How Significant Is a Book’s Truth Claim?

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.”

At first glance, this article on the demerits of the labels “fiction” and “non-fiction” seems to disparage the need to state whether a book claims to reflect reality or to be a work of imagination. Quoting  a translator, Richard Lea writes:

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.”

But how many non-fiction books do not represent the truth, because of shoddy research or editorial bias? How many fiction works have taught us profoundly deep truths (isn’t that what we love so much about some novels)? Perhaps claims of truthfulness should be done in ways other than publisher brands or bookseller shelving, but the reason we say truth is stranger than fiction is because when something bizarre actually happens, it doesn’t have to be as believable as something we make up. You might say, “That could never happen,” but if it in fact happened, that’s all the rationale you need.

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