The Non Fiction Novel

Are all novels fiction?  Are all non-fiction books factually true?
If a true story is told in narrative 3rd person omniscient voice (In Cold Blood),  is it now fiction? If a true story is told in first person episodic narrative (Robinson Crueso),  is it now fiction? 

A few years ago, seven non-fiction authors of "fact crime" or "true crime," including my friends Jack Olsen and Gary C. King,   campaigned  to convince the publisher of Lorenzo Carterra’s novel, "Sleepers," to remove the "true crime" non-fiction   
description from the book cover.  The novel was supposedly a true story about Carterra’s childhood. The story, however, was 99% artistic invention. For this reason, the movie version’s advertising proclaimed that the film was  "Based on the controversial novel.."
In 1995, the Detroit News wrote, The pastor at a New York City Catholic school has called for
a criminal investigation into the publishing of Sleepers, a best-selling
book that claims to be a true story about a murder and a priest’s role
in its cover-up.

"Essentially, the book is a hoax," says William Callahan, a private
investigator hired by the pastor. "It’s fiction from start to

Thomas Harvey, the lawyer for Sacred Heart Church, which operates the
school, plans to turn over the results of Callahan’s investigation to
the Manhattan district attorney. Harvey will also seek an injunction to
prevent the book from being published in Great Britain, where libel laws
are stricter.

The Rev. Kevin Nelan, pastor of Sacred Heart, says that he hopes at
least to get the name of his church and school changed in the movie
version, which is now being filmed in Manhattan with Robert De Niro,
Dustin Hoffman and Brad Pitt.

Suspicions of the book’s authenticity have been voiced since it came out
this summer, but last week marked the first time anyone has threatened
to make a legal case of the matter.

Lorenzo Carcaterra, the book’s author, writes in its introduction that
— except for his school, which he openly identifies as "Sacred Heart"
— he changed names and precise dates.

However, a priest who claims to be the model for one of the book’s
leading characters — a Sacred Heart priest who Carcaterra has lying in
court to protect two murderers — also slams the book as "fiction."

The Rev. John Duffell, former Sacred Heart associate pastor, now at the
Ascension Church in Manhattan, says, "I know all the people who are the
characters in the book.
 None of the things in this book ever happened.
It is totally fictitious"

Jack Olsen, the "Dean of True Crime writers" always stressed the  importance of journalistic ethics, and often lamented that Capote’s In Cold Blood, the novelization of an actual event, forever blurred the line between fact and fiction.  We became close friends when he read my book, Man Overboard: The Counterfeit Resurrection of Phil Champagne, in which I attempted a Through the Looking Glass  reversal by writing a factual journalistic report of an admittedly fictionalized life. 

Are all novels fiction?  Novel means "new" or "news."  Is what you hear on the Evening News fact or fiction?  Is it news or entertainment?
When the President of the United States said "Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, and we know where they are,"  it was reported as news. It was complete fiction.
News=Fact. News=Novel. Novel=Fiction?

So, despite ye olde dictionary saying that novels are works of fiction of  a certain length, it may be that novels are a narrative literary form, longer than a novella or novelette, and may be factual, fictional, or a blending of both. You know, like those Docu-Dramas on TV.

3 Responses to “The Non Fiction Novel”

  1. Mike Hobart

    Fiction or non-fiction? That’s a vexed question indeed. We live in a world in which television dramas preface their shows with a legal disclaimer stating that all characters and events are fictitious — yet we recognize them from things we’ve seen on the news. A world in which movies proudly trumpet “based on a true story” but in the small print admit that certain characters and events have been created for dramatic effect.
    I’m not even sure there is a divide between fact and fiction nowadays!

  2. DogsDontPurr

    Have you ever taught or do you teach writing classes? I think you would be perfect for that with your talent and experience. When I read these blog posts I always think that you would be a great instructor to have if I was taking a class.

  3. Burl Barer

    Thanks! Yes, I have done that… but it was several years ago, and for Elder Hostel. My nephew, Tod Goldberg, teaches creative writing..and is a writer, too. He is VERY FUNNY!! Visit his blog is a link over there>>>>>>>>>


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>