Fiction or nonfiction?

Editors ponder which bestseller list Edmund Morris' Reagan biography should go on.


Craig Offman
October 2, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

With Edmund Morris' "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan" doubtless destined for the bestseller lists, editors are having to ask themselves a crucial question: Is this biography with a fictionalized narrator fiction or nonfiction? The question may sound preposterous, but toward the end of the week, some very influential editors were sitting on the fence.

As of Thursday, Charles "Chip" McGrath, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, was hedging. "I'm thinking about it and talking to people at the bestseller list about it," he said. "Historically we've tended to follow the lead of publishers and bookstores. That's to call it what they call it, even if we don't necessarily agree." Referring to the day the book review goes to press, he added, "The next time I have to worry about it is Wednesday."

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No decision had been reached at another important bestseller list either. "I don't know yet -- I'd have to look into it a little more," said Daisy Maryles, executive editor of Publishers Weekly, although she added that she hadn't given it much thought. "There have been books of 'faction'" -- the hybrid of fiction and fact -- "that use a fictional demonstration to talk about a nonfiction incident. That happened with 'Schindler's List.' It was true, but [Thomas Keneally, the author] used a narrative form. I don't know what liberties he did take or didn't take. To be perfectly honest, the question would be best asked in a couple of days. It's just not today's headache."

If it sounds as though Publishers Weekly may be leaning toward the fiction list, the Wall Street Journal is tilting the other way. "We're pretty sure we're going to put it on the nonfiction list," says reporter Bob Hughes, who compiles the Journal's bestseller lists. "Next week we might reconsider. We don't know."

As far as Morris' publisher is concerned, though, there is no debate. "It's a work of nonfiction," says Random House's chief spokesman, Stuart Applebaum. "Period."

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Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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