this "nonfiction novel" was written to give reality to something Capote believed for 20 years -- that journalism was "the most underestimated, the least explored of literary mediums" and that in the right hands "journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form,"
He hoped to elevate journalism, but he realized that it is still journalism. The whole interview that this is from is interesting:
So what do I think?
I think that Capote's phrase "nonfiction novel" has never caught on because we all agree that a novel is nothing if it's not a book-length fiction. As you know, I have not read In Cold Blood, so I can not really speak of it, although I know that Capote (and Harper Lee) traveled to Kansas where they conducted many interviews, including interviews with the murderers themselves. This is exactly what a serious, in-depth journalist would do. I think that this is why the term, New Journalism (or later, when it was no longer "New," creative journalism), became much more widely used than "nonfiction novel." Examples that I have read include The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (about the Mercury astronauts) and the excellent What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer (about the 1988 Presidential candidates). Both believed their work to be creative journalism. I think this is also true of The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer, although he did call it a "true-life novel." I have not read The Armies of the Night by Mailer, which he described as "History as a novel; The Novel as History" and which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction.
So. If a writer's subject is current or recent such that he can use actual interviews as primary sources, and he writes it to be nonfiction, it is journalism. If it is written with the depth and flair of a novelist, it may be creative journalism.
If a writer takes as his subject something that happened such that interviews are impossible, so that he must rely on letters, documents, etc. as primary sources, as well as previous writers as secondary sources, and he writes it to be nonfiction, it is history.
If he writes as truthfully as possible about his or her own experience, it is memoir (or autobiography). If this is highly elaborated beyond the truth, it becomes a novel. (This, I suppose, is where Henry Miller, whom I have never really read either, falls. If everything in the books actually happened to him, then he is allowing memoir to masquerade as fiction. Perhaps this was marketing by his publisher at a time when fiction sold better than memoir.) Recently, James Frey got into a great deal of trouble when he sold his fictionalized account of his addiction and recovery, A Million Little Pieces, as actual memoir, at a time when memoir was more commercial than fiction.
A novel about recognizable public figures with the names changed to avoid libel charges is a roman à clef. This can be a disreputable form, in that the author can hide behind fictional names while fabricating outrageous lies about actual people. The reader is expected to be able to identify whom the characters "really" are. This is a close relative of allegory, in a way, because a book like Animal Farm, usually considered an allegory, is also a roman à clef (Napoleon = Stalin; Snowball = Trotsky, etc.)
The Underdogs would be a roman à clef if it is all nonfiction with the names changed. But why would Azuela bother to change the names of poor peasants if it is actual reportage?
An historical novel may include historical figures and even historical events, but generally speaking, the main characters (D'Artagnan, Scarlett O'Hara) are not historical.
I reject Capote's phrase "nonfiction novel" because it makes the term "novel" (a lengthy work of fiction) nonsense. We live in an age of "fake news." If we can no longer rely on the difference between fiction and nonfiction, we're deeply in trouble.
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