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Fiction v nonfiction – English literature’s made-up divide

Some cultures do not distinguish between fiction and nonfiction – and instead talk of ‘stories’. Is that a barrier to English-language writers and publishers? Or…

Some cultures do not distinguish between fiction and nonfiction – and instead talk of ‘stories’. Is that a barrier to English-language writers and publishers? Or should they just learn to enjoy telling tales?

There’s a mighty canyon that runs down the middle of the world of the word, carving through bookshops, libraries and literary prizes, splitting them into fiction and nonfiction.
Those who try to build bridges over this fissure may find themselves – like Geoff Dyer – rejecting the terms on which they are read, or, like Sheila Heti, arguing with their own book jackets. Those who are caught on the wrong side of the divide are attacked as frauds, pillioried or even – like James Frey – hounded out of their homes.
But according to the writer Aleksandar Hemon, this strange chasm doesn’t even exist in the language of his birth. In Bosnian, says Hemon, “there are no words for fiction and nonfiction, or the distinction thereof”.
“This is not to say that there is no truth or untruth,” he continues. “It’s just that a literary text is not defined by its relation to truth or imagination.” When Bosnian speakers try to articulate this distinction they have to reach for awkward constructions or terms from other languages, he explains. “Some literary people have bastardised fiction into ‘fikcija’, which makes me cringe, while ‘ne-fikcija’ is even more atrocious. I would never use those words. Your average taxi driver would not understand them.”
Even someone as skilled in matters of language as Hemon’s Bosnian translator, Irena Žlof, can find themselves stumped. When Žlof was working on the Bosnian edition of The Book of My Lives – Hemon’s “first book of nonfiction”, according to his US publisher – she “did not know” how to translate the terms fiction and nonfiction, Hemon recalls. Since they “only appeared in the acknowledgments, we just cut them. When I have to describe the pieces in my book, I call them ‘true stories’ or ‘personal essays’.”
He thinks the categorisation in English literature may have something do with religion. “My sense is that relating and evaluating a literary text in relation to its truthfulness has to have some kind of religious and moral, probably Protestant, possibly Puritan, roots,” he says. “In that context the model for truth-telling is, of course, the Holy Book, while non-truth-telling books are always suspect, only permissible if morally rewarding.”
Hemon says he doesn’t speak many other languages, but it seems to him as if “English is the exception, and my sense is that the distinction became axiomatic relatively recently, and more so in the United States.”
According to Aleksandar Boskovic, lecturer in Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian at New York City’s Columbia University, these languages refer to fiction in terms shared with Russian such as umetnička književnost or “художественная литература” (“art literature”), and sometimes describe it with a term borrowed from the French: belles lettres (“beautiful letters”). The word fikicija has started to appear in Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian over the last decade, he says, but “there is no similar term to English ‘nonfiction’.” What English speakers might see as the lack of a distinction can look to Slavs as a “wealth of meanings full of subtle distinctions”.
“The clear-cut binary fiction/nonfiction distinction in English, is, in Slavic languages, differently coded,” Boskovic says, “and rooted in the history and struggle of the different oral and literary genres – what poststructuralism would call ‘writing’.”
The split between fiction and nonfiction is equally mysterious in languages as different from Bosnian as Arabic and Gĩkuyu. According to the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the “key word” in Gĩkuyu is rũgano – “story” or “narrative”. Rũgano is the nearest thing to fiction, Ngũgĩ explains, but it could also mean or suggest a historical narrative. “Kũgana rũgano – ‘to tell a story’ – can mean either of those, but specifically means retelling of well-known stories such as fables. The art is in the telling, not the fact of the story. The best storyteller is the one who recreates the anxiety of expectation and fulfils it.”
The term “story” can be specified further, with rũgano rwa gwĩtungĩra (“made-up story”) for creative fiction as opposed to fables, Ngũgĩ continues, or rũgano rwa marimũ (“ogre story”) which refers both to a story that is literally about an ogre and also “a story that is not true”. There are also ndungo (“compositions”), which could be fiction or nonfiction and ũhoro (“news”), although news is understood “in a very general sense of happenings which would include actual information of actual happenings, but it could include story. So a visitor to a house, after being welcomed, will be asked: ‘Rehe ũhoro’ – ‘Tell us the news’.”
According to Ngũgĩ “literature” is kĩrĩra, but this includes everything “from wise sayings, moral anecdotes, to fiction”.
“The most important thing to remember about the Gĩkuyu-language fictive imagination is that it was oral, not written,” he says. “It was what we now call Orature.” These days literature is now split into kĩrĩra kĩa rũrĩmĩ (“literature of the tongue or mouth”, spoken aloud) and kĩrĩra gĩa kwandĩka (“written literature”), but both of these can be either fiction or nonfiction.
The division is just as blurred in Arabic, says the novelist Mohammed Hasan Alwan, where fiction is either hekaya, kessah or sard.
