Saturday, February 11, 2006


Neither Fiction Nor Fowl

The recent hand-wringing over the Frey affair has made me revisit a post I sent to my Iowa students a few months back about the term "non-fiction"....

This August NYTBR essay by Rachel Donadio ponders the apparent rise of nonfiction in recent years:

Like painting, the novel isn't dead; it just isn't as central to the culture as it once was. In our current infotainment era, in which the line between truth and ''truth'' is growing ever more blurry, readers thirst for a narrative, any narrative, and will turn to the most compelling one. Depending on your worldview, fiction and nonfiction are either ensconced in a healthy, mutually affirming relationship, or they're locked in a death grip, vying for America's attention.

Here's a question: Why is this one particular genre being set against all others? Why, one might ask, is the all-important demarcation between novels and... everything else? How is it that everything else came to be defined in terms of what it is not: i.e. "non-fiction"?

This dichotomy seems so natural to us now that it's hard to imagine it not existing. But when I turned to the OED to look up the origins of the term "nonfiction," I found to my great surprise that my old 1971 edition didn't even list it. Hmm. So I turned to the New York Times historical database. Running a search on "nonfiction OR non-fiction" proved interesting indeed.

The first occurrences of the word date to 1901. More intriguingly, they occur in articles about public librarians reclassifying and rearranging their books, and this usage seems limited to library-related articles for years afterwards. Why was it, then, that librarians were suddenly so interested in defining books as not being fiction? Because -- get this -- they were worried that the public was reading too much fiction.

That's right: by rearranging shelving and making it easier to find books that were specifically not fiction, librarians were hoping the public would start consuming something other than brain-candy. "The cheering consequence was a marked increase in attendance and circulation, while the percentage of fiction was reduced," reported the Times in the August 24th 1901 article that marked their first use of the word "non-fiction."

Curiously, within a year one author over at the Brooklyn Eagle was predicting the day when novels would be shoved aside altogether:
They are not necessary, and even now their merit and their interest are fast declining. As historic records, the world will file its newspapers. Newspaper writers have learned to color every day events so well that to read them will give posterity a truer picture than the historic or descriptive novel could do, and as for the psychological novel, that will soon cease to be....
The source of this remark? ... Jules Verne.

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