Glenn Beck’s Roots

Glenn Beck says his new novel, The Overton Window, shouldn’t be categorized as either fact or fiction. “While nonfiction books aim to enlighten, the goal of most thrillers is to entertain,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “But there is a category of novels that do both: ‘faction’—completely fictional books with plots rooted in fact, and that is the category I strived for with The Overton Window.”

Setting aside any critical assessments of the book—which I haven’t read but sounds just awful—the portmanteau is interesting. What kind of book is Beck thinking of when he thinks about “faction”? The last author I heard proclaim a work “faction” was Norma Khouri in Forbidden Lie$, a 2007 documentary about how she hoodwinked the publishing industry with Honor Lost a fabricated memoir about honor killings in Jordan. By the point she calls Honor Lost “faction,” she’s looking fairly desperate to salvage her wrecked reputation, so that probably isn’t the tradition Beck wishes to be a part of.

Best as I can tell, the first modern author to embrace the term “faction” was Alex Haley, who told the New York Times that his 1976 bestseller, Roots, was a blend of fact and fiction: “The beginning is a re-creation, using novelistic techniques, but as it moves forward more is known and it becomes more factually based.” The criticism Roots received for its faction-ness my explain why the term never got much traction among publishers, even though the book was a huge success. “Faction” kept academics busy, though. Google the words “postmodern” and “faction” and you’ll find a fair amount of commentary, generally circling around the early 90s, about “faction” books like In Cold Blood and The Armies of the Night. For scholars wishing to riff on the instability of language and/or society in the modern age, the New Journalism offered plenty of thesis fodder. But in a 1993 interview with Salmagundi, Don DeLillo called bullshit on the term while discussing his 1998 novel about the JFK assassination, Libra:

Q: Do you approve of their being described as post-modern novels? How do you react to such a formulation?

A: I don’t react. But I’d prefer not to be labeled. I’m a novelist, period. An American novelist. When Libra came out some people started to talk about facts, fiction and writing, about documentary writing and so on. But Libra is just a novel. Look, Homer wrote about real people around 4,000 years ago and we continue to do the same things except we call it a novel. Right?

Q: And what do you think of that strange neologism, “faction”?

A: It’s terrible; it’s outdated. It was new a few years ago and then it disappeared. The term isn’t worth anything. It’s stupid.

7 thoughts on “Glenn Beck’s Roots

  1. I’ve never heard that word before. It made me think of Dave Eggers’ What is the What and Zeitoun, both transparently based on real people with their stories recreated. As far as I know he referred to them as fiction and novels, not “faction.” The word “faction” feels like a graceless attempt to not fully own up to the fictional element of the story. (Also, I’m against unnecessary portmanteaus — but that is another matter…)

  2. Interesting post. I have a review of Overton’s Window, the political theory, on my blog that might interest you.

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