Nonfiction November – Reads Like Fiction

This week, Rennie at What’s Nonfiction looks at what makes some nonfiction books ‘fictiony’.

Many memoirs slip into the fictiony-nonfiction category, usually on the basis of some astounding challenge or trauma or feat – think Frey, Westover, Strayed, Burroughs and Pieper. These kinds of ‘shock’ memoirs border on the unbelievable, which is what gives them their fictiony quality. For memoirs that read like fiction minus the ‘Whaaaaat?!’ moments, try My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff and Poum and Alexandre by Catherine de Saint Phalle.

I find that other genres of nonfiction that read like fiction is usually on account of the exceptionally good writing. In that category, three books stand out –

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein – if you haven’t read this book, I urge you to. It’s an amazing story but significantly, Krasnostein writes with empathy and insight.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – a genre-defining classic.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo – this book won a bunch of prizes and it’s not hard to see why – the depth, the sense of place and the story that emerges are extraordinary.

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24 responses

  1. I plan to do this one in combo with Week 5, but I am looking forward to doing it. I like some of your suggestions – including In cold blood, and The trauma cleaner.

    (BTW I’ve been meaning to ask whether you are aware that your tick box for commenters to follow a post – a box I usually tick on blogs I comment on – has the box but no text. You have to know that’s what it is. It’s been like that for as long as I can remember but is not like that on other WordPress blogs I follow. Just letting you know in case you don’t.)

    • Thanks for alerting me to that – I’ve had a look at my dashboard but can’t see where the problem is… sigh… I’ve had a few odd problems over the years but thought most were because of the web browser I was working in, but perhaps not. I need to do a bit of a tidy-up and make a few changes anyway, so hopefully will uncover the cause of the problem then.

      • It’s weird. It functions for those who want it and look for it. It may be that your theme is no longer supported and some code there doesn’t go with something in browsers. My theme is not supported any more I think but I can’t fnd one that has the features I want.

  2. I don’t think I could read The Trauma Cleaner, though I imagine it is quite fascinating.

    In Cold Blood was one of the first narrative nonfiction books I read. I still think of it. It was a powerful story. I felt empathy for those killers.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Although I loved The Trauma Cleaner, I appreciate that it’s not for everyone. The parts about cleaning were the least traumatic – it is the cleaner’s life that is the hard reading.

      Agree re: In Cold Blood. I was astounded at how engaging and beautifully written the book was.

    • I often think back to Beautiful Forevers and am amazed that the things that happened, occurred when they did – how could the author have ever predicted what would unfold over the years she ‘observed’ the family? Amazing story.

  3. Poum and Alexandre sounds so good, I hadn’t heard of it, thanks for that recommendation. I love that you specified memoirs minus the ‘Whaaaaat?!’ moments, I really appreciate those kind of stories! And you’re right, In Cold Blood is such a genre-definer. I think that’s where the term “nonfiction novel” first started getting tossed around. I liked The Trauma Cleaner a lot too. Loved your thoughts on this one!

  4. I like something just a little different from what you are describing – works of fiction which are mostly memoir, Like Eve Langley’s The Pea Pickers. What I like least are biographies in which part of the life is ‘imagined’.

  5. The Trauma Cleaner sounds wonderful – I’ll have to bump it up on my list. I also love Capote’s writing in general and especially In Cold Blood. It’s hard not to compare other true crime books to it.

  6. I’ve been saying this for eleventy million years but I really need to get In Cold Blood read. It’s been in the TBR forever… you’ve reminded me that Behind the Beautiful Forevers is buried in there too somewhere!

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