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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Readable Nonfiction?

Over at Reader's Advisor Online, nonfiction expert and author of the blog Citizen Reader, Sarah Statz Cords,  had an intersting essay questionsing why we can ask for readable nonfiction, but we never say "readable fiction."

Here is the link, but I thought the essay was worthwhile enough to re-post here. And, no I do not trust all of you to click through, sorry:

Would we ever call it “readable” fiction?

by Sarah Statz Cords
Recently a discussion on Fiction-L centered on a poster’s desire to create a display of “readable nonfiction” titles. It made my heart glad to see that numerous people responded to the question with a number of great nonfiction title suggestions. But I’d be lying if the chosen title of the display didn’t rankle me just a bit.
Now, it is no secret to anyone who knows me that I am a diehard nonfiction reader. I read novels too, but they’re a much tougher sell; if, on the other hand, you start a sentence with something like “Hey, I read a great biography the other day…” or “Have you seen this new science book…” you can be sure I’m listening and will most likely add that book to my TBR pile, regardless of subject.
So every time I see the words “readable” or “narrative” in discussions of nonfiction, I feel a bit sad about all of the nuances of nonfiction types and genres that are being missed. To some extent I understand the use of the terms; when dealing with nonfiction, library staff often feel compelled to make distinctions between NF titles that are used almost exclusively for informational purposes and those that can be read more recreationally or, arguably, more as a “story.” But I would submit that most of the “informational” types of NF have their own names: cookbooks. Baby name books. Car repair manuals. Decorating books. Self-Help.
The problem I have with “readable” and “narrative” is not that they are inaccurate labels. Rather, it is that they are so broad as to be useless, and they obscure the glory and variety of nonfiction titles. The Fiction-L list of readable nonfiction titles will be an interesting one–but it may not be a very unified list (I don’t know, for example, that I would suggest Erik Larson’s true-crime history Devil in the White City to the same reader who might enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-discovery memoir Eat, Pray, Love–and they were both on the list).
As previously noted: I’m completely biased (as only a person who has written two nonfiction reader’s guides can be). I also take my nonfiction way too seriously. As Albert Brooks once said in the wonderful movie Broadcast News, “I grant you everything.” But these are my questions: How can we become more comfortable thinking about NF in terms of both subject areas AND genres (or interest categories, which is what bookstores use)? How can we learn about and promote more specific types of nonfiction? What tools do you currently use to learn about nonfiction titles and their peculiarities? These are the things I want to know–because I think there’s a world of biographies, memoirs, women’s nonfiction, true crime, adventure, science, “big think” (like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point), “year in the life,” and foodie titles out there–they’re all readable, and they all deserve displays of their own.

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