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JOHN RUSSELL 'No Guides Need Apply': Locating the Nonfiction Novel I Over a twelve-year span starting in 1976, a half-dozen books appeared on the nonfiction novel, their succinct titles often resembling one another such as John Hollowell's Fact and Fiction (1977) and John Hellmann's Fables ofFact (1981). The thrust of all six was to connect the form with the NewJournalism that began to flourish inAmerica in the 1960s.1 Not many demurrals have been raised against this supposed new form, though in 1980John Hersey - angered at uncritical use ofthe term 'nonfiction novel' - attacked what he saw as repeated 'fabrication' in the offerings of Capote, Mailer, andTom Wolfe. Hersey argued that all three worked over their material with the most disfiguring truncheons, citing the 'all-ornothing ' allegations of Wolfe ('Every wife,' 'Every young fighter pilot'), and the sententiaeMailer was forever forcing on his characters, as causing their headlong default from journalistic standards of accuracy. One premise Hersey refused to let go of: 'The journalist must not invent.'2 One can admire a writer for taking umbrage at heavy-handed tactics he is well able to document; yet Hersey's purist approach, he made it clear, would eradicate 'nonfiction novels' altogether. Since I find the term quite valuable, I should like to approach the nonfiction novel via a 1987 essay that deals with it theoretically, and in doing so, accommodates the quest for accuracy that some may insist on, while making allowance for 'invention' as well. In this essay, 'Toward a Theory of Literary Nonfiction,' Eric Heyne mentions the new journalists Hersey named (Capote, Mailer, and Wolfe are indeed ubiquitous in commentaries), but denies much correlation between their works and novels. In fact a rationale for grouping them 'wouldbe to separate them from novels,' since Heyne reasons that, having 'factual status,' such works need to be judged for their 'factual adequacy.' ('Adequacy' here must not be confused with 'accuracy': a special feature of the essay is its willingness to distinguish betWeen accuracy and value, as will be shown.) Heyne thus resists John Hellmann's opposite notion (expressed in Fables of Fact), which holds that the best nonfictional experiments, as texts, 'lose touch with the "external world" as [they develop] an engaging form.'} UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 59, NUMBER 3, SPRING 1990 414 JOHN RUSSELL I share this view about new journalistic writing being separate from the novel genre, for some added reasons. For one thing, I think 'nonfiction novels,' despite the recentness of the term, have existed for a long time, and inhabit a territory that can be defined. They do have close affiliations to traditional novels (still answering to the test of factual adequacy). The place the nonfiction novel holds, I would argue, bridges a clearly demarcable division between fiction and literary journalism. It is when some of the established forms of literature, such as essay, memoir, and travel writing (all neighbours of journalism), develop in idiosyncratic directions - meditative, confessional, rhetorical, dramatic - that they begin to merge with the imaginative forms of literature usually connoted by the word 'fiction.' Some works of travel literature, for example, are as complex as novels, whereas a travelogue would not be. What distinguishes the one from the other would be, almost always, a 'searching,' as opposed to a 'having found,' quality. The author ofa travelogue, as a rule, 'already knows' -he is a guide, he divulges his information - whereas the great travel books tend to turn into pilgrimages, charting the processes of discovery. Their factual adequacy rests more on what has impeded or baffled the author, led him onto side paths, tangents never anticipated - these becoming the crux of his story. There is a provisional quality to the kind of writing I am suggesting (as there is in novels). 'This volume should read like a novel,' said Hermann Keyserling of his round-the-world account in Travel Diary ofaPhilosopher (1925): 'most ofmy descriptive passages do justice rather to potentialities than to facts.'4 Potentialities would scarcely interest the otherkind oftraveller, who might begin a chapter, as PaulTheroux did, in this fashion: The two classes on MalaYSian Railways include eight different varieties of carriage, from the simple cattle car with wooden...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 413-432
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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