Q: The earliest citation that my OED CD-ROM has for “nonfiction” (it’s hyphenated there) is from 1903. What was it called before then? And why doesn’t “nonfiction” have its own name instead of being defined as not something else?
A: The term “nonfiction” (or “non-fiction”) is older than you think. The online Oxford English Dictionary, which is regularly updated, has an example from the mid-19th century.
As we say in a 2008 post, Oxford cites a passage from the 1867 annual report of the trustees of the Boston Public Library: “This, as we have seen, is above the proportion of our circulation between fiction and non-fiction.”
But how did English speakers refer to factual writing before the term “nonfiction” showed up?
In the past, people used terms for specific types of nonfiction writing: “history” (early Old English), “epistle” (early Old English), “story” (before 1200), “chronicle” (1303), “treatise” (before 1375), “tract” (1432-50), “diary” (1581), “essay” (1597), “journal” (1610), “dissertation” (1651), “memoir” (1659), and others. The dates are for the earliest OED citations of the terms used in their usual literary senses.
We don’t know of a word other than “nonfiction” that encompasses all kinds of writing about facts, real events, and real people, but several of the terms mentioned above, especially “history,” were used broadly in the past, embracing some of the senses of “nonfiction.”
“History,” for example, was used as a factual counterpart to “fiction” in this example from Devereux, an 1829 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton:
“ ‘To be sure,’ answered Hamilton, coolly, and patting his snuff-box— ‘to be sure we old people like history better than fiction.’ ” (The comment concerns whether a description of a person is factual or false.)
English adopted the word “history” from the classical Latin historia in Anglo-Saxon times. In Latin, the word had many senses, including an investigation, a description, a narrative, a story, and a written account of past events.
In Old English, the word (usually spelled stær, ster, or steor), referred to a “written narrative constituting a continuous chronological record of important or public events (esp. in a particular place) or of a particular trend, institution, or person’s life,” according to the OED.
An early Old English translation of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, for example, refers to “þæt stær Genesis” (“the history of Genesis”), while the Harley Glossary defines istoria, medieval Latin for historia, as “gewyrd uel stær” (“event or history”) in late Old English.
In Middle English, the stær spelling gave way to the Anglo-Norman and Old French spellings istorie, estoire, and historie.
An Oxford citation from The Boke of Noblesse, an anonymous patriotic work written in the mid-1400s, says England’s right to Normandy is supported “by many credible bookis of olde cronicles and histories.”
“History” has sometimes been used loosely, from Middle to modern English, in the sense of a “narration of incidents, esp. (in later use) professedly true ones; a narrative, a story,” the OED says.
In this Oxford example from a 1632 travel book, the Scottish writer William Lithgow uses “history” in the sense of a true story: “all hold it to bee a Parable, and not a History.”
Why, you ask, “doesn’t nonfiction have its own name instead of being defined as not something else”?
Well, you can blame the Boston library trustees who used “nonfiction” a century and a half ago. Or you can blame the rest of us for not coming up with a positive word since then.
Some writers use the terms “creative nonfiction,” “literary nonfiction,” or “narrative nonfiction” to describe the more literary factual writing. John McPhee’s writing class at Princeton University has been called “Literature of Fact” as well as “Creative Nonfiction.”
However, the poet and essayist Phillip Lopate has described the term “creative nonfiction” as “slightly bogus.”
In a 2008 interview in Poets & Writers magazine, he says, “It’s like patting yourself on the back and saying, ‘My nonfiction is creative.’ Let the reader be the judge of that.”
Lopate prefers “literary nonfiction,” though he acknowledges that there’s “a bit of self-congratulation” in it.
In an article in the summer 2015 issue of Creative Writing magazine, the author and educator Dinty W. Moore describes some of the ways writers of nonfiction refer to their work.
Moore traces the term “creative nonfiction” to a contribution by David Madden in the 1969 Survey of Contemporary Literature.
Madden, a writer and teacher, uses the term in calling for a “redefinition” of “nonfiction” in the wake of books by Truman Capote, Jean Stafford, and Norman Mailer.
He cites Making It, the 1968 memoir by Norman Podhoretz, who says the postwar American books that mattered most to him were “works the trade quaintly called ‘nonfiction,’ as though they had only a negative existence.”