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Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 4: Literary nonfiction

September 20, 2021

Continuing my little Monday Musings sub-series on “supporting” genres, I’m turning next to a rather “rubbery” genre, literary nonfiction. It is tricky to define – and partly for that reason, it is not obviously well supported.

Literary nonfiction goes by a few other names including creative nonfiction and narrative nonfiction. This last one provides a bit of a clue to its definition, which is that it generally refers to non-fiction writing that uses some of the techniques of fiction, particularly, but not only, in terms of narrative style. Wikipedia defines it as “a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives.” It quotes Lee Gutkind, who founded Creative Nonfiction magazine:

“Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.”

In other words, it aims for a prose style that is more entertaining (but not at the expense of fact.) In my review of Anna Funder’s Stasiland, I wrote that she “uses some of the literary techniques – relating to structure, voice and language – more commonly found in fiction to tell her story”.

Well-known Australian writers in this “genre” include Helen Garner, Chloe Hooper, Anna Krien, Anna Funder and Sarah Krasnostein, all of whom I’ve read. It is a grey area, though, and I suspect each of us would draw the line at different places. However, I would include essay collections by Fiona Wright and Maria Tumarkin, and many hybrid memoir/biographies, like Nadia Wheatley’s Her mother’s daughter (my review)? Historians who write for general audiences rather than academia might also be included. I’m thinking here of Clare Wright and Inga Clendinnen, as possibilities. What do you think?

Prizes

For some genres – literary fiction and crime for example – awards/prizes are a major source of support (in terms of money and recognition) but this is less so for literary nonfiction.

Anna Funder's Stasiland bookcover

Back in 2004, Anna Funder’s Stasiland (my review) won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. Now renamed the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, it is, says Wikipedia, “an annual British book prize for the best non-fiction writing in the English language”. Not surprisingly, winners include works from this literary nonfiction “genre”. Another winner I’ve reviewed here (though it’s not Australian) is Helen Macdonald’s H is for hawk (my review). Australians have not featured highly in this award.

In Australia, several of the state awards include a nonfiction category, and these have been won by literary nonfiction, though they compete with other forms of nonfiction like histories, biographies and other forms of life-writing, essays, and so on.

Major Australian Nonfiction Literary Prizes

None of the awards listed here are specifically for “literary nonfiction” but these are awards which may be won by such books.

Sarah Krasnostein, The trauma cleaner

Also relevant are awards that are not “specifically” nonfiction:

Nadia Wheatley, Her mother's daughter
  • Mark and Evette Moran Nib Literary Award: this award for “excellence in research” and “in writing” has been won by books in this genre, like Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s consolation (2005) and Nadia Wheatley’s Her mother’s daughter (2019).
  • Stella Prize: while this multi-genre/multi-form prize has more often been won by fiction, nonfiction – and particularly literary nonfiction – does feature in its long- and shortlists. Rebecca Giggs’ Fathoms, for example, was shortlisted in 2021.

But, is there more?

The issue, though, for writers is what support do they get when they come up with an idea? Are the sorts of fellowships, grants and writer’s residencies that fiction writers can access also around for nonfiction writers? Well, yes, there are, such as:

  • Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund is an unusual award that is open not just to writers but also to “literary sector workers”. It recognises the importance of travel to writing and literary careers. Awardees have included writers researching nonfiction topics – and, despite COVID, it is still being offered, with a round being made in June this year. To give some examples, in 2018, the aformentioned Rebecca Giggs received a grant for expenses related to a writing residency at the Rachel Carson Centre for Environment and Society in Munich, Germany. And, in November 2019, Tamara Lazaroff received some funds to research her experimental narrative non-fiction memoir Hermit girls on De Witt Island, Tasmania. 
  • Varuna Writers House Residencies are open to “committed writers from all genres”. With around 160 residencies a year, the alumni is extensive, but they include Gail Bell whose The poison principle (on my TBR) won the 2002 NSW Premier’s Prize for Non-Fiction and Patti Miller whose complex memoir, The mind of a thief, was longlisted for the 2013 Stella Prize.

There are more, but these two provide a good start.

Do you read literary nonfiction? If so, would you care to share some favourites?

