This week’s Nonfiction November topic, hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, is Reads Like Fiction.
Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?
I’d like to put a slightly different spin on the topic, and ask: What degree of factuality should there be in fiction, and to what degree is it acceptable to deviate from the facts in nonfiction? What works for you, or what do you find ethically acceptable?
I find the most impressive historical novels stick to the facts as far as they are known and fill in plausible details around the edges where there are uncertainties. It’s rare that an author does not change, rearrange, or combine the facts in some way, but I appreciate a note informing me about these deviations. And I personally do not like it when really important details, like whether a character was married or a murderer or present/absent at some crucial event, are changed — when things get too far from reality, then I think it’s better to create original characters based on or inspired by the historical figures, and give the imagination free rein.
I love nonfiction that reads like fiction, but I don’t like too much invention here either. Sometimes the facts are just too few and far between, and rather than writing a very short book the author speculates at length about things no one can possibly know. To me, this quickly becomes tiresome. Sometimes twisting a certain event or sequence of events makes a better story, which is within the bounds of respectability in a novel, but not, to me, in a nonfiction book. It’s all right to imagine some scenes or bits of dialogue, but I get uncomfortable if these devices take up too much of the book, or are not properly identified. Here, too, there are times when I wish the book would just be written as fiction and have done with it.
How do you feel about the mixing of fiction and nonfiction? Can they be respectably combined, or do they need to stay in separate corners?