No word for "textural truth"

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Philip Maughan, "Colum McCann: 'What could be worse that [sic] being called a historical novelist?'", The New Stateman 7/4/2013:

Q: And, of course, there is a narrative element to any work of non-fiction.
A: I’m interested in the idea that these categories don’t really exist. Aleksandar Hemon says that, in Bosnian, there is no word for either “fiction” or “non-fiction”: there is only “storytelling”. He inserts himself into much of his work but it’s a construct. To put it another way, what Google or Wikipedia says about you might be an utter fiction. The storyteller must at least be responsible to a textural truth: not so much the dates and facts but the textural contradictions that he or she finds.

Do you suppose he meant "textual"? Or, perhaps, said "textual" and was mis-transcribed? (The typo in the headline suggests less-than-meticulous editing…)

But I'm interested in texture (in its somewhat more literal meanings), and so I kind of like the concepts of "textural truth" and "textural contradiction". Current scientific reconstructions of (visual or acoustic or haptic) texture are in terms of a sort of stochastic grammar, or at least a statistical characterization of appropriately-chosen features. (See e.g. "Rhyme schemes, texture discrimination and monkey syntax", 2/9/2006; "Starlings", 3/27/2006; "The texture of time: Even educated fleas do it", 11/24/2009; "The syntax of texture and the texture of syntax", 9/10/2012)

So in an image or a sound, it makes sense to talk about a region that doesn't match the local texture, in the sense that the relevant statistics are wrong in that patch, to one degree or another. And you can certainly extend that metaphorical reconstruction to the pattern of events in a story.

But Victor Steinbok sent the link to McCann's interview as a contribution to our No Word For X file. So what about the Bosnian word for fiction? Various online dictionaries suggest "bajka", "izmišljanje", "fikcija",  "izmišljotina". But these may mean things more like "fabrication" or "lie" rather than referring to a genre of literature.

Still, even if none of these single words is a good fit, presumably there's a phrase that does the trick, and Bosnian newspapers, bookstores and libraries have some ways of referring to concepts like "science fiction" — or, for that matter, "historical fiction".

Since I know nothing at all about Bosnian, I'll turn this over to more knowledgable readers for discussion.

I should add that McCann would not be the first person to use "textural truth" in relation to story-telling:

But his stories express a good part of the structural and atmospheric, if not the textural, truth of his time and place, and no one has approximated as shatteringly as he the chronic repressed hysteria of certain kinds of familial relations. [From the Kenyon Review, 1949]

Within the large, structural symbolism of plot and meaning, that is, he may be able to disclose textural truth — symbols, if we insist — that help to illuminate and vivify the structural. [from The Art of Willa Cather, 1974]

This might get someone an advanced degree, but it will not get the reader even one degree closer to a feel for the reality, the textural truth, of the world of foster care. [From Solomon says: a speakout on foster care, 1989]

But the first and third of these to be a fancy way of talking about the "feel" — the sensory immediacy — of a situation. The second one just seems to mean something like "named details". McCann apparently has something else in mind.

And by the way, for the original quotes from Aleksandar Hemon, see Brad Fox, "There is no real life", Guernica 3/15/2013:

Guernica: Your new collection, to be released next week, is called The Book of My Lives. Is it a kind of memoir?
Aleksandar Hemon: No. Memoir implies the need to reveal something about yourself—to recount your life for educational purposes. In the olden days, a memoir was something written by Churchill and people like that, because they had a grand experience and considered it useful for future generations. And then it became what it became—a public purging in which other people have the chance to judge you and then forgive you, perhaps learning something from your sorry example. That was not the impetus for me. My impetus was to tell stories. 

The funny thing is that in Bosnia there are no words that are equivalent to fiction and nonfiction. From the storytelling point of view, the difference is artificial. What if the umbrella term for all that is story? It is my belief that we as human beings have a need to tell stories—I think it’s evolutionary. So you can think of the short story as a literary form, or you can instead think of stories. For instance, to me, this complies with the definition of story: I went to buy a bottle of water and got lost. You can tell that story to your friend, and it can last for four sentences and contain no great drama or messages, but it is still a story of what happened. I imagine in the olden days, the cannibals would come back and say, “We saw a nice plump group of people in the woods. Come with me and bring the spits.” They would tell people what they saw. Now we think in terms of information—if you have information you’ve got the world by the balls. But we have to convert information into knowledge in order to make it humanly useful.

So evolutionary psychology, like history, eventually repeats itself as farce.

Update — I note that the Bosnian wikipedia entry for Fiction is named Fikcija, and there is no Bosnian entry for non-fiction.


  1. Jon Weinberg said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 8:30 am

    McCann has previously referred to the difference between "factual truth" and "textual truth", so likely "textual" is what he meant here. See ; .

    I like the phrase "textural truth", though.

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 8:34 am

    I'm curious. What would lead you to think he meant or said textual truth rather than textural truth? Saying the storyteller is responsible for textual truth would imply that the story must consist of verifiable facts (true facts in the text), whereas I can think of no storyteller who would think that as important as revealing deep human truths through the artifices of storytelling—allegory, fable, and so forth—none of which purport to consist entirely of textual truth. So my guess is that textural is the word he meant and said.

