Another Oprah Book Raises Issues of Fact vs. Fiction
1/17/2006 7:29 PM PT
BY HILLEL ITALIE, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
NEW YORK -- Another Oprah book club pick has raised the issue of fact vs. fiction.
Amazon.com said Tuesday that it was changing the categorization of a new edition of Elie Wiesel's "Night" and revising the editorial description of a previous text edition to make clear that it considers the book a memoir, not a novel.
"We hope to make these changes as quickly as possible," said Jani Strand, a spokeswoman for the online retailer.
Wiesel did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment.
On Monday, Winfrey announced that Wiesel's classic account of his family's placement in the Auschwitz death camp was her latest choice. "Night" quickly topped the best seller list on Amazon.com, displacing Winfrey's previous selection, James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces."
Frey's story of substance abuse has been widely disputed, with the author acknowledging that he had embellished parts of the book, as reported by the investigative Web site, The Smoking Gun. Frey and Winfrey have defended "A Million Little Pieces," saying any factual problems were transcended by the book's emotional power.
No such allegations are being made about "Night," but there has long been confusion over how to label it. While Wiesel and his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, call it a memoir, "Night" is frequently listed as fiction on course syllabuses and is described in an Amazon.com editorial review as "technically a novel," albeit so close to Wiesel's life that "it's generally -- and not inaccurately -- read as an autobiography."
Wiesel first wrote the book in the 1950s in Yiddish, then translated it into French. Hill & Wang, which Farrar, Straus now owns, published the original English-language edition in 1960. Wiesel's wife, Marion Wiesel, has translated the current English version.
Amazon.com has been categorizing the new edition of "Night" under "fiction and literature," but is switching the book to "biography and memoir," blaming the problem on its "data source."
"Amazon.com's data source for the Oprah's Book Club edition of 'Night' inaccurately classified the book as fiction," said Strand, who declined to offer details.
Meanwhile, Amazon's editorial description of an earlier edition, published by Bantam in the 1980s, is being edited "to make it explicitly clear that 'Night' is nonfiction," Strand said. The Bantam version, which is already classified under "biography and memoir," was No. 3 on Amazon.com as of Tuesday afternoon.
Strand described such changes as "unusual," but not rare.
Also Tuesday, "Night" topped both the "biography" and "fiction" best seller lists on Barnes & Noble.com. A Barnes & Noble spokeswoman did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University, says Wiesel's book is often labeled as fiction because of the book's sophisticated narrative style, which resembles a novel.
Karen Hall, who has taught a course on the "literature of trauma" at Syracuse University, calls "Night" a "trauma narrative" and says such books are unavoidably subjective. She regards the book as a novel and plans to keep doing so.
"For me, then, 'Night' is 100 percent true in its call to readers to remember the Holocaust, listen to and learn from its survivors, and never to allow such an event to take place again," Hall says.
"That Wiesel would prefer it to be called a memoir doesn't impact my understanding of the text, as once it has left the author's desk, it is the reader's to work with."