Fiction Versus Nonfiction.

Richard Lea has a piece for the Guardian exploring how different cultures deal with a distinction that seems natural to the English-speaking world:

[…] But according to the writer Aleksandar Hemon, this strange chasm doesn’t even exist in the language of his birth. In Bosnian, says Hemon, “there are no words for fiction and nonfiction, or the distinction thereof”.

“This is not to say that there is no truth or untruth,” he continues. “It’s just that a literary text is not defined by its relation to truth or imagination.” When Bosnian speakers try to articulate this distinction they have to reach for awkward constructions or terms from other languages, he explains. “Some literary people have bastardised fiction into ‘fikcija’, which makes me cringe, while ‘ne-fikcija’ is even more atrocious. I would never use those words. Your average taxi driver would not understand them.”

Even someone as skilled in matters of language as Hemon’s Bosnian translator, Irena Žlof, can find themselves stumped. When Žlof was working on the Bosnian edition of The Book of My Lives – Hemon’s “first book of nonfiction”, according to his US publisher – she “did not know” how to translate the terms fiction and nonfiction, Hemon recalls. Since they “only appeared in the acknowledgments, we just cut them. When I have to describe the pieces in my book, I call them ‘true stories’ or ‘personal essays’.” […]

The split between fiction and nonfiction is equally mysterious in languages as different from Bosnian as Arabic and Gĩkuyu. According to the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the “key word” in Gĩkuyu is rũgano – “story” or “narrative”. Rũgano is the nearest thing to fiction, Ngũgĩ explains, but it could also mean or suggest a historical narrative. “Kũgana rũgano – ‘to tell a story’ – can mean either of those, but specifically means retelling of well-known stories such as fables. The art is in the telling, not the fact of the story. The best storyteller is the one who recreates the anxiety of expectation and fulfils it.” […]

The division is just as blurred in Arabic, says the novelist Mohammed Hasan Alwan, where fiction is either hekaya (الحكاية), kessah (قِصَّة) or sard (سَرْد).

“The first two words mean ‘story’.” Alwan says. “The third word, sard, means ‘storytelling’. However, I don’t think there is any consensus on an Arabic synonym of ‘nonfiction’. I salute the English language for its ability to create simple and definitive words just by adding ‘non-’. Out of curiosity, I asked my Twitter followers if they could suggest a word. The suggestions were wake’y (وَاقِعيّ), which means ‘realistic’ and nathary (نَظري), which means ‘theoretical’. I am not satisfied with either one of those.” […]

According to the translator Nicky Harman, the English-speaking world is not entirely on its own, with the division between fiction and nonfiction mapping straightforwardly on to the Chinese xu gou (虚构) and fei [not or non-] xu gou (非虚构). But things become a little murkier as you move closer to home. German bestsellers are also divided into two categories, says the translator Katy Derbyshire, with Der Spiegel publishing lists split into Sachbücher (“fact-books”) and Belletristik – another borrowing of the French term belles lettres. But the boundary is drawn “in a different place than in the anglophone world”.

Alongside the novels listed under Belletristik, Derbyshire explains, you find autobiography, such as Joachim Meyerhoff’s Ach, diese Lücke, diese entsetzliche Lücke, or Anne Weber’s exploration of her family history, Ahnen. “There was some confusion over Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk – I’ve seen it called a novel but the German publisher calls it an ‘erzählendes Sachbuch’ – a piece of narrative nonfiction. German Amazon lists it under zoology and memoir.”

In Germany “the difference is more in the style of writing,” she says. “If it’s literary it tends to be classed as belles lettres; if its purpose is primarily to convey information it’ll be called a factual book.”

There’s lots more at the link; good for the Graun for going into an interesting topic in a fair amount of depth, and in particular for using original-language forms, including Arabic script!

Comments

  1. The Bosnian online bookshop (http://www.knjiga.ba/) separates its books into these categories:
    književnost (literature), računari (computers), fantastika (fantasy), humor, sport, domaćinstvo (DIY, cookery etc), turizam (tourism), and a dozen other categories.
    My point is that the Bosnian categorisation of books is different. It is more fine grained than just lumping all literature, fantasy and humor into fiction, and computers, sport etc into non-fiction.

    I’ve noticed a similar lack of distinction where, in English, we would talk about fruits and nuts. This distinction is not readily translateable into Croatian. However, the word “orasi” (literally wallnuts, but used in the expression “tvrd orah” = “tough nut) has been used for the English “nuts”.
    Instead, in Croatian, you would talk about fruits, and then you might subdivide them into types eg. “šumsko voće” (literally forrest fruit, but can be used to translate the concept of “berries”), južno voće (literally “southern fruits” = citrus fruit and tropical fruit), koštunjičavo voće (stone fruit), jezgrasto voće (literally “fruit with kernels” = nuts). But to the Croatian mind, there is nothing special about jezgrasto voće which would put in on a level above other types of fruit.