    [(myl) It seemed to me that "textual truth" was a more straightforward, less fanciful concept than "textural truth" — and Jon Weinberg's research reveals that it's indeed probably what McCann actually said. But I agree with you that "textural truth" is a more interesting idea.]

  3. Ellen K. said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 8:37 am

    My take is the intended meaning is a cross between textual and textural.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 9:52 am

    Google translate has split the Former Yugoslav Language of Serbo-Croatian into 3 pieces thus far: Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian.. (Montenegrin must lack lobbying clout.) If you take it at face value, Bosnian and Croatian have "fikcija" for "fiction" but lack a word for non-fiction. Serbian, however, has фикција for fiction and публицистика for non-fiction. You would think that (modulo transliteration) speakers of Bosnian would understand the latter, although oddly enough google translate's Serbian->Bosnian feature gives "fikcija" as its Bosnian translation . .. (but the transliterated "publikistika" as its Croatian translation, which translates back into English as "fiction").

    Input from someone who actually knows FYLOSC would probably be helpful.

  5. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 10:03 am

    This seems similar to the tortuous/torturous confusion. The speaker certainly has the intended meaning in mind, but fails to appreciate the subtlety of pronunciation difference.

  6. D.O. said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 11:04 am

    FWIW, according to Google translate both Romance and Slavic languages lack native expressions for non-fiction. The only exception is Russian were G.t. thinks that adequate translation is научно-популярные (popular science, for some reason in the plural form of adjective). Russian in general uses the word литература (literature?) for what is written in the books with designation художественная литература (art literature) for fiction and AFAIK lacks fixed term for the umbrella of all non-fiction genres. Note that English non-fiction excludes texts that are supposed to be based on facts, but are not for popular reading (scientific journals, textbooks, technical manuals etc.)

    [(myl) The site offers evidence that the concept is alive and well among current French speakers.]

  7. Dick Margulis said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 11:50 am

    @myl: I can see now that Weinberg's research confirms your initial take. I guess I was biased toward textural because of my familiarity with textura (the lettering style exemplified by Gutenberg's bible font), so named because the printed (or, earlier, scribed) page resembled a woven textile. Text (from the metaphoric weaving of words rather than the physical similarity to weaving), textile, texture, and textura tend to chase each other's tails when I'm thinking about words on paper.

  8. Rod Johnson said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

    I think that "non-fiction" is more or less a category invented by librarians for, well, books that aren't fiction. According to this, it dates to 1867 in a report by the Boston Public Library. Not exactly a word with deep roots in the psyche of a people.

    Whether some language does or doesn't have it seems to represent nothing deeper than the vagaries of a certain recent sort of commercial activity. If I said "Kikuyu doesn't have a word for 'slipstream'" or "There's no word for 'cookbook' in Telegu," (or "there's no word for 'haberdasher' in Slovenian") would that be an interesting claim? Or, to the extent Serbian has borrowed the convention from the English publishing world, does that tell us anything about the Serbian mind?

    Sorry for continuing this digression, but this just seems like a particularly dumb use of the no word for X trope.

    [(myl) McCann (like Hemon) wants to call into question the validity (or at least the relevance and interest) of the distinction between narratives that claim to be factual and those that don't. But I would be very surprised to learn that there is any language or culture that fails to distinguish, at least in principle, between truth and fable. And in that context, it's not very relevant whether a society has bookstore sections that combine all the genres of purportedly factual publication, such as history, geography, popular science; or indeed whether that society has bookstores at all.

    Most of McCann's argument is of the form "I'm not interested in the distinction between truth and fiction, as far as I'm concerned it's all just story-telling, and it doesn't matter to me whether a story is all true, partly true, or not at all true, as long as it works as a text." That's a perfectly reasonable position for a writer to take. But he sticks in a bit of No Word For X decoration at the start, which seems to be intended to suggest that the whole fiction/nonfiction distinction is a local invention of modern Western intellectuals, so that no one should really be much concerned with it.]

  9. John Lawler said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

    I think the link between fabrical texture and fabricated text is implicit, unavoidable, and very, very ancient. As I put it in a handout once,

    Weaving/Fabric metaphors in writing, narrative, and lying (coherent with PIE *teks- cognates in these frames)

    the loom of language, to weave a story, to follow the thread of (a) discourse, the warp and woof of writing

    including some especially about lying as an inescapable aspect of narration:

    to spin a yarn, a tissue/fabric of lies, to pull the wool over one’s eyes, made out of whole cloth, fabricated evidence.

  10. Ethan said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

    I am reminded of the local storyteller Johnny Moses, who tells tales from various Northwest tribal traditions. When I have heard him, he has begun with the introduction: "All the stories I will tell you are true. Some of them even happened".

  11. Ellen K. said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

    I agree with Rod Johnson that "non-fiction" is a label based upon how we categorize books. Non-fiction does not mean stuff that's true. Non-fiction includes poetry, plays, and folklore. Even if the stories aren't true. Non-fiction includes religion and mythology. They aren't in the fiction section of the library, but the non-fiction. It's really a meaningless word to apply to an individual work.

