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An Introduction to Literary Nonfiction

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Senjuti Patra

Staff Writer

Senjuti was born and raised in Bankura, a small town in India. A reluctant economist, fierce feminist and history enthusiast, she spends most of her time reading. Her interaction with other people is largely limited to running away from them or launching into passionate monologues about her last perfect read or her latest fictional crush.

Literary nonfiction, also called creative nonfiction, is an umbrella term that includes all writing that is based in reality and has been written with specific attention to the craft of writing, using literary techniques to talk about subjects that are not made up. Potentially any kind of nonfiction can be literary nonfiction, except, perhaps, technical and academic writing whose subjects and purpose demand precision and unambiguity. As Creative Nonfiction puts it, literary or creative nonfiction is simply true stories, well told.

Fiction and nonfiction have always shared techniques and approaches. Many novelists do extensive research to recreate a place or a time in the pages of their novels, and this enables them to create intricately detailed scenes, which help draw the reader in. Even speculative fiction narratives that operate in their own worlds conceived by the writers’ imagination often draw from the real world, and from the works of writers before them. Similarly, a mere recitation of dry facts do not make for compelling or convincing reading, and all influential works of nonfiction are characterized by a mastery of the craft and excellence in style. It is, then, a little unfair to define literary nonfiction as nonfiction that borrows elements of style and narration from fiction — since writers of nonfiction have skillfully wielded these tools in their work in all of literary history.

Literary Nonfiction: the Question of Ethics and the Line Between Fact and Fiction

Even though literary or creative nonfiction has been around for a long time, the relatively recent nomenclature and its establishment as a broad genre receiving wider readership has people questioning the propriety of using creativity in the presentation of facts. Can a text that creates or manipulates facts pass off as creative nonfiction?

In a 1987 article, Eric Heyne, following a distinction between fictional and factual narratives originally proposed by by John Searle, breaks down the determination of the factual nature of a text into two parts. The first is factual status — whether the writer intends their work to be perceived as factual. The second is factual adequacy — how true the facts that the writer proposes are. In other words, the intention of the author is what determines whether or not a text will be read as nonfiction. On the other hand, for a text, literary or not, to be factually adequate, or good nonfiction, its factual correctness has to pass the scrutiny of its readers.

The scope for creativity in nonfiction is vast in style, structure, and narrative, but writers of good creative nonfiction cannot create facts or use their craft to deceive readers or manipulate the truth. The contract between the writer and the reader should be explicit — the narrative should allow the reader to distinguish between creative maneuvers by the author and objective truths. Literary nonfiction often involves more in-depth research, for the literary narrative has to be detailed to be compelling, and at the same time factually correct.

Types of Literary Nonfiction

Almost any subject under the sun can be approached with a creative, refreshing take and with the right arsenal of literary tools by the right person. Understandably, literary nonfiction comes in many forms. It can be personal, like memoirs, autobiography, or personal essays. It can be topical, like history, science writing, and nature writing. Here are some popular sub-genres of literary nonfiction, with reading recommendations for each.

Lyrical Memoir

The lyrical memoir is probably the flag bearer of the genre at the moment, with its seamless blending of personal stories with larger themes that resonate with readers, as well as poetic, engrossing narratives. Unlike autobiography, in which the author talks about their whole life, memoirs have a specific focus. Following are two examples, and you can find more here.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou’s beautiful coming-of-age memoir is a classic of the sub-genre. This beautiful book about a young girl overcoming trauma inflicted on her by an oppressive racist society does not shy away from discussing intimate personal details, and does so with stunningly poetic prose.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

There are three threads in this book — the author’s grief at the sudden death of her father, her experience training a goshawk she adopted shortly after her father’s death, and the writer T.H. White, who shared the author’s interest in falconry. These threads are artfully woven together in a moving memoir that is also great nature writing.

Personal Essays

In personal essays, a writer might explore a variety of subjects through a subjective, personal stand point. The are often anchored by a personal event that impacted the writer’s life or world view in a major way. Personal essay collections are a great point of entry into the genre, with their shorter format and specific narrative threads that hold the reader’s interest. Here are a couple to get you started.

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

A classic of American literature, Notes of a Native Son is a collection of ten essays that established James Baldwin as a leading literary voice. The essays cover a variety of topics, ranging from literary criticism, life in Harlem to lives of black people outside America, informed by Baldwin’s experiences as an African American at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

This collection of essays is a classic of the genre, and a portrait of America, especially California, in the 1960s. Joan Didion is one of the most prominent authors of literary nonfiction, and two of her more recent works, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, are powerful explorations of grief.

