MORE ON NON-FICTION: HOW ABOUT FACTUAL PROSE?

I wrote almost eleven years ago—time does fly indeed—a post almost identical to what I was planning to write today: “The Other Books: The Problem of Non-Fiction” (https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2011/04/25/the-other-books-the-problem-of-non-fiction/). Good thing that I checked before I started writing today. This is proof that I may be beginning to repeat myself after so many years blogging (I started in September 2010), or, alternatively, that each of us has a set of fixed interests and ideas that do not really vary along the years although we might have the impression that constant reading must have an impact on our thinking.

Eleven years ago I mentioned my growing allergy to novels (still increasing), that I find the label ‘non-fiction’ lazy (I find it now irritating), and that Lee Gutkind seems to be responsible for the slightly less lazy label ‘creative non-fiction’, used to distinguish non-fiction with literary aspirations from the more pedestrian purely journalistic type (see the eponymous journal he founded at https://www.creativenonfiction.org/). I mentioned back then some lists—’100 best non-fiction books’ is still available on the Modern Library website (https://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-nonfiction/)—to which I will add now Robert Crum’s ambitious list for The Guardian covering five centuries (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/31/the-100-best-nonfiction-books-of-all-time-the-full-list) and the ‘Must Read Non-Fiction’ list on GoodReads (https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/735.Must_Read_Non_Fiction). Wikipedia still has an entry for ‘nonfiction’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonfiction) with a bewildering array of sub-genres, which even includes ‘factual television’, that is to say TV documentaries.

I have been thinking about non-fiction again these days after reading Patrick R. Keefe’s captivating books Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (2020) and Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (2021), but failing to finish Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019), which is, as happens, a key volume to understand the 21st century and the originator of the indispensable label ‘surveillance capitalism’. Checking readers’ comments on GoodReads in the hopes that I would find some enticement to plod on (I still haven’t given up), I came across many complaints against Zuboff’s unfriendly prose—”The unnecessarily ornate writing style makes the content harder to comprehend and retain,” Lucy tersely wrote—with a person noting that this is typical of non-fiction. Hannah Cook specified that Zuboff’s volume is like “someone’s Phd thesis” with its avalanche of data, which is unsurprising, Cook added, since the author is a Harvard academic. “Not that everything should be dumbed down,” Cook concluded, “but this feels like it is purposefully trying to be hyper intellectual and the result is a giant yawn fest”. There is a lesson in all this about how non-fiction based on massive research, whether this is journalistic (Keefe’s case) or academic (Zuboff’s case), must result in books that can be consumed with no supplementary effort.

I remain, however, confused by why non-fiction encompasses such a wide-ranging territory, at least as the label is used by readers, publishing houses and even authors. Keefe’s mentions in his author’s note that he writes ‘narrative non-fiction’ and it is certainly the case that the two books I have read do tell a story accompanied by a massive influx of information. His non-fiction is quality journalism about individuals in key historical and social circumstances extended to book-size, and he uses narrative to sugar-coat, I think, the reading of the denser passages. It works very well. I was wondering, however, how this is different from Dave Eggers’s The Monk of Mokha (2018), a volume that kept me interested in the world of coffee in Yemen through the story of American-Yemini entrepreneur Mokhtar Alkhanshali, and I came to the conclusion that not that much, even though Egger’s book is closer to being a memoir written by someone else at many points. The memoirs I have read recently—Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart (2021) and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots (2012) —are also narrative non-fiction, but, of course, they are a first-person narrative, which is not common in the type of books that Keefe and other journalists write. As you can see, I remain confused by the gradation from journalism to the memoir since, to a certain extent, journalistic non-fiction can be personal without being exactly a memoir. From Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), which arguably inaugurates the current cycle of modern non-fiction to, for instance, Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003)—another fascinating recent read—the author of non-fiction is often present in the text even when this is presented as pure reportage.

