Literally True

Over at The Blue Bookcase’sLiterary Blog Hop,” the following question was asked:

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?’

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15 comments

  1. I’ve yet to write my post for the Literary Blog Hop but was thinking of non-fiction books by what we’d call literary writers, such as Barbara Kingsolver. I need to go through my (very few) non-fiction books and see if this makes sense.

      1. Am in the process of writing my reply for this hop & was interested in other peoples definition & they for most part concur with yourself & what I myself thought. In this light I chose a work by a fiction writer, one by a philosopher,ee book that I’ve previ

  2. Ps, (new phone)
    And one book I’ve previously described as a key because for me it opened a world of literature.
    The Franzen book you’ve mentioned before & as well as “the collection?” I mean to read.
    enjoyed your post & sorry for the faux pas.

  3. I knew this blog hop would spell disaster for my tbr pile! Thank you, I think, for adding two more books to it… I quite agree that the real problem arises with the spurious assignment of value. That literary equals excellence in some way. Nope, it’s a perspective on the world, just as genre writing is a different perspective on the world, and both use narrative in different ways for different ends. You can have awful literary texts and fantastic genre fiction, and opinions about what falls into those categories would differ widely too! The whole classification thing can be a fun game, if we don’t take it too seriously, but an exclusionary stranglehold if we do.

  4. @Parrish – am looking forward to reading your post. There have been some really good, thought provoking answers on the other blogs in the Literary Blog Hop. No worries about the commenting errors – I have a new phone and haven’t even been able to figure out how to do anything blog related on it, so your still a step up on me.
    @litlove – Hope you like the two books. Franzen’s book is one of my all-time favorite non-fiction works. There are two especially excellent essays about literature which I’ve read over and over again. The Rory Stewart book is just a wonderfully told story. We’re in complete agreement about the arbitrary assignment of value based on overly-broad labels. I am a proud reader of certain types of genre fiction because, at the end of the day, a novel should be about a good story and genre writers can do that better than many of their more literary counterparts.
    @lemon123 – glad that you found the Literary Blog Hop through here!

  5. I think any time there is a distinction made between different types of books, regardless of how you define them or what your intent is, it is likely to sound like a status argument. The fact is, there is good and bad in YA, Literary, Genre, and Classic Fiction, as well as Non-fiction of course. I’ll have to check out Franzen’s book. Nice post!

  6. @Coffee – You’ll enjoy The Places In Between. It’s a marvelous book.
    @Melody – You’re certainly right that there are good in bad within every so-called ‘label’, be it genre fiction, non-fiction, thriller, horror, crime, literary, etc. I’ll also admit that I tend to be snobbish about the books I read. But, as a person who thinks Stephen King is a literary writer, I constantly need to remind myself about what people in glass houses should and shouldn’t do.
    @Alley – It’s the writing in any book, fiction or non, that can raise a narrative above its subject material.

  7. You say,
    “I would argue that the work’s language must in some way transcend said work’s subject material.”
    I would actually argue that the language supports, enhances, even adds a new dimension the subject material. I think a book can be well written but still be a crappy book if it doesn’t work with its topic. Does that make sense?
    Great, thought provoking post. Thanks for participating in our Hop!

  8. How to Be Alone is in my tbr pile (picked it up at a library sale last summer) and I’ve read some great reviews of The Places in Between, too. My favorite recent example is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

  9. @Ingrid- Completely agree, the language ‘support, enhance, and add a new dimension to the subject material.’ What I meant was that the language must rise above what is necessary to convey information. And, we’re in complete agreement about crappy books with nice language. Thanks for coming by and for hosting this hop!
    @JoAnn – How To Be Alone is a great book that can be read in bits and pieces. As it’s all essays, you can read through one and then move off to a different book for a while without any break in continuity. The Places In Between got a lot of good press, but the reviews really don’t do justice to what a great book it was.
    @Debnance – Thanks for stopping by, I’ll head over and check out your post.

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