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Artemisia and the blurring of lines in fiction and nonfiction

The more I read, the more I notice the lines blurring between fiction and nonfiction. I recently read Artemisia: A Novel by Alexandra Lapierre. The book is essentially a biography of Artemesia Gentileschi. She is the daughter of the famed artist Orazio Gentileschi, and she became a renowned painter in her own right in the 1600s. It’s a fascinating story, and I confess I had not heard of her before. The story ends on page 360. Pages 361 – 424 consist of notes on research and source material. When I picked up the book, I assumed it was nonfiction, along the lines of what I would call “creative nonfiction.” But as I read, I discovered the story changed from the more nonfiction narrative to that of recreated scenes that are clearly fictionalized. Later I found the Daily News had labeled the book historical fiction.

This movement between the two landscapes of fiction and nonfiction can be fascinating. Capote’s In Cold Blood contained “fictionalized” scenes and, of course, there’s the whole Dutch Ronald Reagan biography controversy. Artemesia’s author has pulled the dialogue in the book from letters and other sources. Although the crafting of the scenes occurs in the fictional realm, the story strikes a ring of truth. The author may have drawn many conclusions, but then, most biographers draw conclusions . . . . I found the book compelling; the story remaining with me during the day and urging me back into its pages every evening. And despite the obvious fictionalizing of scenes, I couldn’t stop thinking of the story in terms of nonfiction. Is this really so different from what is now being done in the memoir field or in some of the new creative nonfiction novels such as those by Dava Sobel or Eric Larson in Isaac’s Storm? I don’t know. I’ve always thought of historical fiction in terms of stories like Horatio Hornblower .

Fiction or nonfiction? I suppose the question doesn’t matter that much but I do find it curious. I wonder if anyone really is certain which is which anymore?

There are many reasons to enjoy Artemisia: A Novel. Art and a good story are but two.

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  • Mark

    Although I enjoy pure history, I’ve also been drawn frequently to fictionalized accounts based on historic fact. It’s everywhere, from Barbara Tuchman to William Safire, even IMHO to John Jakes with his “Kent Chronicles” from years ago. Of course, one can be misled by such accounts unless one knows the “real” history independently. Then we have the reconstructed histories all the fashion now, like Newt Gingrich’s novel of Gettysburg where the South wins, etc… Interesting stuff. :)