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I have always understood "novel" to refer specifically to a long, written, fictional tale. Novelists are distinct from nonfiction writers.

At my library, there is a section marked for "graphic novels" that contains both fiction and nonfiction. Wikipedia claims repeatedly that "graphic novel" just has a looser definition than "novel" and is not necessarily restricted to works of fiction but I notice that these repeated claims are not supported by citation, whereas the version of the definition that's explicitly restricted to fiction is cited as coming from Merriam-Webster.

I understand that there are different camps with regard to what makes a definition "correct" or not. What I'm concerned with here is clear communication. An increasing number of biographies, autobiographies and historical accounts seem to be using this format; if I refer to them as "graphic novels," am I giving the false impression that they are fictions? Is there a contemporary term for long-form, graphic nonfiction works that's less ambiguous?

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    I suspect that it's simply a matter that libraries group all holdings in this format together, and that group was named "graphic novels" before the non-fiction variety became a substantial presence. Probably in another ten years or so a new set of terminology will arise to properly subdivide the category. – Hot Licks Dec 18 '15 at 17:56
  • wikipedia is a joke, so you can forget that – Fattie Dec 18 '15 at 20:20
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No, its not. There are quite a few non-fiction works that have been published in this form, and modern ones are still typically described as "graphic novel"s.

To provide a specific example, there's March, the graphic novel covering the US Civil Rights movement from the point of view of John Lewis. It's essentially* a biography of the period, in graphic novel form.

Since I'm on the subject, I should also mention Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, published in 1957. Not only did it inspire March, but it inspired John Lewis to participate in the events depicted in March.

There are quite a few more though. Our local library has a whole shelf of graphic novel biographies. I have noticed that at least some people have trouble with this. A lot of official sources seem to prefer to use the term Graphic Nonfiction. But people without editorial standards boards standing over them smacking rulers into their palms in anticipation of grammatical misdeeds seem to just prefer to use the term "graphic novels" for nonfiction works as well.

* - I believe the modern setting scenes are somewhat fictionalized, but the flashbacks are autobiographical non-fiction.

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    @T.E.D- I've up-voted your answer and deleted my own. Well done! – Mark Hubbard Dec 18 '15 at 21:28
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The definition of 'graphic novel' is correct to mean works of nonfiction and fiction.

Truman Capote coined the term 'nonfiction novel' in 1965 for his work 'In Cold Blood'. If we are to assume there is a such thing as a 'nonfiction novel' then of course a 'graphic novel' can refer to fiction or nonfiction since the word 'novel' is not mutually exclusive to works of fiction.

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At the risk of being pedantic, I argue in favor of graphic non-fiction (as mentioned previously by TED and Mark Hubbard). The issue is that the term graphic novel is currently doing double duty. It was originally an alternative to comic book, created to recognize the reality that the subject matter was rarely "comic," and to add a sense of gravitas to a format whose content was often quite different than the old comic book collections that pioneered the format. So the term describes both the format and the content.

Unfortunately, the noun graphic does not stand well on its own as a generic description of the format (it already has its own meaning), so the entire phrase graphic novel is commonly used to mean the format, regardless of content. This, however, is both confusing and ambiguous. The simplest alternative is to let the adjectival graphic describe the format, and use the standard words we already have for the content. It's easy to understand, non-ambiguous, already in (limited) use, and not particularly cumbersome.

Of course, this does leave libraries and bookstores with an issue --they are currently assuming, probably correctly, that it is more useful to file graphic novels with graphic nonfiction than to segregate first by content and then by format. So what are they to call this section? I would suggest graphic books.

  • Well, as I said there are those in official circles that agree with you. For myself, I'm uncomfortable with that term in part because it ghettoizes non-fiction, and in part because it sounds like a euphemism for porn. (Wouldn't that be a weird fetish?). But as a linguistic descriptive matter, a quick search shows that people do in fact commonly refer to non-fiction comics as "graphic novels". – T.E.D. Dec 29 '15 at 19:42
  • @T.E.D. Your answer is descriptive, mine is prescriptive. I just thought it was important to give people an alternative of both, since Mark deleted his answer. And as far as auspicious sounding phrases, graphic non-fiction is no odder than graphic novel, we've just gotten used to the latter already. – Chris Sunami Dec 29 '15 at 19:51
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    I do like it in theory, (the theory being that we had the power to wipe away current usage and start afresh). Although even there I think you'd have people in the "graphic books" aisles looking for what my mother-in-law calls "bodice-rippers." ... or worse yet, the confusion causing that kind of material to take over the format (as happened with the designated adult "X" rating and movies). – T.E.D. Dec 29 '15 at 19:58
  • @T.E.D. You're underestimating the power we wield here! Your own posts have personally reached 1.8 million people, according to your stats. :) – Chris Sunami Dec 29 '15 at 20:07

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