This is not REALLY another column about sorting, no matter how much it might sound like one. I seldom find much confusion about this little matter: it’s just one of those things. Actually, as usual, it’s really two or three of those things, but that’s the joy of life with books. Nothing’s ever quite that simple.
I have expressed the opinion now and again that seventy percent of all biographies REALLY ought to be sorted into Fiction. My percentage goes up to about ninety-five percent when it comes to autobiographies. Still, we have an unwritten rule here: if the publisher considered it to be nonfiction, the book needs to go into a nonfiction category. (Yes, there’s plenty of mock nonfiction out there this century, but most of that goes in Humor.) So we consider what people wrote about themselves in all seriousness to be considered True Facts.
The pull toward nonfiction is even stronger in some categories of people writing about themselves. The autobiographies of politicians, whether published in an election year or not, tend to lean toward the fanciful. The autobiographies of military leaders is similar. (The Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant is singled out from hundreds of other Civil War autobiographies as being both honest and factual—which tells you what historians think about the rest of ‘em.) Actors and actresses are USED to presenting themselves as something else (on the other hand, so few of them actually write their own autobiographies.)
But ah, travel writers! There are two types of travel writer: those who are writing a guide book based on their on-the-spot research (the word “I” does not appear so often in these) and the ones who want to tell you what fun or danger they encountered while they were doing all this research (even if they didn’t know at the time that they were DOING research.)
Indiana writer and former employee of Marshall Field Emily Kimbrough, for example, wrote such entertaining travel memoirs of the group voyages she made to Greece, New Orleans, and other enchanting locales that her books are simply shelved in the Humor section of most libraries. (Humor is one of those categories that embraces both fiction and nonfiction, and thus lets us sorters off the hook.) Her first book, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, co-written with Cornelia Otis Skinner, is considered a classic of American Humor even though it is, technically, a Travel book.
What brought this to my attention was the arrival of one of the last books of George Borrow, another of those great nineteenth century writers who somehow just never gets read much nowadays. George Borrow has had a checkered career at the Book Fair. Sometimes his books wind up in Literature, sometimes Biography, and sometimes Travel, because I’ve never been able to get a clear answer on whether his classic works—The Bible in Spain, Lavengro, and Romany Rye—are fiction or nonfiction. His Wild Wales arrived last week, and I decided to check with the high sheriffs online and get a definitive answer to this burning question.
I did. The definitive answer seems to be “Who knows?”
George Borrow was born in 1803: he was an Army brat, and grew up here and there. He was fascinated by language and literature, and his first book was an English translation of German version of Faust (not Goethe’s). This was burned in his hometown because he altered the text just enough to have the devil say something unpleasant about the city. Obviously, this was an author meant to travel.
His accounts of his voyages in Spain and Russia (where he went to do a Chinese translation of the New testament: you could do that in those days) were thoroughly admired. He was everything a travel writer ought to be: anecdotal, entertaining, curious. He sought out interesting things and people. Or he said he did. That’s what I mean about travel writers. If George Borrow tells a highly entertaining tale of meeting a bard in a village in Wales, do YOU want to run to Wales and check his facts? Neither did anyone in the nineteenth century.
On the other hand, that’s another thing about travel writers. As long as the story is fun to read and seems plausible to you, how much do you CARE whether it’s true?