Nonfiction November Week 4: Reads Like Fiction

For Week 4 of Nonfiction November, we are asked to consider the following questions:

(Nov. 19 to 23) – Reads Like Fiction (hosted by Rennie at What’s Nonfiction?): Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

I don’t really expect nonfiction to feel like fiction, so I tend to approach it in a different frame of mind and hoping to gain different things from it. The type of nonfiction I read most often is history and I think there does need to be a distinction between historical nonfiction and historical fiction.

When I read historical fiction I want the author to create a realistic and convincing historical setting which has been thoroughly researched and to stick to the facts as far as possible regarding things such as dates, outcomes of battles, major events, the clothes people would have worn and the food they would have eaten. However, I also want to be entertained by a good story which will take me through a range of emotions and I want the author to bring the characters to life, showing me how they thought, how they felt and what they said. When writing fiction, the author can obviously use their imagination to do these things, but with nonfiction it’s more difficult and sometimes impossible.

In Alison Weir’s biography of Elizabeth of York, for example, because there is a limit to what we can know about Elizabeth from a distance of five hundred years, there are lots of occasions where she speculates on what Elizabeth might have done or thought and uses the words ‘probably’ and ‘maybe’. This is obviously much more of a problem with nonfiction than with fiction, and although I did enjoy that book overall, I would have preferred to stick to the known facts.

Going back to the questions posed at the beginning of this post, I think there are definitely certain literary elements and techniques that can be used to give a book a more fiction-like feeling. The Plantagenets by Dan Jones is a good example: I mentioned in my review that “instead of just telling us that Henry I’s son died in a shipwreck, he describes the sails of the ship billowing in the wind, the shouts of the crew and the freezing water pouring into the ship.” This sort of detail can add life and colour and make a nonfiction book feel more like a novel.

I think it does depend on the type of nonfiction, though. Autobiographies and memoirs can often feel much more fictional than an impersonal biography of a historical figure; the author is writing about his or her own life, so they can draw on firsthand experience, they can talk about their thoughts, words and actions, and they probably don’t need to resort to imagination or speculation to fill in gaps.

One book that I think gets the fiction/nonfiction balance right and that has an element of autobiography is Wild Swans by Jung Chang. I described it in my review as “the most riveting non-fiction book I’ve ever read – I kept thinking ‘I’ll just read a few more pages’ then an hour later I was still sitting there unable to put the book down.” Because Jung Chang is writing about her own family history – her grandmother, her mother and herself – Wild Swans has a personal feel which gives it the sort of power and emotion I love in fiction. Knowing that it is a true story makes it an even more moving and compelling read.

At the other end of the scale are books that could never be mistaken for fiction and aren’t intended to be, such as reference books and books of facts and figures. Books like The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction and The Renaissance: The Best One-Hour History feel nothing like novels and I wouldn’t expect or want them to!


What are your opinions on this? Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel?

24 thoughts on “Nonfiction November Week 4: Reads Like Fiction

  1. piningforthewest says:

    I’ve read a couple of Alison Weir’s non-fiction books and I must admit that I got really annoyed by the amount of speculation in them – we can all do that, but I want history books to stick to the known facts..

    • Helen says:

      I’ve just read Alison Weir’s new book on Tudor Christmas traditions, which I enjoyed, but her longer biographies tend to have far too much speculation in them for my taste.

  2. FictionFan says:

    I think that’s an excellent description of the differences between fiction and non-fiction and (boringly) I agree with every word you say! It’d be more fun to argue, but there it is! 😉 I also found there was a little too much of the ‘maybe’ in Elizabeth of York – in that type of biography I really want the facts, or speculation that is firmly founded on known facts, but I felt that sometimes her speculations were more like wishful thinking. But I do think the use of good descriptive language can make a history book much more readable and I like when an event is made atmospheric by description without distorting the facts…

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you agree! I don’t mind an author offering their own interpretation and analysis of the facts, if they make it clear that it’s just their personal opinion, but in the Elizabeth of York book I felt that Alison Weir was attributing thoughts and feelings to Elizabeth that there was no evidence for.

