographs by one of his uncles of places that had shaped the author’s mind as a child. 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.”

Still, the principle seems a bit stretched when you learn that John Grisham’s The Innocent Man hit the bestseller lists overseas as a work of fiction. Do passion and a point of view mean that nonfiction becomes fiction?

The words of Olivier Nora, head of the French publisher Grasset, make the approach seem both smarter and more arbitrary than the U.S. system of classification. But any time we can inject a bit of highbrow mystique into the increasingly lowest-common-denominator world of publishing, so much the better:

The differences of perception go back to antagonistic traditions in philosophy and cultural history, said Bernhard Fetz, a Vienna-based researcher with the Austrian National Library, specializing in biographies and autobiographies. “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.




About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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