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Saturday Book Discussion: Genre spotlight: Non-Fiction



Yeah, I know, non-fiction is not exactly a "genre." But since the vast domain of books is typically divided most broadly into "fiction" and "non-fiction," and the majority of reviews here are for novels, i.e., fiction, let's talk about non-fiction.

A grammar correction emergency

By the way, to briefly segue into one of my habitual tangential rants, anyone who uses the phrase "fiction novel" should be beaten over the head with War and Peace or an equally weighty work of fiction. A novel is fiction by definition! There is no such thing as a "non-fiction novel." There can be non-fiction memoirs written in a novel-like style, there can be realistic, heavily researched novels which recount actual events and thus have the feel of a documentary in book form, but if it's a novel, it's fiction, even if the author actually researched every last line of dialog put into the real-life characters' mouths and is reasonably certain they actually said it.

Also, if "fiction novel" deserves a beating with a doorstopper, "fictional novel" deserves execution by being pressed with the entire non-fiction collection of your local library. And "fictitious novels" are novels that do not exist, possibly described in fictional form in your fiction novel.

/rant prompted by too much editing & beta-reading of n00bs.

Anyway, mostly I read fiction, but I do like to read non-fiction, usually on topics that are generally of interest to me, but sometimes a particular book will catch my eye or a review makes it sound interesting. I read a little bit of history (note: some of those tagged entries are historical fiction), but my main area of interest is science. I also like books about books and literary analysis.

There are, of course, more technical subjects that I read about, both for work and personal reasons/usefulness, but I'm mostly talking here about books I read for enjoyment.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Truthiness




Delusions of Gender
I believe our species is hardwired to find dolls creepy.



It takes a rare talent to write a book about a complicated subject and make it interesting. Many great and informative books are dry, dry reading. There is also the problem of reading about a controversial or disputed topic as a layman: if you read a book on economics but you are not an economist, how do you know whether the author knows what he's talking about or is talking out of his ass? (Particularly a concern in economics...) And if you're reading a history, how do you know that the author isn't slipping a personal agenda or contested interpretation into the narrative? Of course, good writers who are ethical and conscientious will point out when they are expressing a view that is not universally held, and even address counter-arguments. But not every writer will do that. For this reason, I find very few modern political books to be of much use; even outside the batshit-deranged and intentionally dishonest Coulter/Goldberg/Horowitz spectrum, you find very little written with a conscientious attempt to seek truth.

Science is slightly less prone to this sort of gamesmanship, especially in relatively low-stakes fields like food science and nutrition (one of my favorites), while more prone to bullshittery and Wild-Ass Guessing in fields like evolutionary psychology. In theory, peer review should keep the more egregious bullshit from being published, but non-academic presses don't require peer review and laypersons may not notice the lack of it.

The only way to know for sure if an author is taking you for a ride, other than being a subject matter expert (or at least pretty knowledgeable about the subject) is to read reviews of the work (and then figure out which reviews are by credentialed people who aren't grinding their own axes). But for the most part, reading a work of non-fiction is an act of trust on the part of the reader: we might understand that the author might have biases, and an agenda that isn't stated outright, but we hope that the author will not deliberately lie to us or make up facts, and if this happens, we hope that the publisher employs fact-checkers to avoid embarrassment.

Of course, sometimes they don't: James Frey famously took Oprah for a ride with his memoir.

And then there are non-fiction writers who think they can write fictional non-fiction and that facts are stupid things.




Writing Style




Stiff

Obviously a serious scholarly work about mortuary science.


I pay a lot of attention to prose style when I am reading fiction. If I love the story and characters, I am okay with a bland writing style and may forgive a slightly clunky one. I tend to avoid overly prosey writers, in fact. However, very little in non-fiction registers with me in terms of writing style. If it's boring or dry, I won't even remember the author. If it's extraordinarily interesting and informative, I might.

Nowadays, many magazine and newspaper journalists find a niche for themselves in a particular subject, or a particular type of book. Mark Kurlanksy, author of the best-seller Cod, went on to write Salt, 1968, and Birdseye (yes, about the frozen food inventor), among others. (Though Cod wasn't Kurlansky's first book, it did propel him into prominence as a "micro-history" author, as well as launch a raft of similar endangered fish books.) He has a knack for developing a book out of fairly narrow topics. James Bradley writes books about pivotal historical points in World War II. And Mary Roach writes books about corpses and blow jobs.

I will often read a new novel based solely on who the author is, but I've found few non-fiction authors whose name alone is enough to interest me in a subject, and while I won't read a book by a fiction author I've found to be boring in the past, if I am interested in a subject, I'll read a book about it by a boring author.

A Non-Fictional Poll



Poll #1823715 Non-fiction

How much non-fiction do you read?

All or most; I don't read much fiction.
2(3.0%)
I read more non-fiction than fiction.
4(6.0%)
About half and half fiction and non-fiction.
9(13.4%)
I read mostly fiction, but a lot of non-fiction too.
26(38.8%)
Only rarely, if a particular book or subject interests me.
26(38.8%)
I'm not in school anymore, why would I want to read non-fiction?
0(0.0%)

How broad are your non-fiction interests?

I'll read any book about any topic that looks interesting.
14(20.6%)
Well, maybe not ancient Mayan basket weaving. (Unless that's my thing.) But I read pretty broadly.
16(23.5%)
There are a few areas of interest to me, and I read lots of books about them.
23(33.8%)
I'm usually only interested in one or two subjects.
10(14.7%)
A book has to be specifically about something of great interest to me for me to read it.
5(7.4%)

Very broadly, what sorts of non-fiction do you read?

History
60(25.1%)
Memoirs
38(15.9%)
Science
40(16.7%)
Technical subjects
17(7.1%)
Politics
21(8.8%)
Pop culture
34(14.2%)
Literary critique/analysis
29(12.1%)




Previous Saturday Book Discussions.
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