    In schools, (reference: reading list for Year 9 in Bosnia-Hercegovina: http://www.mojalektira.com/lektira-deveti-razred-osnovne-skole/) all the works studied in the language class are fiction, though they might be grouped by the Bosnians into pjesništvo (poetry), proza (prose), drama i kazalište (drama and theatre). The High School syllabus also lists the Bible. The Bible is studied for its literary merits, not religious. In the USA this would place the Bible in the fiction category, but in libraries it is regularly found in the non-fiction section. Bosnian avoids this controversy by classifying books at a different level.

    “Fikcija” (fiction) is a perfectly fine word that can be used in Bosnian: http://www.rjecnik.ba/prevod/engleski/fikcija.html. But as it is not used to categorise books, a more appropriate translation would have been for Irena Žlof to translate the word “fiction” in this case as “biografija” (biography) – as that would have been a more apparent level of distinction to a Bosnian. Alternatively, she might have left in the English word “non-fiction” and explained the concept.

  2. History is supposed to be non-fiction, but the best historians seem to be the ones who can tell a good story. Of course it’s important that the story should contain no “made-up” elements, but my feeling is that many history writings present a very coloured view through the lens of the author. (I’m particularly thinking of Tuchman here).

  3. For that matter, even in English I suspect that the distinction between “fiction” and “nonfiction” is not as well-understood as you might think. I remember having difficulty explaining to some friends once why The Mole People is still “nonfiction” even it turns out (as seems likely) that Jennifer Toth invented most of it. “Fiction” is often contrasted with “fact” or “truth”, and understood to refer to anything “made up” or untrue. (I think that that’s actually the original sense, and that the fiction-vs.-nonfiction development is a later and somewhat artificial one.)

  4. (Could I trouble you to rescue my last comment? It got flagged as potential spam, apparently, presumably due to containing two links. Thanks in advance!)

  5. Danish tradition has fag- and skøn-litteratur, which is roughly ‘professional’ and ‘artistic’ but corresponds to non-/fiction in English usage. Libraries classify texts centered on a real life person as ‘individual history’ (personalhistorie) regardless of viewpoint, self-authorship, and adherence to facts, neatly avoiding the headache of deciding whether it’s fiction.

    (Danish does have fiktion as a concept, but not as the designation of a class of texts).

  6. 非虚构 is for the post-2010 genre of nonfictions modeled on the New Yorker and American bestsellers. Older genres which occupy the same niche were called “reportage literature” (报告文学) and “travelogues” (游记) and so on.

  7. For me, the concept of fiction seems recent and American, perhaps borrowed from some Indian tribal language.

    I mean the whole idea of dividing literary works into “invented, untrue” and “true” is a sign of appallingly naive, unsophisticated culture, isn’t it?

  8. O! I think I know where English got it.

    Fiction is, of course, lygisögur (lie sagas), sub-genre of Norse sagas, fictional (and understood to be fictional) as opposed to the rest of sagas which were supposed to be based on facts.

  9. English, of course, has ‘narrative’, in both fictional and non-fictional senses. But the connotations of the two senses are somewhat different. It’s common to ask, e.g., what the ‘narrative’ is in any particular piece of journalism. I wonder how that sort of question gets translated into, say, Bosnian.

  10. Daniel N. says:

    There’s no word that really corresponds to “fiction” in Croatian (and Bosnian, etc.) Maybe “beletristika”, but it’s not really the same.

    Which is strange, because it’s a very useful distinction.

  11. Jeffry House says:
  12. @minus273

    Hmmm. Is (or was) the 西游记 (Journey to the West) regarded as 游记? What about the 山海经 (Classic of Mountains and Seas)?

    My own personal view is that in English the category of ‘fiction’ came about because of the extraordinary ascent of the novel in modern literature. The novel overshadowed the romance and took the art of telling an elaborated, realistic story to hitherto unknown heights. The novel differed from the romance in that it asked itself to be regarded as true, or at least potentially true. The romance could be magical, escapist, or otherworldly; the novel was real. Once the novel became the dominant form in Western literature, there was a need to distinguish its “realistic lies” from more sober factual works. Hence the division between the novel (realistic stories) from non-fiction. Romances, of course, were grouped on the fiction side, along with novels.

  13. Bathrobe: Excellent point about the novel and “realistic lies”; I’ll bet that has a lot to do with it.

    According to Jeffry House’s Ngram, the term “nonfiction” only began to become noticeable in the ’80s, which makes sense — I don’t remember seeing it much when I was growing up.

