The Nonfiction Novel: What happens to the truth?


NARRATIVE NONFICTION is an art form gaining in popularity, but it’s certainly not new.

There are many who believe that Geoffrey of Monmouth created the genre in the twelfth century. In reality, it was romanticized truth. Some historians erred in believing that Geoffrey’s words were actual history. In a sense, they were. But they had been colored a little by his own personal observations and opinions.

And that brings us to a crucial point we cannot ignore.

All history, whether it happened in the twelfth century or last week, is a collection of observations and opinions.

All comments, all writings, all historical facts, all eye-witness accounts, even those regarded as accurate and credible, are simply one person’s perception of the truth.

Whether we want to accept it or not, life is fiction.

When Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood, he said he had invented the nonfiction novel.
When Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood, he said he had invented the nonfiction novel.

As a newspaper reporter, I learned early that three people who see the same accident, witness the same murder, talk to the same victim, would all give me different stories. The facts were usually similar but never the same.

I might know, for sure, that one man had been shot.

One man had died.

The incident had happened around ten o’clock.

The dead man was found lying in the street.

Then the stories all went awry.

One shooter.

Two shooters.

Ran away on foot.

Drove away in an old Ford.

Rode away in a Chevrolet getaway car.

The shooter was young.

He wore a ski mask.

He was smiling when he fired the pistol.

He fired only once.

Maybe twice.

He came around the corner firing until the gun was empty.

That’s the way it is with narrative fiction.

The bottom-line facts must be accurate.

The tone and tenor of the writing must be credible and never glamorized.

Everything else is just window dressing based on information left behind by others. Those who stood and saw the battle of Shiloh, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers witnessed the incidents through the personal perspective of different and individual eyes.

To them, it was and is truth.

But those are the stories, the window dressing, that adds a touch and an element of fiction to the narrative nonfiction book.

When Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood, he boldly stated that he had invented a new genre, the nonfiction novel. Hunter Thompson’s gonzo journalism work of Hell’s Angels, Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Alex Haley’s Roots, and John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil are all considered proponents of the classic formula that gave birth to early works of narrative non-fiction.

They’re all history.

But the history has been seen through many eyes and colored with many opinions.

Please click the book cover image to read more about Caleb Pirtle’s Night Side of Dark. It possesses a lot of tainted truth.


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