Crossing Borders

The Interrelation of Fact and Fiction in Historical Works, Travel Tales, Autobiography and Reportage

by Maureen A. Ramsden (Author)
©2016 Monographs XIV, 184 Pages
Series: Modern French Identities, Volume 123


In the twentieth century, the boundaries between different literary genres started to be questioned, raising a discussion about the various narrative modes of factual and fictional discourses.
Moving on from the limited traditional studies of genre definitions, this book argues that the borders between these two types of discourse depend on complex issues of epistemology, literary traditions and social and political constraints. This study attempts a systematic and specific analysis of how literary works, and in particular documentary ones, where the borders are more difficult to define, can be classified as factual or fictional. The book deals with several areas of discourse, including history, travel tales, autobiography and reportage, and opens up perspectives on the very different ways in which documentary works make use of the inescapable presence of both factual and fictional elements.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Toby Garfitt - Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part I Factual and Fictional Discourses: A Case for Re/classification?
  • Chapter 1 - The Interrelation of Fact and Fiction in Literary Works: Towards the Establishment of Boundaries
  • Chapter 2 - The Ordering of Realms: The World and the Text
  • Part II The Interrelation of Fact and Fiction in Documentary Discourse
  • Chapter 3 - The Story of History/History as Story
  • Chapter 4 - Fact and Fiction in the Travel Tale
  • Chapter 5 - Autobiographical Narrative: The Self as “Other”
  • Chapter 6 - The Reporter as Artist: The Interrelation of Fact and Fiction in Reportage
  • Towards a Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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Writing may have many different purposes, and take many different forms. Every century has brought innovation in terms of writing and of classifying the resulting productions. Until the twentieth century, the existence of distinct genres was recognized, even if their boundaries were increasingly seen to be porous. The period after Naturalism was the first to highlight the “crise du roman” (crisis of the novel), to quote the title of the magisterial study by Michel Raimond (1967). By the 1970s, Tzvetan Todorov could write:

To persist in discussing genres today might seem like an idle if not obviously anachronistic pastime. Everyone knows that they existed in the good old days of the classics – ballads, odes, sonnets, tragedies, and comedies – but today? Even the genres of the nineteenth century (though not altogether genres to our way of thinking), poetry, the novel – seem to be disintegrating in our era. (“The Origin of Genres,” 1976)

Some of the most recent genres, such as the “nonfiction novel,” seem to defy classification. Classification involves establishing borders. The title of Robert Gildea’s book Barricades and Borders highlights a key issue of nineteenth-century geopolitical history, and it is the notion of literary borders that is examined here by Maureen Ramsden.

This notion is attracting increasing attention from scholars. A recent book on Hélène Cixous by Mairéad Hanrahan, for instance, is called Cixous’s Semi-Fictions: Thinking at the Borders of Fiction (2014). Maureen Ramsden looks at the idea of borders between two groups of literary texts, those generally referred to in modern times as “factual” on the one hand, and “fictional” on the other. Most recent discussions of this subject have been part of a larger study of an area of discourse, such as Michael Sheringham’s work on autobiography and Hayden White’s on the writing of history. The present book, based on the author’s Harvard PhD thesis, attempts a more systematic and specific analysis, and has the much broader aim of looking at how literary works, and in particular documentary ones, where the borders are more difficult to define, can be classified as factual or fictional. The ← ix | x → book deals with several areas of discourse, including history, travel tales, autobiography and reportage. It also devotes two chapters to how borders might be defined and how the world can be seen as text, and the difficulties which arise when this text is portrayed in different kinds of works, both factual and fictional. A valuable feature of the book is the account of how we translate the world into discourse of different types, and what this involves in terms of an acceptable depiction by the reader, which is seen to depend to a large extent, in both factual and fictional discourse, on the particular concept of verisimilitude in force at different periods.

Though largely focussing on French works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the study includes examples from earlier times as well as from outside the field of French studies, in particular the innovative works of many American writers: Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History (1968) is a fascinating example of the “nonfiction novel.” Mailer develops both a subjective narrative, using fictional techniques, and an objective, more journalistic narrative of the same events. However, he concludes that the subjective narrative gives a more real account of events than the objective one, thus appearing to invert the usual definitions of factual and fictional, and taking us back to André Gide’s observation in his autobiographical Si le grain ne meurt (If It Die, 1924): “Everything is always more complicated than one makes out. Possibly even one gets nearer to truth in the novel.” Indeed had Flaubert not already pointed out in the mid-nineteenth century that the novel was “le document historique par excellence” (the historical document par excellence)?

