“Is there such a thing as literary non-fiction? If so, how do you define it? Examples?”
For starters, the term ‘literary‘ is one that I feel very uncomfortable bandying about. Too often, it seems, it’s used as an exclusionary device by a certain small group of individuals. Writing becomes divided into two groups, the ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ the ‘literary’ and the ‘low-brow.’ I’m not convinced it’s that simple. Sure, I recognize that there is great writing and there is horrible writing – no one would ever confuse Dan Brown for Ernest Hemingway. Yet, there’s a gulf in between these two poles filled with writing that cannot be so easily categorized. This applies to fiction and non-fiction alike.
However, for the sake of argument, here’s my take on what might make a piece of non-fiction “literary.”
For a piece of non-fiction to qualify as ‘literary,’ I would argue that the work’s language must in some way transcend said work’s subject material. Multitudes of people can write competently on any given subject matter; they publish very readable, very enjoyable books by the thousands every year. Some writers, however, are able to rise above the strictly utilitarian prose needed to convey information. Their writing crackles with an energy which, regardless of the subject matter, keeps the reader enthralled. For some great examples of this kind of non-fiction, pick up a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone. The essays in this book vary greatly in subject – Alzheimer’s disease, the US Postal Service, William Gaddis, the cultural relevance of the novel, prison. However the reader might feel about the individual topics these essays cover, the book is almost impossible to put down due to the incredible writing. Another superb example is Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between. The book’s subject matter suggests a highly readable book – one man’s solo trek across Afghanistan immediately following the fall of the Taliban. Yet the book is much more than a edge-of-your seat adventure/travelogue. It’s an incredibly complex rumination on cultural understanding and misunderstanding in the most extreme of circumstances. This is achieved largely through Mr. Stewart’s elegant prose.
What other recent examples of non-fiction works do you think would qualify as ‘literary?’