Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel?
It’s week 4 of Non Fiction November 2018 and Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction has set that thought-provoking question.
My first — instinctive — answer was no. If I want fiction, then I’ll read a novel; if I want something factual, I’ll pick up a non fiction book. But ne’er the twain shall meet.
But when I began thinking about it more I realised that there are some principles that apply regardless of whether its fiction or non fiction. Some aspects of novel writing I do in fact like to see in my non fiction reading.
First and foremost I expect any non fiction book to exhibit writing to a high quality standard. Non fiction authors, just as their fictional counterparts do, need to appreciate the value of the full stop. Too many academic writers stuff their text with so many multi clause sentences that the only way to discover the meaning is to pick each one apart. I don’t expect, or want, any book to be in text that is so simple a five year old would have no trouble reading it, but neither do I want to have to work super hard to understand what is in front of my eyes.
Even more critical: I don’t want to be bombarded with facts. No matter how knowledgeable the author, being confronted with paragraph after paragraph stuffed with dates, names and facts makes for very dry and tedious reading. I want my facts mixed with interpretation, analysis and perspective.
Fortunately, recent years have provided evidence that there are non fiction writers who have understood those requirements. Understood them so well in fact that their books have become best sellers rather than being confined to dusty academic libraries.
Here are some of my favourite examples.
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
I’m reading this at the moment. It’s an astonishing piece of work that explains clearly to a lay person the effects of insufficient sleep. I thought a bad night’s sleep just meant I felt washed out and unable to think clearly. It turns out that regular sleep deprivation makes me more susceptible to dementia, cancer and diabetes, more likely to have a car accident and less successful at keeping my weight under control. I’m hoping that it’s not too late for me to undo some of that damage.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
I rarely read anything about nature but this was a fascinating book about the author’s relationship with the goshawk she bought following her father’s death. The process of training Mabel, helps Helen Macdonald through the process of grieving for her father. This book became a best seller and won several awards including Costa Book of the Year in 2014
The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
I had never read a political autobiography until Mandela’s book was published in 1994. It was astonishing. I knew I would learn about his political ideas and the cause for which he spent decades in prison. But I also learned that the man viewed as a saviour of his country, had many faults. Mandela doesn’t shy away from showing how he was naive and headstrong in his youth and how he neglected his wife and children. In the final chapters of the book, Mandela — by then President of his country — looked to the future and his belief that the struggle against apartheid would continue.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Bryson’s books about the idiosyncrasies of Britain and the British are a delight. In A Walk in the Woods he returns to his homeland of America and describes his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail. He and his walking companion however are decidedly
ill-prepared for such an endeavour; they’re carrying far too much equipment and food so the first leg of the journey is an ordeal. In between humorous episodes and some rather dangerous moments, Bryson reflects on the history of the trail, the ecology of the areas through which the trail passes – and on life in general.
I’m sure there are plenty of other examples besides these of well written and compelling non fiction books. Do let me know what books you would put on your list.
Time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation in which the idea is to form a chain of connections from a starting book. This month Kate who organises the meme, has chosen a non fiction work as the trigger book.
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is one of the few business books I’ve read (rather than just bought and left on the bookshelf). Even more remarkable I enjoyed reading it and found it helpful in my own line of work. Gladwell defines the ‘tipping point‘, as the moment when an idea, a trend or a form of behaviour crosses the threshold, tip and spreads so extensively it becomes a noticeable phenomenon. His first example is about the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies shoes in the mid-1990s but he also goes on to talk about a battle between a director of the New York subway and the graffiti artists who are intent on spoiling the look of his trains.
Gladwell sees how the involvement of different types of people with particular sets of social gifts are essential for change to happen: some are “connectors” who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions; “Mavens” are information specialists, the people who delight in gathering information and sharing it. Then there are the “salespeople”, the ones who are great at persuading others to a point of view or to a particular action.
It’s one of these “salespeople” that features in the first book in my chain.
Nelson Mandela was one of the most significant and influential political leaders of our time. His autobiography Long Walk to Freedom profiles his early life, his political awakening and the 27 years he spent in prison for acts of terrorism. But it also shows his ability to persuade people to a different point of view – most notably to the need for reconciliation and not recrimination in post apartheid South Africa. In the final chapters of the book, Mandela — now President of his country — looks to the future and his belief that the struggle against apartheid would continue.
It’s in a post apartheid South Africa that my next book is set.
The Whale Caller by Zakes Mda takes us to a town on the south coast of the Western Cape. It’s become famous as one of the best places from which to watch the migration of Southern Right Whales during the spring and winter. The Whale Caller develops a an affinity with these whales, calling to them using his kelp horn. Much of the book is about the relationship of man to nature but it also has a theme of betrayal. One of the ways this is played out is through a set of characters called The Bored Twins who start off as being playful but they take their games a step too far, with tragic consequences.
The twins in The Whale Caller are not anywhere as endearing as the pair in my next book: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. The Kochamma “two-egg twins” are a mischievous pair, loving nothing more than to indulge in word play, where they read backwards take words and phrases uttered by adults and twist and distort them into their own version. They’re also a jealous pair whose noses are decidedly put out of joint when another young girl comes to stay with the family.
All that talk of twins puts me in mind of a classic in the science fiction genre.
John Wyndham’s The Midwitch Cuckoo gives us more than one set of twins. We get a while village of identical children born within a few days of each other in the same small village. They all appear normal except they have unusual, golden eyes and pale, silvery skin. As they grow up it becomes increasingly clear they are far from humanThese children have none of the genetic characteristics of their parents. As they grow up, it becomes increasingly apparent that they are, at least in some respects, not human. This is one of the few science fiction novels I’ve enjoyed along with the film version called Village of the Damned.
Wyndham’s novel was creepy rather than shockingly scary. If it’s the thrill of the later you’re looking for, then Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is more likely to suit. It’s written in the style of a traditional Gothic novel using the familiar device of a storywithin a story. This tale of a mysterious spectre that terrifies a small English town, because it heralds the death of children, proved to be a huge success when it transferred to the stage in 1987 becoming the second longest-running play in the history of the West End after The Mousetrap. I didn’t care for the book at all — I thought Hill’s prose was overblown (it’s so tedious when an author loads up the narrative with adjective upon adjective) but the stage play is superb. Daniel Radcliffe’s film version, felt to me like a very pale imitation.
For brilliance in the Gothic vein, we have to turn to a much earlier novel. For my last link I’m chosing a book with a similar title. The Woman in White was the fifth title published by Wilkie Collins and generally regarded as an early (if not the first) example of the sensation novel. Collins ingeniously hit on the idea of telling this story of an heiress caught up in a deadly conspiracy, through multiple narrators. The effect is akin to hearing witnesses in a legal trial with the reader given clues to help solve the case. The plot does stretch credulity but Collins is such a ace storyteller that you get swept along anyway. But the book wouldn’t be half as good without the character of Count Fosco, a larger than life villain who hides his menacing nature behind a mask of intelligence and urbanity. Early critics of the novel were uncomfortable about this character however, fearing it could corrupt susceptible women readers.
And with that we have reached the end of a chain which has gone from a book that caused a sensation when Gladwell published it in 2000 to one that caused a sensation in 1859. A bit of a strained connection maybe but I shall let you all judge.