Like literary journalism, literary nonfiction is a type of prose that employs the literary techniques usually associated with fiction or poetry to report on persons, places, and events in the real world without altering facts.
The genre of literary nonfiction, also known as creative nonfiction, is broad enough to include travel writing, nature writing, science writing, sports writing, biography, autobiography, memoir,
interviews, and familiar and personal essays. Literary nonfiction is alive and well, but it is not without its critics.
Here are several examples of literary nonfiction from noted authors:
- “The Cries of London,” by Joseph Addison
- “Death of a Soldier,” by Louisa May Alcott
- “A Glorious Resurrection,” by Frederick Douglass
- “The San Francisco Earthquake,” by Jack London
- “The Watercress Girl,” by Henry Mayhew
- “The word literary masks all kinds of ideological concerns, all kinds of values, and is finally more a way of looking at a text, a way of reading…than an inherent property of a text.”
(Chris Anderson, “Introduction: Literary Nonfiction and Composition” in “Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy”)
- Fictional Devices in Literary Nonfiction
“One of the profound changes to have affected serious writing in recent years has been the spread of fiction and poetry techniques into literary nonfiction: the ‘show, don’t tell’ requirement, the emphasis on concrete sensory detail and avoidance of abstraction, the use of recurrent imagery as symbolic motif, the taste for the present tense, even the employment of unreliable narrators. There has always been some crossover between the genres. I am no genre purist, and welcome the cross-pollination, and have dialogue scenes in my own personal essays (as did Addison and Steele). But it is one thing to accept using dialogue scenes or lyrical imagery in a personal narrative, and quite another to insist that every part of that narrative be rendered in scenes or concrete sensory descriptions. A previous workshop teacher had told one of my students, ‘Creative non-fiction is the application of fictional devices to memory.’ With such narrow formulae, indifferent to nonfiction’s full range of options, is it any wonder that students have started to shy away from making analytical distinctions or writing reflective commentary?”
(Phillip Lopate, “To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction”)
- Practical Nonfiction vs. Literary Nonfiction
“Practical nonfiction is designed to communicate information in circumstances where the quality of the writing is not considered as important as the content. Practical nonfiction appears mainly in popular magazines, newspaper Sunday supplements, feature articles, and in self-help and how-to books…
“Literary nonfiction puts emphasis on the precise and skilled use of words and tone, and the assumption that the reader is as intelligent as the writer. While information is included, insight about that information, presented with some originality, may predominate. Sometimes the subject of literary nonfiction may not at the onset be of great interest to the reader, but the character of the writing may lure the reader into that subject.
“Literary nonfiction appears in books, in some general magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, the Atlantic, Commentary, the New York Review of Books, in many so-called little or small-circulation magazines, in a few newspapers regularly and in some other newspapers from time to time, occasionally in a Sunday supplement, and in book review media.”
(Sol Stein, Stein on Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies)
- Literary Nonfiction in the English Department
“It might be the case that composition studies…needs the category of ‘literary nonfiction’ to assert its place in the hierarchy of discourse comprising the modern English department. As English departments became increasingly centered on the interpretation of texts, it became increasingly important for compositionists to identify texts of their own.”
(Douglas Hesse, “The Recent Rise of Literary Nonfiction: A Cautionary Assay” in “Composition Theory for the Postmodern Classroom”)
“Whether critics are arguing about contemporary American nonfiction for historical or theoretical purposes, one of the primary (overt and usually stated) aims is to persuade other critics to take literary nonfiction seriously—to grant it the status of poetry, drama, and fiction.”
(Mark Christopher Allister, “Refiguring the Map of Sorrow: Nature Writing and Autobiography”)