  14. @Bathrobe: No. The “older” situation I talked about was for post-Reform days (and roughly post-60’s in what was the other China). 西游记 and its ilk are the original 小说 – refined, written-down versions of the urban art of oral storytelling variously called 说话 or 小说 during the Sòng-Yuán period. 山海经 belongs to yet another older definition of 小说: everything not really serious – mythology, fantastic stories, urban legends and political anecdotes.

    By the way, there is a genre of late 19th century Vietnamese writing called 遊西記 or 西遊記. I thought by then, why would anyone want to go to Laos or Cambodia and write lengthy reports of their voyage? It then dawned to me that, of course, the 西 means Europe, indeed much further west than Laos or Cambodia!

  15. “Nonfiction” is an odd construct, come to think of it. You get the sense that in the beginning was fiction and then somehow nonfiction came into being.

    It’s possible to come up with a parallel construction in Icelandic. If there’s skáldskapur (fiction) you can have skáldskaparleysa (nonfiction). But I don’t think anyone would take skáldskaparleysa to mean nonfiction, people would think this made up word meant “work without literary merit”.

  16. According to Jeffry House’s Ngram, the term “nonfiction” only began to become noticeable in the ’80s

    Note, however, that hyphenated “non-fiction” appears earlier, and its peak in the 40s is about half the height of “nonfiction”‘s in the 80s. Virtually nothing before the 20th century, though.

  17. The OED’s early quotations for non-fiction are mid-19C and appear in the works of librarians, so presumably it started as a technical term of library work. Most Dewey Decimal System libraries I’ve been in don’t use the codes 813 (American literature in English) or 823 (English literature) for fiction, but reserve these for works of criticism, keeping fiction on separate shelves or even a separate part of the library, alphabetically by author. So in practice non-fiction means ‘classified by subject’. Research and academic libraries, which have much less fiction, do seem to keep it under Library of Congress code PE.

    Hoaxes are kind of on the boundary (The Mole People seems to be part hoax, part overly trusting author). As I mentioned in another post, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was originally published without any indication of its fictionality, and Poe eventually described it as a hoax, but it is usually classified with his fiction today.

  18. Portuguese has no distinction between “history” and “story”, both história. In the 20th century a Brazilian folklorist, inspired by English, tried to introduce it by resurrecting the alternative spelling estória for “story”. Despite adoption by God-tier novelist Guimarães Rosa, it (predictably) didn’t catch. Every so often I still stumble on a misguided pedant insisting that fictional stories are properly estórias; these poor souls mistakenly conclude that the distinction is supposed to be realized in speech, without knowing that estória is just an artificial homophonous heterograph for the one and same spoken word as história (notice ‘h’ is silent in Portuguese and unaccented ‘e’ often neutralizes to the same phone as ‘i’).

  19. J.W. Brewer says:

    I agree with John Cowan both that: a) non-fiction (however spelled) preceded the 1980’s because I can remember it from at least the early 1970’s; and b) it is most salient as a distinction in the context of how libraries (whether school or public) arrange their inventory. Bookstores don’t really do the same, in that they usually organize “non-fiction” by varying categories but because it’s not all stuck into a schematic master-plan like the Dewey Decimal or LC systems, there’s no need for a everything-that-isn’t-fiction metacategory.

    I typically organize my records (although things have fallen into disarray in recent years – I need to devote an entire weekend to restoring order if I ever have one free) alphabetically by recording artist within three large and vaguely-bounded categories which I probably think of as “rock,” “jazz,” and “misc.” But misc is really misc, basically Western classical music, liturgical music, spoken-wordish stuff and exotica such as, um, I think there’s some gavelan music in there somewhere. Stuff that’s like, you know, “other kinds of normal music” either goes in with rock or goes in with jazz, according to rather fuzzy criteria (reggae is definitely in with rock, blues is closer to the line, and once “blues” gets semi-arbitrarily assigned to jazz that then creates another fuzzy boundary between blues and what you might call “old-time R&B,” which goes with rock, etc) that are inevitably unsatisfactory and inconsistent in their precise application. I guess there are things I don’t own any material amount of (original-cast Broadway show recordings, film soundtracks that are neither plausibly rock nor plausibly jazz) that might lead to a different taxonomy if I did.

  20. Note, however, that hyphenated “non-fiction” appears earlier

    Excellent point. And it’s not that I don’t remember it at all from before the ’80s, just that somewhere around there it seemed to become ubiquitous (and people started complaining about it).

    I typically organize my records … alphabetically by recording artist within three large and vaguely-bounded categories which I probably think of as “rock,” “jazz,” and “misc.”

    Same here, except that in practice the only ones that are actually organized are the jazz, because that’s what I’ve primarily been listening to — the others are occasional “hmm, feel like listening to some classical, what’s at the top of the pile?”