  3. Margaret says:

    I agree too and I really dislike the use of the words ‘probably’ and ‘maybe’ in nonfiction. I’d forgotten about Wild Swans when I wrote my post. I read it in 2012 and was riveted. It makes such a difference when the subject is known to the author – Jung Chang spent months talking to her mother about her life and her grandmother’s life and recorded 60 hours of her memories. It was a real eye-opener for me about what happened in China under Mao.

    • Helen says:

      Wild Swans is such a powerful book – I would like to read it again one day. It definitely makes a difference when the author is writing about a subject close to his or her heart.

  4. elainethomp says:

    Your mention of the Dan Jones Plantagenet book reminds me of Thomas B. Costain’s series of nonfiction that read like fiction about the whole dynasty. Have you ever run across them? We had a couple of the paperbacks in the house when I was young, and i read them as a teen. They were very readable and not confusing. It’s a set of four, that starts with The Conquering Family and ends with The Last Plantagenets. I was surprised when I realized they were technically non-fiction, because they were so enjoyable to read. Well researched, I gather, for the time (1950s).

    How nice, someone at Goodreads has posted some quotes. Here’s a bit from volume 1: “The counts of Anjou and their lovely, but wicked wives gained such an unsavory reputation over the centuries that the people of England were appalled when they found that one of them was to be King of England. This was young Henry, the grandson of Henry I and of the Count of Anjou, and there was much angry muttering and shaking of heads.” —”

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read anything by Thomas B. Costain, although I know a lot of people speak very highly of him. Most of his books seem to have been out of print for a long time, at least in the UK, but I’ll see if I can find a copy of The Conquering Family. I’m glad to hear you found them so readable – based on the quote you’ve posted, I think I’ll like the writing style.

  5. buriedinprint says:

    I’ve really enjoyed another of Weir’s non-fiction books on that time period; I don’t remember feeling as though she was overstepping, and I do remember feeling immersed in the time and space she was writing about. I appreciate a narrative-driven story, whether fiction or non-fiction; I like to fall into the reading and feel the world beyond fall away.

    • Helen says:

      With Alison Weir’s books, maybe it depends on the subject. I have recently read her newest book, A Tudor Christmas, which is quite short and seems to stick to the facts; the Elizabeth of York book was much longer and perhaps needed more padding, especially as there’s not a huge amount of information about Elizabeth available. That feeling you describe of the outside world falling away as you read is what I always hope for every time I open a book!

    • Helen says:

      Wild Swans really is a great book! I learned so much from it – until I read it I had no real understanding at all of what life in communist China was like. I definitely recommend it.

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    You have convinced me to read Wild Swans someday. Overall I think the trend toward making nonfiction more readable by using literary techniques is a good one. History, because it is the story of real life, does not need to be dry.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I agree. Nonfiction doesn’t need to feel exactly the same as fiction, but it doesn’t need to feel dry either. Wild Swans is a wonderful book and I’m sure you would find it interesting!

  7. whatsnonfiction says:

    It drives me crazy when a work of nonfiction uses too much speculation. I abandoned a history/biography earlier this year because once I started noticing the “maybes”, “would haves”, and “might’ve beens” I couldn’t stop noticing and I didn’t know why the author would write about this topic in the first place if so much was unsure or not really solid fact.

    You made so many excellent points here, great to read your take on it!

    • Helen says:

      I’m sure a lot of people would agree with you! For me, it depends on why I am reading a particular book – whether I want to be entertained by it or to learn from it.

  8. jessicabookworm says:

    Helen, personally I don’t really want my non-fiction to read like fiction. I love it when an author uses real history and people in historical fiction, but I prefer non-fiction to be factual and not speculate or imagine too much.

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