They say history changes by who tells the story. The greeks called it gramma which means something that is written, in latin its called litteratura which means learning to read and write and India had Sjruti – what is heard and Smriti – what deserves to be remembered.
In english we divide our literature into two categories: fiction and non-fiction. From a time where stories and lessons wandered from mouth to mouth to where it is today is a story that can be told a many different ways and has ended up in many different places.
The relation to reality
As we divide between fiction and non-fiction – what is made-up and what is fact, we assume that we place our literature by their relation to reality. We assume that fiction originates from fantasy with the sole purpose of entertaining, while non-fiction contains hard facts with the purpose of informing or educating.
Within these two categories we of course find several subcategories or genres. Non-fiction can be anything from a corporate letter to news articles to biographies. Non-fiction often follows format more than fiction does. Articles, applications, project charters or a CV has a fixed layout. There are certain rules to follow and the language is factual and to the point, it is rarely embellished or adorned in any way. It’s purpose is to convey information and to do so correctly.
Fiction has also turned into a wide category and become home for many different types of text. We usually divide these up into novels, essays and poetry, but also these subcategories have grown in many different directions. The novel has developed into quite a few different genres, where some of the most popular at this writing moment is criminal fiction, suspense, childrens literature, science fiction and romantic (or shall we call it the erotic?) fiction.
What once was few, is now many. The genres are multiplying, developing, arising and dying out with time. Just as the world is constantly changing with the times, so is literature. What once was Belle letres – beautiful letters which has the purpose of entertaining us and awakening emotions, is now divided into many different genres with different characteristics. And although different, their core is often quite similar. The novel is about a shift in status quo which leads to a change and lead up to an ending where the book ends. The content of course, can vary quite extensively. Just look at the rough cut of a modern classic, a crime novel, a science fiction novel, a mystery, a suspense, a romance – to name a few. I think you’ll find that they all operate with the same core, adorned with different visuals.
The thin line between fantasy and reality
Since we defined the categories after their relation to reality we find that the line is not a straight one, it is broken, bent and swirling around itself.
Svetlana Alexievich shows us it is not that easy. She is credited to creating a new genre all together. Her novel “voices from Chernobyl” talks about one topic from beginning to end, yet from many different points of views in the form of many different short stories from distant memories of interviewees. She has extracted her stories from these memories, through news articles and public documents. Many would say this is non-fiction, it is accounts of history. But the text isn’t factual, nor is it to the point. While the text informs and educates us on the events of Chernobyl, it also awakens feelings with texts that in many ways can be described as poetry. In what shelf to you place this?
This book is nowhere alone in creating unclear borders. Stephen King released a perfect example in his 22.11.63, where the setting is a time traveller in the 60’s trying to stop the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. In one book he dips his toes in Sci-fi (time travel), romance (theres a love story there too!) and history (the assassination). Where do we place this book? Or better yet, where do we find it?
Another argument is the memoir. It lies on the edge of auto-biography, but where the auto-biography travels from a-z the memoir is more liberated. It is still a true story, but focuses more on the relationship between the writer and another person, a place, a struggle or anything else between heaven and earth. The memoir is written and read more like a novel where the author chooses a memory to explore. We can discuss and dissect for hours how “real” or “true” a story is when it is taken out of context, only told through one biast perspective from a memory that is fifty years old. And yet that memoir is placed right next to that historical WWII book.
So where do we draw the line?
There are several examples of books that have lived borderline lives and some that have even found themselves moved to different shelves. Like James Frey and his book “A million little pieces” – we all know the story. It was one of Oprah’s favorite books and it was a true story! Until one day it was discovered that he had altered some minor detail, the story was the same, the outcome didn’t change, but the detail was changed. Cue outrage! His book was pulled off the non-ficiton shelf and left to die at some bottom fiction shelf in the corner.
Same thing happened to Lance Armstrong, after it became known that he had taken steroids, his books in some libraries in Australia was moved from non-fiction to fiction. People were mad, and social media laughed at it. Readers feel duped, and nobody enjoys feeling like they’ve been fooled in any way.
Yet, “Hamilton – The Revolution” is planted in the midst of non-fiction. We know Alexander Hamilton is a historical figure and that th story is true, but Lin-Manuel Miranda openly admits in the book that he has taken some liberties in his lyrics and the hunt for the rhyme.At one point he completely changes history by having Angelica Schuyler rap that Philip Schuyler has no sons, so she has to social climb for one. (Philip Schuyler had seven sons.) Where the history books are lacking in information, whole chapters of history is simply made up! But we are comfortable still with placing it in non-fiction! Why is that? How is this easier to swallow than James Frey?
A rose by any other name
Would it smell as sweet? I’m not so sure it would. Despite Instagram flourishing with instapoets, the genre doesn’t really sell. Non-fiction is gaining more and more traction and fiction is slowly losing its grip. Or is it? The highest paid authors right now are James Patterson, JK Rowling and John Green. Can one book sell more or generate more interest as a non-fiction book or vice versa? Do we need more genres to divide the books into? Do we need genres or categories at all when they seemingly blend anyways? Would it matter?