THE OTHER BOOKS: THE PROBLEM OF NON-FICTION

I seem to be developing an allergy to novels, for causes I find hard to diagnose. I have frequently heard that when compulsive readers reach a certain age (em, mid-forties) we get tired of novels and seek in other genres the literary and intellectual satisfaction we crave for. This may be happening to me, as for the first time in my reading life, I’m avoiding novels (except the ones I teach, of course…). What am I reading instead? Drama, poetry and everything else, that is to say, non-fiction.

I find the label ‘non-fiction’ lazy and silly; it sounds even worse in Spanish or Catalan, trust me. Yet, as often happens with lazy, silly labels (think: Romanticism) it has stuck and it is beginning to create a serious problem: how to define the genre (non-genre?) it names. Strictly speaking, the problem has been around for quite some time and what I really mean is that now that I’m itching to teach a course (sooner or later) I find myself concerned with it. That’s egotism for you.

Surfing the net, I’ve come across two interesting lists of non-fiction, both American as, somehow, the label seems to be more popular across the Ocean (Amazon.com includes the category in its best-sellers lists, Amazon.co.uk doesn’t). Check the list of 100 best non-fiction books at the Modern Library website (https://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-nonfiction/) and the counter-list at CounterPunch (https://www.counterpunch.org/top100nf.html), which also includes a twin list of non-fiction in non-English… Ualah!!, as kiddies say today. The horizon expands and suddenly I have almost 300 more interesting books to read. A miracle!

During surfing I also come across Lee Gutkind’s label ‘creative non-fiction’ (see the eponymous journal he founded at https://www.creativenonfiction.org/), which he uses to distinguish, with less than meridian clarity, non-fiction of a literary cast from the more utilitarian kind. ‘Non-fiction’ used to be called the ‘essay’ and even ‘belles-lettres’ but Gutkind seems to be guilty of persuading the National Endowment for the Arts to embrace ‘creative non-fiction’ as the comme-il-faut label in 1983. He mentions as examples of the best 20th century non-fiction classics like George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, “books that communicate information (reportage) in a scenic, dramatic fashion.” Of course, the genre becomes fully established with Truman Capote’s intense In Cold Blood. That might be it, for my own more recent favourites respond to that description: Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, Deborah Cadbury’s The Dinosaur Hunters, Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm and even Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down (in Spanish, Ignacio Elguero’s Los niños de los Chiripitifláuticos).

However, this category of the ‘lively reportage’ is to narrow to encompass all of (creative) non-fiction. The lists I’ve mentioned include plenty of other kinds of valuable non-fiction: from The Education of Henry Adams to Aspects of the Novel, passing through James Watson’s The Double Helix and even Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking (in non-English, some highlights are: Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, Barthers’ Mythologies, Rigoberta Menchu’s Autobiography and Hassan Fathy’s Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt).

I’m beginning to think that ‘non-fiction’ simply means an interesting book in prose which is not a novel (and not poetry and not drama)… This would be the equivalent of calling men ‘non-women,’ which might have a point but is hardly a useful, self-defining label. I do know there are narrower categories (the Wikipedia entry for ‘non-fiction’ gathers together 30 genres under this label!!), but I also know that when I visit the library I do not use them. I just want a non-novel, which, funnily enough includes drama (also fiction!!) and poetry (not quite, unless we’re talking Beowulf…).

More thinking to do… My, this never ends.

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