What is a novel? Seems no one knows. Yagoda, who writes nonfiction and only nonfiction, got his nose out of joint when someone called him a novelist. "I got on Twitter and sent out a tweet asking people if they were familiar with the 'novel = book' custom." He received numerous replies, including one from a very exasperated literary agent: "In queries: ALL THE TIME. People telling me of their 'nonfiction novel' or their 'fictional novel.'"
I admit that "fictional novel" is one phrase that makes me cringe.
That said, I'm the last person you should ask to define "novel." The more closely I look at the question, the harder it is for me to explain the difference between fiction and nonfiction, even though I've published both.
If you get your facts wrong when writing a novel--for example, if your Vikings eat potatoes or you kick your horse in the withers--your story fails.
And often what you thought was a historical fact you find, if you dig back far enough through your sources, was some prior writer's speculation.
That's especially true when you're writing, like I do, about the Middle Ages. There are an awful lot of gaps in what we know about the world a thousand years ago. And a lot of what we "know" comes from texts that, today, we might be inclined to call novels.
Like Egil's Saga.
Derived from the Icelandic verb "to say," the word "saga" implies neither fact nor fiction. Of the 140 known medieval Icelandic sagas, some are fantasies, some are biographies, some are chronicles--as fact-filled as any medieval text--some approach memoirs, and others may best be described as novels.
For hundreds of years, scholars have argued over whether the sagas are "history" or "fiction."
An Icelander writing in 1957 considered the sagas too good to be true: “A modern historian will for several reasons tend to brush these sagas aside as historical records," he said. "The narrative will rather give him the impression of the art of a novelist than of the scrupulous dullness of a chronicler.”
Perhaps the greatest of the Icelandic Family Sagas, Egil's Saga may have been written by Snorri Sturluson, as I argued in Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myth. Much of my argument was based on Torfi Tulinius's analysis--though this particular paper, "Egils Saga and the Novel," somehow escaped me.
The world of the saga is "both same and different." It is not the 13th-century world of the author, but a fictional 10th-century world against which Snorri and his peers could "project their hopes and worries as well as their ideas about themselves."
The story is realistic--it is "set within a landscape everybody knows"--but it is not true. "It is probable that somebody called Egill actually lived at Borg in the 10th century," Torfi says. "Egils Saga, though, is a work of language." The characterization of this Egill and the events he takes part in may be "purely fictional."
"The originality of Egils Saga--and this is what makes it a novel--is that here it is the audience's own history and reality which are offered to interpretation," Torfi concludes. "However, no keys are given, except those which lie hidden in the text."
As Ben Yagoda documents, readers today have a hard time telling the difference between fictional-by-definition novels and nonfiction books. "An (unnamed) major metropolitan newspaper, in its obituary of Louis Zamperini, referred to Laura Hillenbrand's book about him, Unbroken, as a 'novel,'" he scoffs. An "actual class assignment from an actual (unnamed) school" referred to Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel as novels.
Yagoda blames, in part, "the blurring of generic boundaries, and the fuzziness of 'truth' in the postmodern era," but, as any medievalist can tell you, that blurring and fuzziness has a long history.
In 800 years, who will know what parts of Unbroken are true and what parts were the writer's speculation? What moments of Louis Zamperini's life did she (of necessity) leave out? And what keys to interpretation lay hidden in the text? If someone else wrote a nonfiction book about Zamperini, would it be the same? Of course not.
A nonfiction book, like a novel, is "a work of language." Perhaps we should call them all sagas.
"Egils Saga and the Novel" by Torfi Tulinius was published in Snorri Sturluson and the Roots of Nordic Literature (Sofia, Bulgaria: University of Sofia, 2002). Download it at Academia.edu.
Read Yagoda's essay at http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/08/04/novel_increasingly_used_to_mean_any_book_fiction_or_nonfiction.html