Fat Books & Thin Women

What’s Literary Nonfiction?

Literary Blog Hop

Is it really fair that just two weeks after forcing me to define what “literary writing” is (I did not really define it, for those of you keeping track) the folks at the Blue Bookcase are asking for a definition of “literary nonfiction”? I mean, more accurately, they’re asking if I believe there is literary non-fiction. Of course I do! Of course there is plenty of literary non-fiction!

That said, I am not really sure how I would define it other than to say that, as with literary fiction, I know it when I see it. But like Connie at the Blue Bookcase says, I’d generally consider literary nonfiction to be any non-fiction book that places some emphasis on the aesthetic aspects of writing. And it’s a work of nonfiction that is maybe trying to do something new, in the sometimes confused world of fiction and nonfiction, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

If someone says there is not such a thing as literary nonfiction, I will probably have no choice but to roll over and die. How about Boswell’s Life of Johnson? (Entering the dangerous realm of books I haven’t read but maybe one day will. Maybe.) How about Nabokov’s Speak, Memory? Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale?

How about works that claim to be nonfiction but are really fiction, like the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus? (Thanks GRE! On a side note, this is one of those books that you can’t find a decent image for – which somehow increases my interest in reading it, incomplete or no.) Or those works that have a distinct grounding in events that, you know, actually happened, but are themselves fiction, like The Book Thief, or some of Hemingway’s novels, or Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried, which itself explores at length the question of what is “true” and “not true”?

Not all of these works I’m throwing out are nonfiction, strictly speaking, but in my mind they all land pretty close. As with In Cold Blood, it’s sometimes hard to draw a distinct line between fiction and nonfiction, and as O’Brien explores in his stories, sometimes what is true factually is not the most true thing we can find.

It’s typical of me that I turn a pretty simple question into a debate about truthiness, but I can’t help it because I’m sitting here at school waiting for classes to start for the afternoon and making plans for my adult English class I have tonight and trying to figure out my nightmare schedule for the next two and a half weeks (picture 10 spelling bees, mostly in villages about thirty minutes from my town), and am seeking desperately to think about something a little deeper than, I don’t know, how many “English stars” my students have to accumulate in order to win a Beanie Baby. And so often the books that seem the most true to me are not true in any strict sense. Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the most true books I can think of, although it is definitely not literary nonfiction. It is literary fiction that captures something essential and real about the world, that maybe couldn’t be captured just by the facts, although some facts do make their way in, as with the banana massacre. (And hey, can’t we add Marquez to our “is it fiction or not?” list, with his The General in His Labyrinth? We can! We can!)

I have veered woefully off course. But to answer the original question, yes, I think there is such a thing as literary nonfiction, and I define it in about the same way I define literary fiction. But I also believes there’s some ever-shifting gray area between literary fiction and literary nonfiction, that some of the best works manage to shift across. I like those books that make me question something about my world or that send me to google in an effort to figure out whether an event is “true” or not. Like those dreams referencing earlier dreams that will always frustrate me as I try to figure out whether I really am footnoting my own dreams in later dreams, or if I am creating “past” dreams, I like the works that shake my world up just enough that I am left unsure of where I stand.



Loved to read your post. Mine is very brief…

Here is my Literary Blog Hop post!

Comment by gautami tripathy

Yes, I would have to roll over too if anyone suggests there is no such thing as literary non-fiction. I also thought of Tim O’Brien… I loved how that book really explored this topic on its own – truth vs fiction, and how the mind deals with truths while also dealing with trauma.

Comment by Sarah

I like those books that blur the line between literary fiction and literary nonfiction too, although I always determine what I’m reading before I jump into it (I love copyright pages). That way I can process it properly.

