Biofiction is literature that names its protagonist after a historical figure, and since the 1990s it has become one of the most dominant literary forms. This is surprising because many prominent scholars, critics, and writers have criticized and even condemned it. This essay hypothesizes that postmodern theories of truth and concomitant transformations in reader sensibilities partly account for the legitimization and now dominance of biofiction. The essay analyzes a 1968 literary debate among Ralph Ellison, William Styron, and Robert Penn Warren, which on the surface concerned the uses of history in literature. But because it happened just one year after the publication of Styron’s controversial novel about Nat Turner, the debate ended up focusing primarily on the nature and value of biofiction. By analyzing the discussion in relation to contemporary formulations about and theorizations of biofiction, this essay illustrates why the forum represents a turning point in literary history, resulting in the decline of a traditional type of literary symbol and the rise of a more anchored and empirical symbol—that is, the type of symbol found in biofiction.

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