Previous supporting genre posts: 1. Historical fiction; 2. Short stories; 3. Biography

22 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2021 23:54

    Two biographies that were very creative were Alexis Wright’s Tracker and Brian Matthews’ Louisa, though they might not fit the linear narrative definition.
    One that read like a novel was Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur.

    • September 21, 2021 08:29

      Thanks Bill, I didn’t include biographies, but you are right that many do fit the definition. The examples you give are great, though I’ve only read the last one which does indeed read like a novel.

  2. September 21, 2021 04:25

    Oh, the WONDERFUL Garner ! Sighh .. Were my fairy godmother to spring from the cupboard in which she appears to have been permanently incarcerated, she would make me a writer, and of the Helen Garner kind,

  3. September 21, 2021 05:00

    What an interesting post! I’ve never heard of literary nonfiction, but I get the concept. Earlier this year I read Maggie O’Farrell’s “I Am, I am, I am” which may qualify for this genre. It was one of the most well-written memoirs, I’ve read and it did experiment with language and style.

    At the moment I am trying to find books within another sub-genre, literary thrillers / mysteries, which in theory should be my kind of book. But after having googled it, I am starting to doubt whether literary thrillers is really a thing.

    • September 21, 2021 08:53

      Thank Stargazer, O’Farrell’s book sounds like a fit.

      I have heard of the literary thriller but thrillers are not a genre I know well. I would think literary thrillers are those which play with form in some way. They could be genre-benders, up-end expectations, use different narrative structures, perhaps focus more on complex characters than plot and archetypes? But to some degree ‘literary’ genres are vague, and probably what was ‘literary’ in one generation becomes the norm and thus firmly entrenched in the genre the next? But, don’t ask me for examples. This is all just theory!

  4. September 21, 2021 08:42

    Nature writing often falls within the literary non-fiction/creative non-fiction genre. US writers Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams and the late Barry Lopez are examples par excellence. The genre is not as well developed in Australia, but Mark Tredinnick’s ‘The Blue Plateau’ and ‘A Place on Earth’ are two good places to start.

    • September 21, 2021 09:01

      Thank Tessa. Yes, good one. As you say, it’s better known in the USA. I’ve heard of Tredinnick, but not read him so thanks for bringing him up. I wrote a Monday Musings a few years ago on nature writing in Australia, and quoted Tredinnick in that – but still haven’t got to him!

  5. September 21, 2021 09:27

    Great post. Narrative or creative non-fiction is a genre I have come to love relatively recently, having not been much of a non-fiction reader previously. I have enjoyed some of the ones you mentioned. Two favourites of mine are ‘Esther’ by Jessica North and ‘Ten Thousand Aftershocks’ by Michelle Tom.

    • September 21, 2021 09:29

      Oh thanks Denise. I don’t know either of those, though I have heard of Michelle Tom.

  6. Meg permalink
    September 21, 2021 14:02

    Hi Sue, it is very difficult for me to determine what is literary non fiction. I do like nonfiction that reads like a narrative with facts. Freedom Circus by Sue Smethurst, Clare Wright’s Your Daughters of Freedom and The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, are a few I think meet this genre. I also think of many memoirs by Robert Dessaix are great reads. Underland by Robert Macfarlane, about the ground beneath us, is a terrific read. I suppose it all comes down to how an author writes to engage the reader.

    • September 21, 2021 14:28

      It is a slippery beast Meg, and I think Clare Wright’s histories could be included. I think it is partly (strongly) about how an author wants to engage the reader, to how they think they might get their story out to as many readers as possible.

      I don’t know Underland, but will add it to the books to check out (in my spare time!)

  7. September 21, 2021 17:30

    MY own working definition is non-fiction that takes licence with the facts when there are gaps in what is known so the author makes them up. Sometimes I don’t mind this, and sometimes it really annoys me. I think it should always be signalled.

    • September 21, 2021 18:05

      Thanks Lisa … I think this certainly is a subset of “literary” nonfiction, and I completely agree that any gaps filled should be signalled.

