Novels and Other Hybrids
Novels have been around for thousands of years and the novel is probably the most popular genre attracting writers. Almost every writer at one time or another wants to write the “Great American Novel.” Maybe one of the reasons is that novelists have this mystique about them that impresses people. Next time you're at a social event, tell people you are writing a novel (doesn't even matter if it's been published), and watch those eyebrows rise in admiration. Then go to another group of people and say you've had a nonfiction book published about eighteenth-century Chinese art and notice how many yawns are stifled.
Historical and Autobiographical Novels
The nonfiction writer must know enough about novels to avoid the mistake of writing one inadvertently. This is very important especially when it comes to creative nonfiction. There are many categories or subgenres of novels such as the thriller, the romance novel, the literary novel, and chicklit, to name just a few. But the novels you should be aware of and not emulate if it's nonfiction you want to write — especially a biography or memoir — are the historical and autobiographical novels.
For fiction to succeed it must have a ring of truth, which is why some of the best novels are based on historical settings and characters or a real person's life. In the case of the historical novel, the novelist will likely do as much research as the nonfiction writer who is writing a book about a specific historical period or subject. But the major difference lies not in the research or even in the writing style but rather in the fact that the novelist is free to stray from accuracy for the sake of the narrative while the nonfiction writer may not.
The length of novels is usually between 60,000 and 80,000 words. However, some novels may be longer, especially if the author is established and doesn't have to concede editorial cuts to his manuscript. Novellas are short versions of novels generally between 20,000 and 40,000 words. Any work less than 20,000 words is a short story, though short stories average 2,500 words.
Nonetheless, you can learn a lot about writing memoirs, biographies, and history from reading autobiographical and historical novels, so here are several you might want to consider:
Coney by Amram Ducovny
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
Exodus by Leon Uris
This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff
Lincoln by Gore Vidal
Call It Sleep by Henry Roth
Dreamland by Kevin Baker
Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
Hybrids Don't Fit in Either Genre
You would think by now that you've reached the point where at the very least you can detect the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction. Yet, some works of fiction seem so real that you just can't believe they're made up. Historical and autobiographical novels contain so much accurate and factual material that you cannot distinguish what is and isn't fictitious. And, as you shall see in Chapter 19, creative nonfiction is nonfiction, but you certainly can't tell that from the style of writing and techniques employed.
Even more of a conundrum, however, is that there are some books where you just never know one way or the other if it's fiction or nonfiction. Take, for example, Jack Kerouac's, On the Road, which up until the fiftieth anniversary of its original publication had always been considered a novel based on some of the author's experiences but is now sometimes portrayed as a memoir with acceptable embellishments and literary license taken. Or, consider Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and is considered to be one of the first and finest works of contemporary creative nonfiction. Yet, the subtitle is History as a Novel, the Novel as History, laying claim to both genres and yet exclusiveness to neither.
So, if you still feel somewhat uncertain about whether you may be writing nonfiction or fiction, what rules you must abide by, and which techniques you should adopt, think no further about it. At this point, you're as qualified as anyone to begin writing nonfiction and by the end of this book, no matter what sort of nonfiction you choose to write, your work will muster any scrutiny.