This spring semester, a couple of other Phoebe folks and I are taking a course all about autobiographical fiction. Interestingly, the first book we read was Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which is memoir rather than fiction.
It was my first time reading A Moveable Feast. I loved it. I loved the evocativeness of the writing, the feeling of place, the way I could feel Paris’s damp air on my skin, the way I could smell the Seine, the way I could see the street-side cafes.
The back of my book – a 2003 Scribner edition – calls it a memoir and classifies it as literary nonfiction. Complicating this genre classification, the verso of the title page then gives the typical legal disclaimer: “This book is a work of fiction. …” and so on. Hemingway’s own preface teases us by offering this puzzle: “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”
I don’t want to rehash the question of the line between fiction and nonfiction—that’s been done, and I think we have a pretty good answer to it.
Generally, I think we’ve all agreed to regard A Moveable Feast as memoir, and as such, as creative nonfiction. Yet Hemingway’s own words in the preface raise an interesting point of view. I notice that he puts the choice on the reader: if YOU prefer, you may read this as fiction. But me, I read it as nonfiction.
I know that part of Hemingway’s statement points to the sticky and personal things he writes about other authors of that time. Yet it is so interesting, this speaking to and engaging with the reader.
What do you all think about Hemingway’s statement? This way of putting the choice on the reader? Are there any contemporary examples that ask something similar of the reader? I thought of Dave Eggers’ A Hearthbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which provides that whole (I think wonderful) first chapter about how to read the book and how to understand it. Are there others out there? What do you think about the author speaking directly to the reader?
Leslie Maxwell is a nonfiction editor at Phoebe.
As usual, Hemingway said it exactly right.