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What's NOT "Narrative Nonfiction"?

Non-Fiction Challenge / Journal

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Edited: Dec 23, 2011, 10:35am Top

I don't want to clutter up LT friends' threads with this side question, so I'm hoping to generate just a bit of side-discussion:

In trying to better understand the concept of "Narrative Nonfiction" (having listened to the "Books on the Nightstand" podcast and followed the discussion over on Darryl's 2011 thread), I'm trying to come up with examples of nonfiction that do NOT fit into this sub-genre.

I've thought of a couple of examples from my own shelves:
How Novels Work by John Mullan
How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster.

I know textbooks would be excluded from the sub-genre, as would self-help books.

Other examples of NON-Narrative Nonfiction?

Dec 23, 2011, 10:32am Top

I've never heard the term, but I expect "how-to" books, cookbooks and the like would be non-narrative non-fiction.

Dec 23, 2011, 10:34am Top

I would say most political books don't qualify for NN and perhaps the majority of biographies don't really build enough suspense.

Edited: Dec 23, 2011, 10:47am Top

One of my favorite non-fiction books from this year that I would not classify as narrative non-fiction is A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 by Alistair Horne. It was a straightforward and linear historical account of the war, which focused more on the events rather than the individuals that were at the center of the crisis, and although it was good, it wasn't a page turning read.

I don't think that you can automatically eliminate certain types of books as being non-narrative non-fiction, such as biographies, although other types, such as memoirs or travel literature, are more likely to count as NNF. The excerpt I read of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention I read on NPR's web site this morning (avaiable here) made me classify it as narrative non-fiction, although others may not necessarily agree. I think it's more likely that most if not everyone would classify The Autobiography of Malcolm X as NNF, though.

ETA: I agree with Jenny; most biographies probably would not count as narrative non-fiction.

Dec 23, 2011, 10:49am Top

Any non-fiction book set up to discuss a topic rather than take you on a journey to discover the topic is Non-narrative nonfiction. Most non-fiction books are non-narrative.

I would say that most narrative non-fiction falls into the categories of travel writing, memoirs and new journalism. There are some academic books written in a narrative style, but at some point they break out of the narrative to discuss methodology or sum up conclusions.

Dec 23, 2011, 10:57am Top

Looking back, I've read more Nonfiction books in 2011 than I had thought:

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan
Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics
How to Read Novels Like a Professor (meh)
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Fun Home (a memoir in graphic form)
The Grace of Silence: A Memoir by Michele Norris, and
Stitches: A Memoir (also in graphic form).

I think all except How to Read Novels Like a Professor qualify as NNF. I'm not sure about the two graphic memoirs, although (regardless of their sub-genre) they were two of the most powerful emotional reads I encountered in 2011.

Edited: Dec 23, 2011, 11:37am Top

Cross-posting from Darryl's 75 Books thread, Books on the Nightstand defined NNF as “nonfiction that reads like fiction, following a story and incorporating the elements of fiction such as plot, character, pacing, etc.” The way I interpret this is that NNF would illustrate through specific examples or stories.

Non-NNF books are works that aim to describe the entire body of research on the topic being covered (aside: this may have been mentioned in the same podcast). Some examples:
- Biographies like Eleanor of Aquitaine or Hildegard of Bingen, which were litanies of dates, places, births, deaths, etc.
- Military History books offering play-by-play of a particular conflict, dense with strategy, maneuvers, death toll, etc. without personal stories that make the war more human and real.
- She Who Is, a rather academic book on feminist theology
- Reference works like The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers or Invitation to the Dance

Interested to read others' thoughts on this. It looks like most of the unread nonfiction in my library is NNF.

Edited: Dec 23, 2011, 2:41pm Top

> 3

majority of biographies don't really build enough suspense.

I'm not sure I agree with this completely.

I have found that many books I've read this past year, many of which were memoirs rather than biographies per se seemed surprisingly literary in nature to me. They contained elements of suspense (What is going to happen?), humor, and a unique writing style. When I talk about memoirs, I'm referring to those NF books that don't dwell on the entirety of a person's life, but rather talk about those times that were of unique interest to the person whose life was being described as well as to the reader.

Dec 23, 2011, 7:27pm Top

When I read Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman earlier this year, I read a NY Times review that referred to it as "narrative biography."

I can tell you that NNF is what I have found that I like and I know it when I see it . It looks like fiction, it reads like fiction, it feels like fiction... but it's true. Some examples that I've read are The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick and The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin.

Most of the time, I believe, NNF explains a topic by presenting the lives of individuals and how the topic effected their lives or what part they played in the topic. In The Worst Hard Time Egan explained the American Dust bowl of the 1930s through the lives of several individual families who were involved in it.

I would dare anyone to read Beryl Markham's West With the Night and not define it as NNF; a fabulous page turner.

Dec 27, 2011, 12:29pm Top

I think when I start posting my NF thread and list of books in this group, I'm going to open it to the group to help decide me define them as NNF or non-NNF

Dec 27, 2011, 12:41pm Top

The way I separate it - if the chapters can be read independently and the book can be used as a reference this way - it is non-narrative.

If you cannot just read chapter 5 without reading the previous 4, then it is a narrative one.


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