      I’m guessing you are thinking of biographies, for example, where things aren’t known, like Michelle Scott Tucker who does a great job, in her Elizabeth Macarthur biography, of noting when she has made sensible guesses or assumptions and on what basis.

  8. September 22, 2021 08:37

    When I was doing a master’s degree in creative writing, one of my thesis advisors was a creative nonfiction professor. What we discussed was using metaphor more often, adding in more creative language and description. One example was describing a female mallard duck, that is so invisible (with good reason) and ugly compared to the male. This stands in for personal feelings.

    A memoir is often part of a person’s life and reads more “fiction-y” (in that it captures your interest like a narrative). Autobiography tends to start at birth (or before) and with the present, reading more like a journalism piece (“just the facts”).

    In regards to truth, well, all nonfiction lacks truth. Because we don’t have some kind of truth-o-meter to gauge whether authors are making bits up or misremembering, we have to accept it as it is until there is solid evidence to the contrary. I once read two memoirs about a prison romance. The first was by the man who was incarcerated, and several years later the girlfriend who fell in love with and visited him while he was incarcerated wrote her own. His book ends with getting out — freedom — and hers concludes with getting pregnant and finding out he was cheating.

    • September 22, 2021 08:54

      Great points Melanie. I agree that a more image-laden style is often part of it too. And yes, re what you say about memoirs. I wouldn’t normally call memoirs “creative nonfiction” unless they play with form, like a few memoir-biographies I’ve read recently.

      As for truth and nonfiction, you speak my language! Even if all the “facts” are right, the “truth” being presented, or that readers think of, as THE truth is often just ONE truth, as your two memoirs show, eh?

      • September 22, 2021 22:42

        Absolutely. Even if a writer has all the facts correct, he/she is interpreting those facts through feelings, and in the end we got two “competing,” if you will, memoirs. My husband and I actually spend a lot of time telling each other how a situation we just had seemed to us. He has ADHD and I have chronic anxiety, so typically our versions of the same moment never match.

        • September 23, 2021 08:22

          How great that you both do that Melanie. Sounds very healthy to me – and a perfect illustration of our point.

  9. September 22, 2021 09:04

    For me, I see I clear difference between fictionalised biographies, where you know the author is filling in the gaps and narrative non-fiction where the facts are packaged up with up all the literary bells and whistles. You’ve already mentioned a few of my favourites here – Fathoms, Boy, Lost and Moving Among Strangers…

    • September 22, 2021 15:32

      Thanks Brona. I love your description of “literary bells and whistles”. I haven’t read some of your favourites, but they are ones that interest me.

  10. George permalink
    September 23, 2021 20:43

    Yesterday, I started reading Exodus, Revisited, by Deborah Feldman, a sequel to her memoir Unorthodox. She writes of taking a college class in creative nonfiction, so doubtless this qualifies. Were it not chosen for the neighborhood book club, I think I’d pass on it.

    Histories, when well done, ought to qualify as literary nonfiction. Henry Adams’s History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison is notably well-written. Francis Parkman’s history of France in North America is too literary for its own good. Of course, most of the examples I think of are American, though long ago I read all or most of The Fatal Shore

    For a bad example, there is Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, about a killing in Savannah, Georgia, which was published as if nonfiction, but which turned out to include invented scenes. At about the third remarkable coincidence, I re-read the first few pages, then continued, without any supposition that I was reading a literal account.

    • September 24, 2021 08:18

      I don’t know Deborah Feldman, George, so can’t comment on that one but it’s always a shame when you read a book for reading group that you would otherwise pass.

      Yes, I agree re history, though it has to be more than well-written to “qualify” I think. I can think of some that I found completely engrossing but were very traditional in form and style, but it’s a fine line I’m finding when I think about history.

      I have read Midnight in the garden of good and evil, but a very long time ago, with an online reading group. I remember not being certain about whether I was reading fiction or nonfiction. Have just checked my reading record and I marked it as ‘fiction’, thoguh my recollection is that it was supposed to be nonfiction. I think I’m confused. He played around with the “facts” a but too much I think. I remember enjoying his evocation of the place, Savannah. Also, is it an example of “true crime” which is another twist on the genre perhaps? I hadn’t thought of that.

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