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?
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.
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.
- Indie Book of the Year for Nonfiction: relevant winners include Chloe Hooper’s The arsonist (2019, my review)
- New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction: relevant winners include Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner (2019, my review) and Chloe Hooper’s The tall man (2009)
- Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for Nonfiction: relevant winners include Gabrielle Carey’s Moving among strangers (2014, my review)
- Queensland Literary Awards, The University of Queensland Nonfiction Book Award: relevant winner would be Kristina Olsson’s Boy, lost (2013)
- Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, The Victorian Premier’s Prize for Nonfiction: Sarah Krasnostein and Chloe Hooper have also won this one.
Also relevant are awards that are not “specifically” nonfiction:
- 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?