The Fuzzy Line Between Fiction and Non-Fiction

My dissertation advisor was not only a theologian and philosopher, but also an avid fly fisherman. In one of our many conversations during the years I studied with him he recommended that I read A River Runs Through It, a novel by Norman Maclean. I didn’t read everything he recommended, but I did read that, and I found it a fascinating exploration of the meaning of life, family relationships both positive and negative, and, yes, fly fishing.

While extolling the virtues of the book, my advisor mentioned that it was the first (perhaps at that time the only?) work of fiction published by the University of Chicago Press. He had a special connection to the University of Chicago, having studied and taught there, and he saw the Press’s imprint on the book as a mark of distinction.

I was reminded of this while reading John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. In an essay entitled “Elicitation,” he discusses the importance of being very careful to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction, and insists that the facts in any work of nonfiction be assiduously checked. (He offers a couple of examples of the importance of fact-checking for fictional works as well, but that’s another matter.) McPhee:

Norman Maclean called A River Runs Through It fiction, and the word “fiction” appeared in the book’s front matter. A River Runs Through It was autobiographical fact in nearly all aspects but one. For private reasons, the author had shifted the site of his brother’s murder and, being Norman Maclean, considered that change and others quite enough fabrication to disqualify the text as nonfiction.

Any writer of an autobiography is going to be selective in what is included in the text, and is going to remember the events described in the account from a particular perspective. Setting aside for the moment the implication that Maclean changed a few other elements in the story, suppose he was so traumatized by his brother’s murder that he came to believe that it happened in one place when in fact it happened somewhere else. He might then have called the work nonfiction, even though everything in his account is told from his point of view and others might remember it differently. Is he the one best suited to decide whether it’s fiction or nonfiction? And if not Maclean, then who?