The Nonfiction Turn

A couple of days ago the New Yorker writer Susan Orlean noted on Twitter that she was preparing to teach a course in nonfiction writing and was looking for great examples of it. The list of responses she received is a long one, which is heartening, though the fact that so many of the examples come from previous generations isn’t—-much as I like Royko and Kidder and Didion and Mitchell (not to mention Orlean), it’s a familiar hit parade. (I contributed to the problem by recommending Norman Sims‘ two great anthologies, The Literary Journalists and Literary Journalism, both a few decades old at this point.) All this may simply be a function of people being inclined to recommend books instead of individual pieces, and it takes forever for good nonfiction to earn its way into hardcover; when it comes to magazine articles, heaven knows there’s still lots of great, great, great stuff being published.

Orlean’s list also got me thinking about good examples of fiction writers who’ve successfully transitioned into nonfiction. It’s a dodgy category—Nicholson Baker‘s Double Fold and Haruki Murakami‘s Underground both take on serious subjects but have a surprising lack of narrative thrust, swallowed as they are by the parade of details; though I’ve tried to crack both William T. Vollmann‘s The Atlas and Poor People, both felt so loosely formed that I couldn’t keep going (the latter mainly reminded me of how much I preferred Ted Conover‘s Rolling Nowhere).

Fiction writers seem to do better when they’re talking about themselves and their craft. First-person features are rarely as funny and thought-provoking as when David Foster Wallace stepped on a cruise ship or into a state fair; Tobias Wolff‘s This Boy’s Life and Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking both address transformative moment’s in a writer’s life, albeit at very different points on the spectrum.

All three of those writers are mentioned on Orlean’s list. In the interest of expanding that list and getting a few more suggestions, a handful more by writers better known for their fiction: Edwidge Danticat‘s Brother, I’m Dying, an excellent piece of reportage about both her childhood and her uncle’s ill-fated attempt to escape Haiti’s turmoil; Paul Auster‘s Hand to Mouth, still one of the best portraits of the white-knuckle fear that comes along with trying to make it in publishing; Francine Prose‘s Reading Like a Writer, among the most thoughtful and analytical writer’s guides available (sharper than Stephen King‘s On Writing, less persnickety than James Wood‘s How Fiction Works); and Nelson Algren‘s prose poem Chicago: City on the Make, a beautifully turned but brutal critique of his hometown.

3 responses to “The Nonfiction Turn

  1. Nick Flynn’s book Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is an excellent example of well-written, compelling and powerful non-fiction.

  2. Mark,
    Thanks for recommending my anthologies to Susan, although I suspect she knows about them. I think you’re right about the great magazine articles that circulate within the literary journalism community mostly through e-mail and word of mouth. My favorite at the moment, and one I used as an example in my history, True Stories, is Michael Paterniti’s “The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy,” originally in Esquire. It’s getting close to a decade old, but I think it remains unsurpassed.

    • Hi Norman,

      Thanks so much for commenting! Nice to hear from somebody whose work I’ve greatly admired. (I’m sure Susan does know about those anthologies—after all, her classic piece “The American Man at Age Ten” is in the second one.) I haven’t read Paterniti’s Esquire piece—I recall being a bit disappointed with “Driving Dr. Albert” so I may have steered away from it—but I’ll make sure to give it a try. Not to mention “True Stories.” Thanks again.

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