  21. My record categories are: Classical, Jazz/Blues, Rock/R&B, Folk/Ethnic, Records that used to belong to my father, Records that used to belong to people who got rid of their turntables.

  22. I have boxes of records in the cellar that are theoretically playable on my turntable, except that I stopped being able to connect up the turntable a couple of moves ago. Strangely, I find I don’t miss playing them.

  23. The fiction/nonfiction distinction in English only seems to apply to narrative prose; I’ve never seen plays or poetry subdivided thus, and they tend to stay in the 8xx Literature section. Also, a writer’s “short stories” and “shorter prose” are typically collected in separate volumes; the prose is in 8xx, the stories maybe not.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    računari (computers)

    Reckoners?

    (This is sometimes done in German: Rechner, “calculator(s)”.)

  25. Romance < ratio, sez Wiktionary. So rather reasoners.

  26. My vinyl is Classical, Folk, and Other (jazz, rock, spoken word).

  27. Reckon is a native word whose Latinate cognate is regular; reason is a borrowed word whose native cognate is read.

  28. gwenllian says:

    Fikcija might make Hemon cringe (and I know what it’s like, though this particular usage doesn’t really bother me at all), but it’s actually very widely used and understood in this meaning. With future translations, it might be easier to just go with it. At least from a Croatian perspective (I definitely see this usage in Bosnian media, but I’m not sure just how frequent or accepted it is), trying to fight against the tide here is futile.

    I don’t see nefikcija quite as often. It doesn’t sound as natural (not that that’s really enough to slow down recent borrowings and calques from English all that much) and people’s uncertainty over how to write it down might play a small part too. But bookshops and libraries are definitely divided into fiction and non-fiction areas, so I disagree with Hemon’s understanding of the local understanding of the division.

    “It’s just that a literary text is not defined by its relation to truth or imagination.” When Bosnian speakers try to articulate this distinction they have to reach for awkward constructions or terms from other languages, he explains. “Some literary people have bastardised fiction into ‘fikcija’, which makes me cringe, while ‘ne-fikcija’ is even more atrocious. I would never use those words. Your average taxi driver would not understand them.”

    I’d actually say that, whether or not the average person in the street can immediately think of words to label them, the fiction vs non-fiction divide is the very first thing thought about when categorizing or choosing a piece of literature.

    There’s no word that really corresponds to “fiction” in Croatian (and Bosnian, etc.) Maybe “beletristika”, but it’s not really the same.

    It doesn’t really correspond to fiction, but people definitely often use it as if it did. As fikcija becomes more and more established in this meaning, that may change.

    I’ve noticed a similar lack of distinction where, in English, we would talk about fruits and nuts. This distinction is not readily translateable into Croatian. However, the word “orasi” (literally wallnuts, but used in the expression “tvrd orah” = “tough nut) has been used for the English “nuts”.

    I’m used to orah covering both of those meanings. Is that really a recent thing influenced by English?

    Instead, in Croatian, you would talk about fruits, and then you might subdivide them into types eg. “šumsko voće” (literally forrest fruit, but can be used to translate the concept of “berries”), južno voće (literally “southern fruits” = citrus fruit and tropical fruit), koštunjičavo voće (stone fruit), jezgrasto voće (literally “fruit with kernels” = nuts). But to the Croatian mind, there is nothing special about jezgrasto voće which would put in on a level above other types of fruit.

    I suspect there might be a regional difference when it comes to this. It’s never been my impression at all that Croatians think of nuts as fruit. I haven’t carried out a survey or anything, but in my experience nuts are always spoken of and commercially labeled as their own thing, and most people would find the meaning of jezgrasto voće as elusive as that of beletristika.

  29. Yet another “Language X can’t say Y” story bites the dust.

  30. gwenllian says: most people would find the meaning of jezgrasto voće as elusive as that of beletristika.

    Koštunjičavo voće and jezgrasto voće come from the Croatian wikipedia article on fruit (https://hr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vo%C4%87e). Other technical sources seem to use the same classifications. There are 12,500 hits on google for “jezgrasto voće”

  31. gwenllian says:

    Other technical sources seem to use the same classifications. There are 12,500 hits on google for “jezgrasto voće”

    Oh, I’m not saying these classifications don’t exist. Just that most people I interact with don’t use them, or think in those terms, and that many would likely have some trouble if asked to pin down their exact meaning.

  32. “The Simples Life”, released the UK in time for the Christmas 2010 novelty gift market, was the autobiography of Alexandr Orlov, an aristocratic Russian émigré meerkat featured in TV ads for a website. It reached number 3 in the hardback nonfiction bestseller list.

  33. Are you implying the meerkat lied about his past?

  34. I’d say lying about your past is an essential part of the emigré ethos. Your average belletristic emigré was probably a dreadful party hack who barely got out when the opposition seized power.

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