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.
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.
Reading 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.
But 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.
I 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?