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The difference between fiction and non-fiction, in the sense I would understand it, is a matter of degree. All writing is communicating a narrative of some kind, but something that claims to be non-fiction should largely be based on the evidence and use speculation as little as possible.

A work of fiction may well include elements which are 'true'. For example an author writing a novel about Richard Nixon and Watergate might well start by considering primary and secondary historical sources such as the Nixon tapes, the press reports and books by participants in the drama. Then the author will have to formulate a view of what it felt like to be Richard Nixon, seeing his career destroyed by his own choices of action.

If the same author was writing a non-fiction book on the topic his research might be the same, but I hope he would feel more constrained by the source material and less able to speculate beyond the evidence. As it is I suppose the less scrupulous author could insert a lot of imaginary dialogue for which there was no evidence whatever. This would be fine in the novel but not acceptable, in my view, in a work of non-fiction.

A fictional narrative may well include elements from the writers own life or those of people he knows, but a novel is more than just the rearrangement of an account of events. To assert otherwise is to reject the idea of story and the role of imagination in human life.

Equally an autobiography, whilst ostensibly an account of true events in a persons life, may be a highly stylised narrative. Anyone read 'Cider with Rosie'? A marvellous work combining a strong sense of place with an evocation of what the author's childhood felt like, but was every element of the book literal truth?  

by Gary J on Wed Aug 9th, 2006 at 07:11:10 PM EST
Well, I agree with much of what you say, while I also recognize that the entire non-fiction genre did not begin with the criteria you lay out. Capote is the one who coined the term, and his book contains a great many writing techniques that veer away from the criteria you lay out.

I guess the point I was trying to get at is this: questions about a book's fictionality or non-fictionality (whatever that is) are not the most important questions a reader may ask when they pick up a text.

by Upstate NY on Wed Aug 9th, 2006 at 10:35:22 PM EST
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