nonfiction november: reads like fiction

For the fourth week of Nonfiction November I’ll be discussing my favorite nonfiction titles that read like fiction, from Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

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The prompt for Nonfiction November Week 4 (Nov. 19 to Nov. 23) is Reads Like Fiction, and can be found at Rennie’s What’s Nonfiction?:

Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

It typically doesn’t matter to me whether or not nonfiction reads like a novel, but I do like to vary the kinds of nonfiction I read. I fall into reading slumps when I stay in any one genre for too long, so if I’ve just read a string of memoirs that have strong narrative arcs and lyrical prose, I might switch to works of social science or conventional biographies for a few weeks—and vice versa.

fullsizeoutput_2b1bReading Rennie’s post, I realized that the memoirs I most enjoy tend to be those that read like a bildungsroman. From Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? to Manal al-Sharif’s Daring to Drive, my favorite memoirs that I’ve recently read have been those that track the author’s life from childhood to adulthood, interweaving her coming-of-age tale with history and politics. These memoirs feature moving storylines and astute social observations that rival those of any good bildungsroman.

fullsizeoutput_2b1aBut I enjoy other kinds of memoirs, namely those that read more like a collection of personal essays. Earlier in the year I read Amy Tan’s Where the Past Begins, which juxtaposes essays about the author’s growth as a writer with those sketching portraits of her mother and father, and I recently finished David Sedaris’s Calypso, a collection of humor essays about approaching middle age. Each of these memoirs read like a collage of disparate memories, but because the authors are talented writers, they feel expansive and deliberate, not disjointed or rushed.

fullsizeoutput_2bd0I also like narrative nonfiction that incorporates creative elements as well. One of my favorite books from this year, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, has an absorbing mystery at the center of its true-crime story, and it features stunning descriptions, an omniscient narrator, and nuanced characterization; the author contentiously described his work as inaugurating a new art form, the nonfiction novel, though certain forms of journalism have long incorporated elements of narrative. One book I recently finished, Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad, is a social history of women’s rage in America, but the author examines that history through the lens of what’s been happening in the nation since 2016. Traister builds a compelling narrative about the rise of the #MeToo movement, through a dynamic mix of historical analysis, biography, and cultural criticism.

Conversely, some of the best books I’ve read this year have been emphatically expository or argumentative. Toward the end of summer I read George Chauncey’s Gay New York and David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender, two histories that explore the changing configurations of gender and sexuality in America over the course of the twentieth century. Neither book reads like creative nonfiction, but both include a wealth of information as well as fascinating intersectional arguments about race, gender, and class in the United States. Similarly Annie Lowrey’s Give People Money, as I discussed last week, has no central story, but it’s an absorbing introduction to  Universal Basic Income (UBI), complete with statistics, anecdotes, and policy considerations.

What kinds of nonfiction do you prefer to read? Do you have any favorite nonfiction books that read like fiction? 

25 thoughts on “nonfiction november: reads like fiction

  1. So many of these are either books by authors whose other works I’ve read but not this one; it’s hard to get to all the books by an author one enjoys! Another writer’s memoir that I thought was quite beautifully written, with an authentic and searing simplicity (like Winterson’s – although I’ve only dipped into her memoir) is Sherman Alexie’s You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me. (I also enjoy his short stories a great deal.)

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    1. Ahh, I read Sherman Alexie’s You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me back in February, and also enjoyed it! It’s such a moving collection of memories and poems: Alexie’s prose is spare and wonderful. I haven’t read any of his short story collections, but I want to soon. Like you said, it’s hard getting to all the books by an author one enjoys – maybe next year I’ll give his collections a try.

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  2. I love, and am so impressed by, the wide range of your reading! Such an eclectic mix! I also really agree with what you mentioned here, about how helpful it is to mix up styles or topics within a genre. I find myself following one topic on to a related one too much sometimes and then end up burnt out or bored and in a slump.

    I really liked Calypso, David Sedaris in general is just wonderful, and he has such a unique storytelling style. I notice many other humor essayists compared to him but it’s never quite the same, for me at least. His writing never fails to impress me, it seems so simple but it just DOES so much. I think I’m going to have to check out Jeanette Winterson’s memoir soon. And agreed about In Cold Blood – when I finished that book I felt so profoundly disappointed that he hadn’t written more nonfiction.