In examining the ways in which books have been classified, this work takes into account the episteme of the age, the literary conventions in force at the time, and the experiments carried out by the most innovative writers, which lead to a questioning of status and a continual challenging of borders. Chains of discourse, seen through different epochs, also shed light on the way genres evolve and take their place on one side or the other of the factual/fictional border. Thus the broadsheets of the sixteenth century, often dealing with the execution of criminals, contain the main facts, but may add the victim’s last words before the execution, an obvious fictional element, which was both immediately appealing and commercially attractive. These were none the less taken as factual works. In the positivistic climate of the ← x | xi → nineteenth century the “traditional” newspapers were written by journalists whose main aim was to inform and give a transparent account of the facts of an event. However, a new movement called reportage, which flourished between the two world wars, produced articles which often resembled short stories. These were even collected in volume form, so they came close to the borders of fiction. Recent travel writing has been strongly influenced by this movement. Novelists of the twentieth century who used journalistic material in their novels, such as Malraux, had quite obvious elements of factual material in their works, but were still considered to remain on the fictional side of the border. However, in the twenty-first century, members of the general public are becoming reporters, as they use smartphones and iPads, and every sort of camera, to record incidents which might be missed by journalists. This material may then be sent to the media, who are often prepared to use it. Thus the evolution of an important genre continues.

The main aim of this book, however, is not to draw up a classificatory system of definitions, since literary works operate on a continuum of discourse, with some works, such as the “nonfiction novel,” still seeming to escape definition. The study aims to open up perspectives on the very different ways in which documentary works make use of the inescapable presence of both factual and fictional elements, in both types of discourse. This is a timely emphasis, in view of recent debates, such as the historiographical one concerning testimony literature (relaunched by Frédéric Rousseau in Le Procès des témoins de la Grande Guerre: l’affaire Norton Cru (The Trial of the Witnesses of the Great War: the Norton Cru Affair, 2003). Each chapter in Part II opens with a general discussion of this mixing of factual and fictional material, followed by a close analysis of one factual and one fictional work.

Maureen Ramsden takes as a given the classification of discourse in modern times, but seeks, by close analysis of works in the areas discussed, to illuminate the ways in which fictional works manage to maintain their distinction from factual works. Thus Balzac in Les Chouans sees himself as operating in a different and neglected area of history, that of a social history of France. The factual work examined in this chapter is Michelet’s Histoire de la révolution française, which employs many fictional techniques, but was considered, according to the norms of the times, to remain on the factual ← xi | xii → side of the divide. Factual and fictional works are shown to use very different techniques. Most importantly, though, fictional documentary works, far from seeking to imitate the factual paradigm, have a quite distinct aim – the perhaps greater truth of fiction, acknowledged by Gide and depicted so vividly in Mailer’s Armies of the Night.

Toby Garfitt

Fellow and Tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford

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I would like to thank most sincerely my supervisor for my PhD at Harvard, Professor Susan Rubin Suleiman, and my second reader, Professor Per Nykrog, for their support in agreeing to a topic which was fairly new in the last decades of the twentieth century, that of the interrelation of fact and fiction in documentary works, including history, travel tales, autobiography and reportage. Those books written on this subject at the time were mainly devoted to one area of documentary works, such as history and autobiography. The idea of borders, in various disciplines, as well as literature, is enjoying a resurgence in the twenty-first century. I would also like to thank Dr Martin Hall of King’s College London, for reading and commenting on my work, as I turned the manuscript into a book, and Dr Ann Miller of Leicester University, who has given me unfailing support throughout and also Dr Nathalie Fayard at Leicester for her input in translating the quotations. More recently, I very much appreciated the very helpful input I had from Dr Terry Hale of Hull University, Professor Ulrike Zitzlsperger at Exeter and especially Dr Toby Garfitt of Magdalen College Oxford, for not only writing an excellent preface for my book, but also for his very thorough reading if it. This monograph was a long time in the making. I completed it in my own time whilst on a part-time contract at Hull University and in any spare time I could find whilst also teaching summer school. Finally, my greatest debt is to my family, and particularly my parents, Mary and Alfred Ramsden, for their unfailing love and support.

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XIV, 184
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
French Literature Comparative Literature History Travel Tales Reportage Documentary Works Autobiography
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. XIV, 184 pp.

Biographical notes

Maureen A. Ramsden (Author)

Maureen A. Ramsden obtained her PhD from Harvard University. She has held lectureships at the University of St Andrews and King’s College London, before her current teaching position at the University of Hull. She specialises in the interrelation of fact and fiction in documentary works and in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century novel. Her main interest is the study of Proust with a genetic and structural approach.


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