Comment by Melody

haha, right? i too am a fan of the copyright page – like how every once in a while it can reveal that an oddly fitting section of a novel was first published as a short story. (pynchon & lot 49) it doesn’t always clear up my essential confusion about how “true” something is, though. sometimes this works out, though..i think with “100 years of solitude” i found it so hard to believe that the banana massacre scenes were total fiction so i went googling and learned that it was based on fact. what would i have done before the internet?

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I like what you do here, and agree completely that the issue at stake is one of ‘truthiness’ (great word!). You also remind me of several books I need to add to my tbr pile…

Comment by litlove

I don’t think “literary” can apply only to fiction. Like your use of “truthiness.”

Comment by Amy

I agree–there is a lot of literary non-fiction out there! I hate defining things, after all, I can’t get a handle on “literary.” Great book selections for literary non-fiction, I especially want to read In Cold Blood!

Comment by The Bookeater

I LOVED In Cold Blood.

Comment by Ingrid

Beautiful post. Thank you for this thoughtful look at literary nonfiction.

Here’s my post on literary nonfiction. I’d love to hear what you think.

And if you have read any wonderful literary books
published in 2010, I urge you to nominate your favorites
for The Independent Literary Awards. The awards
include categories of Literary Fiction and Literary Non-Fiction.
Nominations close December 15.

Comment by Debnance at Readerbuzz

I do include Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I loved that book. I do need to read In Cold Blood as well. Here’s my Literary view…: Coffee and a Book Chick — Literary Blog Hop…

Comment by Coffee and a Book Chick

‘In Clod Blood’ is definitely lit non-fiction. I had forgotton about that one. I suppose good literary nonfiction is also a bit forgettable because it blends so easily with literary fiction that it’s hard to tell.

Great post!

Comment by mywordlyobsessions

I enjoy literary nonfiction quite a bit, but definitely prefer to knowing if it’s fiction vs. nonfiction before beginning. Agree the lines are a little blurred for In Cold Blood.

Comment by JoAnn

One of my examples also blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction – a style of writing I rather adore – so I’m with you on discussing truthiness. :)

Comment by Trisha

Wow “In Cold BLood” must be good I’ve seen this come up more than once. I think people dont appreciate literary nonfiction as much and I would
roll over and/or faint if someone said it didn’t exist.

Comment by cheryl@bookaddict4real

Great answer! While I don’t think that literary non-fiction always has to cross the line between truth and fiction, you make a good point. In Cold Blood was one of mine as well–billed as a non-fiction book but Capote certainly colored the story as his own. And I’ve always been interested that The Things They Carried is listed as fiction when it relies so heavily on O’Brien’s own experiences.

Comment by Trish

Thanks for your interesting post! I haven’t read In Cold Blood, but read some other (fiction) books by this author.

I found this week’s question quite difficult but did manage to come up with something too.

Leeswammes (Judith)

Comment by leeswammes

As with most borders, there is travel both ways so the lines become blurred & what seems clear cut to one is shaded in many variants to another. Not read the Capote, but it sounds good.

Comment by parrish

After I posted my response I check to see what other bloggers said–and was really surprised how many mentioned In Cold Blood. I agree with you about Boswell. It is easier to think of examples that to define “literary non-fiction”…

Comment by Lisa Almeda Sumner

Great post! I love how much you’ve thought about that blurred line between fiction and nonfiction. A good example is The Bell Jar, which I just read. It’s a novel but pretty much everything in it actually happened to Sylvia Plath. I loved In Cold Blood but I guess I haven’t given much thought to what was true and what wasn’t.

Comment by curlygeek04

There’s definitely such a thing as literary non-fiction, I’d say, and you’re so right, there are many grey areas and shifting definitions.

I recently bought Jackie Kay’s memoir, Red Dust Road. I’m not a fan of autobiographies of any kind, but because I know that Kay is a genius with language and imagery, I expect it to be written in a style similar to her novels / poetry therefore would class it as literary non-fiction. But that’s just a feeling. It’s definitely a difficult genre to define.

Comment by Marie / Little Interpretations

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