    Fantastic list here!

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    1. Thanks, Rennie! That means a lot coming from you: I admire how well read you are on such a wide range of subjects and genres, from true crime to memoirs. I can see how transitioning from one topic to a related one might help you notice interesting connections between the two as well. I’m just so eager to check out as many subjects as possible, now that I’m reading for pleasure again, that it’s tough sticking with any one in particular for very long.

      I haven’t read many other humor essayists, but I’d like to sometime next year, if you have any suggestions that readily come to mind. Sedaris’s writing really does do so much, in spite of how simple and casual it appears; that’s an excellent way of putting it. I think you’d really like Jeanette Winterson’s memoir! Her writing is just so dynamic and full of life.

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      1. I know the feeling, when I finished college and could read for pleasure it was the same for me! 🙂 I’m glad you have the time to do it and are getting to branch out too.

        I’m not that crazy about most humorists’ essays, I guess…there are just so many I’ve read that feel mediocre and he sets the bar so high. I really liked the book Vacationland by John Hodgman (he was on the Daily Show) that came out last year. It blends that humorous but sometimes serious subject matter that Sedaris does and I thought it was really touching in a way that’s similar to how I’ve felt reading some of Sedaris’s. I’ll have to check out the Winterson memoir soon, thanks for the strong recommendation 🙂

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    1. I understand that: a well structured story can make the subject more accessible, but occasionally other approaches are more appropriate. I find that a strong narrative arc can be distracting sometimes if the author’s discussing a lot of information.

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    1. It might be worth checking out, especially if you like audiobooks. Sedaris’s narration was great. I’m not sure I would have liked the memoir as much had I read it rather than listened to it.

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    1. Tan’s memoir was excellent, especially the essays on her childhood and her relationship to her parents! Hoping to read more of her fiction soon as well.

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  3. I do prefer narrative nonfiction and in particular I love nature writing that is written in that way like Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Findings’, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, Helen Macdonald’s H is For Hawk and then books by women like Terence Tempest William’s When Women Were Birds and Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby which are hard to categorise, but fascinating to read.
    Do you have a favourite Sedaris book? I want to get one for my brother for Xmas and can’t decide which one.

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    1. I’ll have to check all those out, Claire! I really want to read Under the Sea Wind and the Faraway Nearby, perhaps in December or January. Have you ever read any of Annie Dillard’s nature writings?

      Since listening to Calypso, I’ve also read Naked and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. Naked, which Sedaris wrote near the start of his career, struck me as the most original out of the three. Owls was a bit of a letdown, but a few of the essays were enjoyable. I’ve also heard good things about Me Talk Pretty One Day on Goodreads and other blogs.

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    1. Thanks, Cat! Somehow I missed this till just now. I’d recommend starting with Calypso or one of his early collections if you do—they seem to be the most original of his books.

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  4. It’s funny, I’ve read practically everything Jeanette Winterson has ever written (even the less successful fiction, simply because she wrote it) *except* Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. I have to put that one on my list!

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    1. Somehow I missed this, sorry for the late response! I’m really interested in checking out her other books now, maybe starting with her first. She reads passages from her fiction and discusses her writing philosophy quite a bit in the memoir, and her work seems fascinating.

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      1. Her earlier works are her best, particularly Oranges and The Passion, of course. I have a soft spot for Written on the Body (my personal fave even if not her most celebrated).

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    1. I enjoyed reading it. The author talks about the idea that, if UBI ever were to be adopted nationwide, it’d likely begin with pilot programs in cities. And then it’d slowly expand, if those programs were successful.

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  5. For the most part, I think nonfiction should have an engaging plot or through-line and well developed characters the same as fiction. However, I’m also starting to read more academic, challenging nonfiction and I think how much I need it to adhere to these same standards for me to enjoy it is something I’m still figuring out.

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    1. I can understand that feeling. On the one hand I feel like academic writers should still make their subject interesting and build a compelling narrative about it, but on the other I’d rather them not try to do that if a through-line would be more distracting than engaging.

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