Faction—What Is It?

Since the publication of Immigrant Soldier in February of this year, I have been actively marketing it to museum gift shops. I am proud that through these efforts, the novel is now available at quite a few Holocaust and World War II museums across the country. However, several important museums let me know that their policy is to only take nonfiction works.

Considering how closely Immigrant Soldier follows the true story of my Uncle Herman, this is very disappointing. However, because the book is listed as historical fiction, I felt I had to accept the nonfiction-only policy of these few museums. Then a friend reminded me that Schindler’s List, by Thomas Keneally, was originally marketed as fiction and even won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1982.

Schindler’s List, a classic of Holocaust literature, is known to readers and film-goers alike as a true story based on extensive research, in-depth interviews, and the cooperation of many who lived the events described. Couldn’t the same be said of Immigrant Soldier? I hesitate to make the comparison, but it did make me wonder. What I discovered was a new term (or two). Books of this type are sometimes called nonfiction novels and sometimes even referred to in slang as “faction.” Though not a recognized genre of its own like historical fiction, the nonfiction novel does have some notable literature listed as representative of this grouping.

Wikipedia defines the nonfiction novel as “a literary genre which, broadly speaking, depicts real historical figures and actual events woven together with fictitious conversations and . . . the storytelling techniques of fiction.” These books, like Immigrant Soldier, employ the conventions of the novel (plot arc, dialogue, dramatized scenes, and internal thought) to tell an entirely true story. The nonfiction novel, because it straddles the line between nonfiction and fiction, is not without controversy. Its use of real people as characters can create drama and fascination for the reader, but it also carries with it a responsibility. The key to meeting this obligation to both the reader and the character being portrayed is immersion research.

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, published in 1965, was one of the first books of modern literature to be classed as a nonfiction novel. Capote spent years tracking the story of the Clutter Murders, reading everything available and even interviewing the murderers. It is the style of presentation and the tone of the writing, able to direct the reader’s sympathy, that makes In Cold Blood a novel. In the 1960s and 1970s, the nonfiction novel was well established, though some, like I Married Wyatt Earp, by Josephine Earp and Glen Boyer, have been plagued by controversy regarding their veracity. More recently, books of this type are classified as creative nonfiction and include first-person insights from the author. An example of this is Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt, described on Amazon as a “sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative (that) reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction.”

Now I wonder—would Immigrant Soldier have been better marketed as “creative” nonfiction? I don’t think so. Thomas Keneally made the conscious choice to market Schindler’s List as fiction for reasons both personal and commercial, not the least of which was that, as he said in his memoir, Searching for Schindler, “I didn’t want this book stuck in that section against the back wall of most American bookstores labeled JUDAICA.”  (Judaica  = anything pertaining to the Jewish people or Jewish faith)

All along, one of my reasons for writing Immigrant Soldier has been to share the story of the Ritchie Boys with as many people as possible. I always wanted it to be readable and accessible for the mass market, men and women, not just academic readers or World War II buffs. As fiction, I see it being picked up and enjoyed by all types of readers and that pleases me. I do still hope to convince museums with a nonfiction-only policy to give it a try.

So how much of Immigrant Soldier is really true? I’ll talk about that next week.


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