How Is Your Favorite Genre Doing?

Safely back from our trip to, and stay in,  Williamsburg, Virginia.     We were not surprised to find herky-jerky traffic both coming and going on I-95.  But we were surprised to find many more folks than in August 2008 circulating around the crazy-quilt traffic patterns inWilliamsburg,  this historic and hospitable city,  during the rainy weather we encountered as we sought once again an easy route to the time share resort to which we’ve been coming for many, if not most, of the years since we acquired our domain in “Patriot’s Place” in 1986.  (Sentence too long,  did not have time to make it shorter, sorry)

But onward to today’s topic:  the functions of the rules of “genre” in creating, interpreting and evaluating literature.

We’re in a transition period currently in which the lines dividing fiction from nonfiction are becoming less and less clear, at times perhaps even irrelevant. As E.L. Doctorow observed a few years ago,  “There is no longer such a thing as fiction or nonfiction, there is only narrative.” I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Doctorow, whose 1975 novel,  “Ragtime,”  illustrates how factual events and characters can be interwoven into a narrative that is also imaginative.  But keep reading.

Truman Capote,  writing about his 1966 book,  “In Cold Blood” claimed the rights to the origin of what he designated as “a nonfiction novel.”

Since Doctorow’s and Capote’s  publications, there have been a deluge of excellent “nonfiction novels.”  Among those I have read in recent years (or intend to) are the very popular 1994 narrative “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt (which spent an amazing 216 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List),  Frank McCourt’s  1996 “Angela’s Ashes,”  Darin Strauss’ s “Chang and Eng” a 2000 story narrated by Siamese twin Eng Bunker) and Mark Frost’s 2002 “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the story of Francis Ouimet’s triumph over Henry Vardon and other great golfers of the day in the 1913 Unites States Open.

There is still enough resistance,  however, to commingling the two parents of the bastard work of nonfictional narratives that a writer whose book was chosed by Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club was later dishonored because the author had borrowed or invented some information in his memoir without attribution.  This was James Frey,  a confessed alcoholic, drug addict, and convicted criminal whose powerful personal memoir,  “A Million Little Pieces,” was chose as the September 2005 for Oprah’s Book Club.

It took quite a while for the steam to build against Frey’s representation, or characterization, of his work and also against his publisher, the respected veteran Nan Talese.  Talese and Frey (he for a second time) appeared on Oprah’s TV show to admit wrongdoing and  to ask forgiveness.  The show drew a great audience and was highly praised by most TV mavens.

My perspective here would be that Frey’s and Talese’s malfeasance discredits less the genre of the “nonfiction novel” than that it exposes a lack of integrity in both TV journalism and in the publishing world in our time.  (We can find several instances of outright fabrication also in newspaper features of several highly respected newspapers in recent times.)

So, what do you think?  Is the novel-cum-memoir or memoir-cum-novel a good thing, or not?  Maybe blog readers can also mention some of their favorite nonfiction novels.



3 Responses to “How Is Your Favorite Genre Doing?”

  1. dlee Says:

    memoirs are from memories, and need to be truthful. Anything less than the truth as you experienced it or remember it is fiction.

    I love a good historical novel, and that genre is good enough for me. Doesn’t have to be passed off as anything else.

    If it’s a good book it will sell.

  2. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Welcome Back!

  3. Raymond Rundus Says:

    Thank you, “Dlee,” and thank you, Tammy S., for your comments/greetings.
    Dlee is a new contributor. So, Welcome! And don’t be a stranger.
    Dlee’s interest in “the historical novel” opens the way to our considering other subclassifications of the traditional novel. Here are some that come to mind right away (besides the historical novel): mystery/detective, romantic/romance, Western, science fiction, confessional/”apology”
    Surely there are others and perhaps even additional classes under the larger divisions.
    Help me out here!

    It also has interested me for many years that “genre” might better (in the broadest sense) be reconsidered as “intention.” Here are five suggested classes for the latter:
    (1) narrative (the writer wants to write a story; a narrator is present; there is a plot and characters in the story)
    (2) lyric (the writer wants to express strong emotion, such as joy, ardor, or sorrow; as the intention is difficult to sustain, the lyric is usually quite brief, as a song, for example, or a sonnet, perhaps an elegy or ode)
    (3) dramatic (the writer creates a work in which the story is shown rather than told; dialogue is the primary vehicle; “tragedy” and “comedy” and perhaps “musical” are the broad subclasses)
    (4) didactic (the writer wants to transmit knowledge or skills of offer advice; Americans especially love their “how to,” “for dummies,” and recipe books; sermons and campaign speeches are also common)
    (5) metalinguistic (the writer creates spoofs, lampoons, or satires; “punny” stories and “bloopers” are common, brief examples that illustrate either an intentional or unintended misuse or invention in diction (word usage).
    It might be interesting to explain the difference between the two brief examples of metalinguistic English.
    Here is the intentional misuse: A medical scientist became interested in the treatment of constipation. Hearing about a folk remedy in the Amazonian rain forest involving natural vegetation, he traveled there to meet with a tribal medicine man. When he returned, he brought with him a supply of ferns that were recommended as a solution to the digestive ailment. When his colleagues scoffed at the likelihood of the ferns being helpful, the scientist replied, “With fronds like these, who needs enemas?”

    And here is the unintentional: a number of years ago, the Eastern Illinois University newspaper ran this correction, “Thursday is not, as earlier reported, ‘T-shirt Appreciation Day.’ It is ‘Teacher Appreciation Day.'”


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