Hey! Non-Fiction Is Writing, Too! (And, Ya Know, Sometimes Even “Literary”)

Well, well. Just as I decide that my 13-part rant/saga/ramble had run my blog brain-well dry for the week, a rant-ready topic presents itself.

Earlier today at Twitter, Rebecca Skloot noted a website that listed authors who use Twitter. So I visited the site to see what was what. Found a long list (100 authors total) — nearly all of them fiction writers. The teensy pinch (not even, friends, enough to qualify was a handful) of non-fiction writers appeared at the end as “miscellaneous.” As Tom, Dick, and Harry would say: Gimme me a fucking break.

Non-fiction is “miscellaneous”? I don’t think so. Alas, however, I was not surprised. I learned several years back, when I first launched

my write-for-the-people career that many good citizens — and fiction writers — don’t regard non-fiction as “real” writing. That point was driven home some years back when I first ventured on to the internet. I found a website devoted to reading and writing (I refrain from mentioning its name, it being a staggeringly snooty, snobby forum).

One of the forums at the site was for writers, and I was looking for company for my misery as a learning writer, so I started reading posts and trying to add posts of my own. (*1)

A discussion developed among the “regulars” about fiction versus non-fiction (nearly all of them wrote fiction). “Oh,” said one woman, “I don’t count non-fiction as real writing. I mean, how hard can it be? You just gather a bunch of facts and write them down.”

Ouch. And ugh. (*2) Yeah, that’s what I do alright. I round up a buncha pesky facts and then I just write them down on a piece of paper. You betcha. Piece  o’ cake. Leaves me plenty of time for manicures, bonbons, soap operas, and other activities.

As I say: gimme a fucking break. (Yes, am going for a personal best in the number of times I use the word “fuck” in one blog entry.)

Never mind the thousands of hours spent gathering the facts. Never mind that the facts have little or no meaning until the author fashions them into a coherent narrative. Never mind the agonizing hours spent staring at the wall or prowling the dictionary and/or thesaurus struggling to find the right word. Never mind the even longer hours spent pondering arrangement of words, sentences, paragraphs into a lively narrative. Never mind . . . .

Oh, never mind. I feel soooooo much better now. By the way, the best rebuttal to inane attitudes toward non-fiction is Barbara Tuchman’s essay on “verity” in her book Practicing History. (I’m pretty sure the essay is in that collection.)


*1: My visits to the site didn’t last long. Not long after the encounter described in the anecdote above, another new arrival commented that none of the others at the forum ever replied to or commented on her posts. One of the “regulars” informed her, and I quote “We were here first. We don’t really need any newcomers.” It was a public forum, for fuck’s sake! ‘Twas enough for me. I departed the premises. (First, however, I tried hanging around the readers’ forums, because of course I’m a reader, too. Whew. Snobby? I’d never met such condescending people. Lots of use of the word “masses,” typically with dripping derision, as in “Oh, Stephen King. He’s not a literary writer. He writes for the masses.” Or “Just read New Novel X. Brilliant prose. Not for the masses.”) (I may be many things — bitchy, foul-mouthed, opinionated — but snobby I am not.)

*2: Insult to injury: A couple of years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts published a long study of Americans’ reading habits and concluded that reading was on the decline. Its data, however, included only the reading of fiction. That’s right: the analysts didn’t ask people about what, if any, non-fiction they’d read. I guess someone forgot to tell them that 85% of the books published in the U.S. are, you guessed it, non-fiction. See NEA reports here and here.

2 thoughts on “Hey! Non-Fiction Is Writing, Too! (And, Ya Know, Sometimes Even “Literary”)

  1. Ha! you Do make me laugh!snobby NOT For whatever reason.. it seems like non fiction writers don’t blog so much? or is it just me.. [always searching for Bill Bryson]I was just amazed at the volume of bibliography of your beer book, HUGE,you did massive reserch, and of course it shows in the book and the story telling85% really? nice rant!dave

  2. As someone who writes nonfiction because his ficion isn’t a way to make a living, let me offer a different take on this. Fiction is in bad shape in America–for a number of reasons. Readership is way down, as you note. Genre fiction thrives, but literary fiction is in trouble. Due to consolidation of publishers, there are very few independents left that can offer a fiction writer a decent contract. Mostly the bargain is writing something commercial or writing something for love that will take 10,000 hours and earn you $10,000. Publishers want only books that will sell huge, so they don’t bother with new, untested, or no-name authors (that is, most of us). For the most part, publishers would much rather publish nonfiction, which is far more predictable in terms of sales.Fiction writers therefore are a beleaguered lot. That they band together and form a protective, defensive circle is no surprise. To them, the nonfiction writers have all the love, and they inhabit a hostile world.


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