    Which I suppose just underlines the point that Hemon's bringing in the "no word for" trope is inappropriate. The distinction isn't appropriate to his point.

    On the other hand, what he said read as refreshingly good in comparison to McCann's description of what he said.

  12. D.O. said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

    @myl: of course, I just was curious whether there is a native word or they borrow.

  13. Bloix said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

    It's pretty obvious, isn't it, that English doesn't "have a word" for non-fiction?

  14. Colin Fine said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

    "Non-fiction" is one of those "other" or "defined by what it's not" terms that occur in popular use, but are hard to sustain as a classification with any explanatory force;
    like "foreign", "invertebrate" and "non-euclidean".
    But as "fiction" is a fairly sophisticated category, it's not a surprise that a term for its not terribly coherent converse is lacking in some languages.

  15. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 7:10 pm

    D.O., in Italian I would say that the distinction between narrativa and saggistica is at least very similar to that between fiction and non-fiction in English. The only difference that I can immediately think of (there may be subtler ones I'm missing) is that the Italian words only categorize books. And indeed, in contemporary Italian fiction is also a countable word meaning "TV series".

    I don't speak any Slavic language, but Google shows that several of them including Bosnian and Croatian have the word esejistika. I wonder if they give it a considerably more restrictive meaning than Italian.

  16. Lazar said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 7:16 pm

    @Ellen K.: Are you sure that plays are considered non-fiction? Poetry, folklore, religion and mythology I suppose I can understand, but I have trouble wrapping my head around the idea of plays being in there.

  17. Ellen K. said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 9:23 pm

    I work in a library. Plays are most definitely in the non-fiction section. Not because they aren't fiction, but because of how libraries are organized. (Not universally, but commonly.) Labels aren't definitions, and non-fiction is a label, not a definition. You could look at it as meaning not categorized as fiction, without saying anything about what it is.

  18. Jon Weinberg said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 9:39 pm

    If we're treating English "nonfiction" and "fiction" as defined by "what libraries do" (Ellen K.'s approach), we should keep in mind that neither the Dewey nor the LC classification systems draws an especially sharp fiction/nonfiction distinction. Instead, both systems have a broad category for "literature" that includes both made-up and assertedly-true stuff: poetry, drama, prose fiction, essays, speeches, diaries, letters, etc. Public libraries break out novels into a separate section for the convenience of patrons, but they could just file them under Dewey call number 813.

  19. George Amis said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 9:56 pm

    Thomas De Quincy's 1848 essay, "The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power" addresses a similar, if not quite identical, issue. It seems to have very little to do with the practices of modern libraries.

  20. D.O. said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 10:02 pm

    By the way, what is the English word for fact-based narratives? Non-fiction is clearly too broad. Would real-life story do?

  21. marie-lucie said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 10:24 pm

    myl: non-fiction … alive and well among French speakers

    The words 'fiction' and 'non-fiction' with their English meanings are demonstrably recent borrowings from English. I used to know "une fiction" as something similar to English 'myth' in its popular meaning, something invented, but not a literary theme or work. There was also "science-fiction", for the genre, as in English and obviously borrowed from it. I think that 'a work of fiction' would have been "une œuvre d'imagination".

  22. Pete said,

    July 8, 2013 @ 4:11 am

    The phrase dokumentarna literatura yields non-fiction or nonfiction in various online dictionaries, although admittedly it seems a bit of a circumlocution compared to the English.

    Fikcija is clearly fiction though.

  23. Eric Christopherson said,

    July 9, 2013 @ 11:02 am

    McCann's use of the word "texture" on PBS NewsHour ( suggests that "textural" was correct.

  24. mira said,

    July 9, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

    I think it's typically Central European to divide up books by their purpose — art vs. information — rather than by whether their contents are fictional vs. non-fictional.

  25. Corey B said,

    July 10, 2013 @ 9:02 am

    @Bloix: Exactly what I was thinking. The very structure of the English word, "non-fiction", causes the dictum of "one distinct, specific lexical item per one meaning ONLY" to collapse under any scrutiny.

    Certainly, "non" is an active forming prefix in English, correct? Or am I non-correct? If so, then "non-fiction" must be "non-English" :)

  26. Dominik Lukes (@techczech) said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 2:27 am

    Bit late, but I'd like to offer my support for the term "textural truth" from the Halidayan sense of texture as a measure of text cohesion. In my research comparing texture in CzechEnglish translation I found strong hints that good translation often achieves some sort of cohesive harmony over literal translation.

    I have also had a lot of trouble translating fiction/non-fiction into Czech. While there is 'literatura faktu' to cover the more factual non-fiction, that won't include most self-help books or any cook books. Also, in fiction we have 'beletrie' but that does not cover fiction nicely. So for instance, 'historical fiction' is translated as 'historický román' and Science Fiction is simply SciFi with no attributive relationship. The word 'fikce' only means 'invented truths' and is often a 'false friend' to Czechs learning English and vice versa.

    So this is not the case of 'no word for X', but rather 'too many words for X' on both ends that don't neatly match up but cover the conceptual area quite nicely albeit with some consequences to neat equivalence.

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