This form of fiction was invented by the Goncourt brothers, Edmond (1822–96) and Jules (1830–70), in the 1860s. They used the term roman documentaire but their novels were rather different from their documentary successors. In the 20th C. such a novel has become a form of fiction which, like documentary drama, is based on documentary evidence in the shape of newspaper articles, legal reports, archives, and recent official papers, sometimes described as ‘instant fiction’. The documentary novel uses authentic historical material but presents it through the techniques and forms of creative literature: the novelists adopt documented facts to support a view of a history that typically differs from accepted tradition.
Memorable examples have been Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966).
Another kind of documentary novel is that which deals with a prominent contemporary matter almost by anticipation, for example: Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) and Morris West’s In the Shoes of the Fisherman (1963). An interesting recent use of documentary technique combined with conventional narrative occurs in V. S. Naipaul’s In a Free State (1971).