Fiction and non-fiction

One of the peculiarities of the Anglo-American book cultures is, to my mind, the habit of dividing prose into fiction and non-fiction. As far as I know, no other cultural tradition does it. In French bookshops, books are categorised as literature (novels) – subdivided into French novels, foreign novels, youth/teenager novels, fantasy/science-fiction and detective/thriller/crime novels, etc –, then short stories, letters, essays, philosophy (but not academic), humanities, etc. In Italy, the genre taxonomy is similar to the French: literature subdividing into similar categories as in France, essays (Italian and foreign), society, news and politics, etc. The point is that fiction (novels, novellas, short-stories, foreign or not) is never acknowledged as fiction, while everything else doesn’t just get the label ‘non-fiction’, as in English-speaking countries. There are more genres on display, and classifications run deeper.

Why is that? The book industries in English-speaking countries seem to have adopted the fiction/non-fiction split quite early. What is more important is that the split reflects an ancient approach to writing more generally. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, written works fell into two general categories which, though shifting from author to author, may be referred to as ‘history’, on the one hand, and ‘poetry’, on the other, to adopt one of the many labels common at the time. The distinction between historiography and poetry was also one between fact and fiction, truth and fable. When Plato wished to ban all poets from his ideal Republic, he was making the same distinction, admitting only those who dealt in the truth. Poetry was not just about versified language, but also about the truth value of the narrative. With some exceptions, factual truth could not be seen to be conveyed by poetic works. Truth required ‘history’, the realm of fact, and since Herodotus, eye-witnessed fact. The European obsession with truth, starting with the Greek pre-Socratic philosophers, has become the central feature of the free world.

The ancient distinction between fact and fiction has, therefore, echoes in the general nomenclature of books in English-speaking countries. It might seem like a superficial way to categorise books in a bookshop (and for someone browsing by genre, not very helpful), but it is an approach that on the one hand harks back to an ancient and venerable understanding of what the written word is, and on the other, it puts truth at the heart of a book’s claim: are you truthful or are you not?

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