I remain, as I was 11 years ago, puzzled by the general absence of non-fiction from academia. Autobiography and memoir, what might be called ‘life writing’, have attracted much attention and it is common to find courses and publications, though not presenting these types of texts as non-fiction. I doubt, however, that anyone is teaching in any English degree other sub-genres of non-fiction. Perhaps someone might be teaching travel writing (the ‘travelogue’ is the label on the Wikipedia list); after all, Bruce Chatwin is already a canonical writer, and one can include on the reading list volumes as delicious as R.L. Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879), or the many written by Victorian travelling women. Yet, I see no scholar devoting any efforts to teach, choosing again from Wikipedia’s list, handbooks, popular science or even academic writing in English courses. Creative non-fiction is taught through handbooks and courses, but it is not taught as a literary category in English degrees, at least not that I know of.

And, yes, I have been thinking for a while of teaching narrative non-fiction. I was, however, taken aback when I mentioned this in my subject on documentary films (2019-20), and a student observed it would be a very boring subject. Documentary films (for TV, cinema, streaming platforms, or YouTube) are the audiovisual branch of non-fiction, as I explained, so plainly what worried this student was that reading non-fiction would be boring. I don’t think he said so because he knew the genre first-hand but because he imagined a boring long read of a book full of data (yes, in the style of Zuboff). Funnily, he contributed to our e-book Focus on the USA: Representing the Nation in Early 21st Century Documentary Films (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/225886) a wonderful essay on Charles Ferguson’s quite demanding documentary Inside Job (2020), actually an adaptation of his own non-fiction volume Inside Job: The Financiers Who Pulled off the Heist of the Century (2012). Perhaps the difference is that while the film takes 110 minutes to watch reading the 371 pages of the book takes considerably longer. I am, however, still very keen on teaching narrative non-fiction, and hope to do so in 2023-24, in one of my project-oriented electives: I won’t work with a closed set of four or five texts, but will invite students to discover a set they might enjoy and will publish the corresponding e-book.

This, I’m not kidding you, might be the first academic introduction to narrative non-fiction, at least as far as I now. Cambridge UP and Oxford UP, which publish companions for the obscurest corner of English Literature do not have one for non-fiction. I would love to volunteer to edit an introductory volume but I have never published on non-fiction, and I don’t think I am qualified. I don’t see, however, that there is a specialist possibly because the territory is so vast that this is like calling yourself a specialist in the novel. I will be extremely happy to be corrected, and flooded with bibliography on non-fiction but so far my search for bibliography has led to scattered articles on specific works, and just three volumes. Barbara Lounsberry’s The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction (Greenwood, 1990) offers chapters on Guy Talese, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer; it can be borrowed from https://archive.org/details/artoffact00barb. I thought that Lee Gutkind’s The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality (Wiley, 1997), would have gone through many reprints now but it does not even have a second edition (see https://archive.org/details/artofcreativenon00gutk/page/n9/mode/2up). Gutkind’s more successful task is the edition for Norton of a three-volume anthology, The Best Creative Nonfiction (2007-09), which I assume is possibly being used in courses. My Google search has led to a variety of creative writing courses, but, I insist, not to English Literature courses.

Perhaps, you may be thinking, this is right since practically no prose except the novel has a central place in English Literature or English Studies degrees with the noted exceptions of the autobiography and the memoir. The lists I have mentioned earlier prove, however, that there are many quality volumes to choose from both for courses and for research. Like the student in my documentary film class, however, we teaching scholars seem to believe collectively that non-fiction is dull and might only lead to dull courses in comparison to teaching fiction. I find this is a misperception, having been thrilled much more by well-researched, well-written non-fiction in comparison to many dull novels of any genre published in recent years. I really believe that liming literature to the novel, and secondarily to drama and poetry, is a serious error that has deprived students of an education in prose works which are often not only much more sophisticated but also a major source of learning. I am not saying that we should stop reading novels but that human experience is also portrayed in other kinds of non-fictional narrative and non-narrative texts.

I wrote in my post of 2011 that calling a book ‘non-fiction’ is like calling men ‘non-women’, which is an aberration and would certainly cause much offence (just stop using the adjective ‘non-white’, please). I’ll offer ‘factual prose’ as an alternative, such as Wikipedia offers ‘factual television’, since the opposite of fiction is fact, not non-fiction. One Walter Blair already used the label back in 1963 for a book called Factual Prose: Introduction to Explanatory and Persuasive Writing (Scott & Foresman, 1963), so maybe that’s worth rescuing. It’s not very sexy, but at least it is more accurate than non-fiction. Let me know if you have other suggestions.

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