Want more? Here is a list of 50 must-read contemporary essay collections.

Science Writing

Creative, literary treatment of scientific subjects make them accessible to lay-readers, and there are many authors today who write on a wide variety of scientific topics in engaging prose. My personal favorite are science history books, which not only break down complex scientific concepts, but also provide an account of the path through which humans arrived at this knowledge, a journey which is often as nail-biting as thrillers.

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

This is a superbly written book about the science and the history of genetics. Told with enormous empathy and backed by thorough research and expertise, the story of the discovery of the code that governs our lives is one of the most interesting stories I have ever read. Mukherjee’s Pulitzer prize winning history of cancer, The Emperor of all Maladies, is equally brilliant.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Silent Spring is credited with having launched the modern environmental movement. Centered around the adverse effects of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, this book was a timely warning against human arrogance about the ability to exploit the natural world. The far-reaching and long-lasting impact of Silent Spring is a testimony to the power of Carson’s writing.

You can find more recommendations here.

Narrative Journalism

Narrative journalism is reportage that uses techniques of storytelling to construct a gripping, but factual narrative. Through the use of literary techniques, narrative journalism often manages to have greater sway over the opinions of readers, and authors of this genre have sometimes successfully drawn public attention to injustices and catalyzed change.

Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly

In 1887, Nellie Bly went undercover in one of New York City’s asylums to report first hand on the lives of its inhabitants. The horrors she bore witness to are the subject of this book, which is a precursor of both the stunt memoir and narrative journalism genres. Bly’s reportage shocked the public and eventually led to increased budget allocations for the asylum.

Hiroshima John Hersey cover in 100 Must Read Books About World War II |

Hiroshima by John Hersey

John Hersey’s Hiroshima is one of the earliest examples of narrative journalism that helped usher in the age of New Journalism, as it was called then. Hersey interviewed six survivors of the nuclear attack, and these accounts opened the eyes of the American public to the enormous scale of the devastation that had been wreaked by the bombing and made them question the morality of nuclear warfare.

Here are some more examples of narrative journalism.

Narrative History

History is overflowing with important and exciting true stories waiting to be told. Any well written historical narrative can potentially read like a novel. Another genre that is a personal favorite, it is replete with gems that blend extensive research with skillful prose.

Figuring by Maria Popova

This book is written by Maria Popova, whose blog, Brain Pickings, is a great source for your daily dose of literary nonfiction. It is an ode to the never ending human search for meaning, through a narrative that blends together the lives of several artists, writers, scientists and visionaries, including Johannes Kepler, Maria Mitchell, Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, and Rachel Carson, among others.

the black count

The Black Count by Tom Reiss

The Black Count is the true story of the man who inspired classics like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. General Alex Dumas, father of Alexander Dumas, was the son of a formerly enslaved person who rose through the ranks of the French Army. This true story of his life is an engaging tale of adventure in a multi-racial society.

Quotidian Nonfiction

I stumbled across this beautiful term in an essay in Creative Nonfiction, and it neatly fits two of the best nonfiction books I read recently. In the essay, Patrick Madden, author of Quotidiana, a collection of essays inspired by the commonplace, talks about the pleasures of slowing down to meditate on the ordinary components of everyday life. Another relatively recent and well known example of this category is Ross Gay’s uplifting Book of Delights. Indeed, there is something refreshingly calming to read about the quotidian, and the languorous, reflective tone of such books can accommodate exquisitely elegant prose.

sound of a wild snail eating cover

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

When Elisabeth Tova Bailey was struck by a mysterious illness that confined her to the bed, she found company in a common woodland snail that was left in a pot of violets in her sick room by her friend. This book is a beautiful tale of resilience told through the mundane occurrences in the lives of the snail and its human observer.

How I Became A Tree by Sumana Roy

In this gorgeous book, Sumana Roy muses about the lives of trees, and what it would mean to live like one. She talks about tiny details from the natural world at length, putting into perspective our own cluttered existence within it.

The books and sub-genres discussed in this article are a very small fraction of what literary nonfiction has to offer, but I hope it will serve as a good introduction — especially if you are primarily a reader of fiction who is trying to get into nonfiction. Once you are through with this list, we have more books that you can read here and here.