“The first two words mean ‘story’.” Alwan says. “The third word, sard, means ‘storytelling’. However, I don’t think there is any consensus on an Arabic synonym of ‘nonfiction’. I salute the English language for its ability to create simple and definitive words just by adding ‘non-’. Out of curiosity, I asked my Twitter followers if they could suggest a word. The suggestions were wake’y  which means ‘realistic’ and nathary which means ‘theoretical’. I am not satisfied with either one of those.”
If story is primary in Gĩkuyu, the reverse is true in Arabic, Alwan suggests. “I think that fiction in general is relatively new in Arabic culture. Therefore fiction might be considered a branch of writing that stems from the main tree of nonfiction.” The two domains are not of equal magnitude in Arabic letters, he continues, so the branch is defined only in relation to the over-arching concept. “When you need to specify the branch of writing that is based on fictional narration, you say ‘fiction writing’.”
According to the translator Nicky Harman, the English-speaking world is not entirely on its own, with the division between fiction and nonfiction mapping straightforwardly on to the Chinese xu gou and fei [not or non-] xu gou. But things become a little murkier as you move closer to home. German bestsellers are also divided into two categories, says the translator Katy Derbyshire, with Der Spiegel publishing lists split into Sachbücher (“fact-books”) and Belletristik – another borrowing of the French term belles lettres. But the boundary is drawn “in a different place than in the anglophone world”.
Alongside the novels listed under Belletristik, Derbyshire explains, you find autobiography, such as Joachim Meyerhoff’s Ach, diese Lücke, diese entsetzliche Lücke, or Anne Weber’s exploration of her family history, Ahnen. “There was some confusion over Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk – I’ve seen it called a novel but the German publisher calls it an ‘erzählendes Sachbuch’ – a piece of narrative nonfiction. German Amazon lists it under zoology and memoir.”
In Germany “the difference is more in the style of writing,” she says. “If it’s literary it tends to be classed as belles lettres; if its purpose is primarily to convey information it’ll be called a factual book.”
The translator Esther Allen remembers how she came to the realisation that many bookshops in France and Mexico group authors by nationality instead of dividing their work into fiction and nonfiction.
“This struck me at the time – and still does – as a far healthier approach,” Allen says. The division between “the writing of imagination and the writing of fact” that seems so obvious to the anglophone readers “doesn’t seem straightforward at all to much of the rest of the world”, she continues, citing the development in the 1990s of l’autofiction in French and la autoficción in Spanish. “Its combination of autobiographical writing with an insistence on the freedoms of fiction seems in overt opposition to the rather naive anglophone distinction that has imposed itself across the globe during that same period.” There are signs that “no ficción” is beginning to be adopted in Spanish, she adds, but the term is seldom sighted in Portuguese and doesn’t really exist in French.
The writer AS Byatt also thinks of bookshops when she hears the terms fiction and nonfiction, saying she can’t quite get her mind round “what these words might mean except as shelf-descriptions in bookstores and libraries”. But the question raises a subject that “increasingly worries me as a writer … the blending of truth and fiction in one story”. She says: “I don’t like to go into the thoughts and feelings of real people – I prefer to make new people by adding traits or thoughts of several real people to make a new one. I do believe that it is possible to aim for truth.”
But she says she doesn’t really use the term nonfiction. “History, biography, autobiography, memoir, diary … You can have fictions that mimic all these forms, but I do like to know where I am as a reader.”
Like Hemon, Byatt suggests these reactions are founded in religion, citing her upbringing by Quakers. “Telling stories is telling lies – as BS Johnson said – is an extreme version of something I understand and also feel.”
According to Geoff Dyer, who says his next book is “a mixture of both fiction and non- but will be published as non-”, the strength of the distinction in anglophone culture has waxed and waned. “Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick points out that ‘12 of the 14 pieces in Penguin New Writing in 1940’ – which included Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant – ‘were of a then fashionable genre that blurred the line between fact and fiction’,” Dyer explains. The nonfiction novels of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer blurred the lines again in the 1960s, he continues, and the boundary is “perhaps going through another porous phase right now”.
“You’d have to go back to the early 19th century or earlier to a time when ‘literature’ referred to fiction and nonfiction rather than to a particular, highly regarded form of imaginative writing,” he adds. Dyer cites Raymond Williams, who suggested that “the special regard in which fiction comes to be held … is probably connected to romanticism and the emphasis put on the imagination – which is itself a response to the rise of industrialisation: a very fact-based process as Dickens emphasises later in Hard Times”.
But for all the difficulties surrounding any attempt to divide literature into fact and fiction, Dyer accepts that it’s a part of literary life that is here to stay, because “it serves as a useful guide to the kind of experience the reader is wanting to have”.
“I only push against this distinction because it exists,” Dyer says. “I’m grateful for it in the same way that tennis players depend on the net. It suits me to ask why it can’t be lower, why the tension can’t be relaxed somewhat … Overall, though, I think it’s inevitable…”
Source: The Guardian

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