This week’s Literary Blog Hop, sponsored by the Blue Bookcase, asks: Can nonfiction be literary? Of course it can, but it’s harder to define. I don’t read much nonfiction but maybe this is the rough equivalent of calling a work of science fiction literary (as discussed in a recent post). In other words, we assume it’s not literary, until convinced that it is.
The best example of literary nonfiction I can think of is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. If you haven’t read it, it’s the true story of the murder of the Clutter family in 1959. Mom, Dad, son, daughter — all are found shot to death in their house in a sleepy Kansas town. The story is compelling because it occurs in a small town that never locked its doors before, so the murder of an entire family overnight shakes the foundations of an entire community. But the heart of Truman’s story is the two men who committed the murders – who they are, how it happened, the investigation and trial, and their path to Death Row.
If you’re like me, a “true crime” book is not one you’re likely to pick up. When I worked in a bookstore many years ago, true crime was all the rage and the shelves were full of them. These books were mass market fluff – they all had similar covers, similar descriptions, similar tag lines. In Cold Blood is different. It’s one of the most compelling books I’ve ever read.
What makes this book literary? Above all things, it’s the quality of the writing. Truman Capote is a literary writer whether he’s writing fiction and nonfiction. He brings the story of this family, the community, and the two murderers vividly to life. He doesn’t write this book in a straightforward, factual way. Rather, as a reader you are enveloped by the story. In fact he makes you see these two murderers as real men, who you come to feel you know.
More than that, this book WILL make you think about criminal justice, crime, the death penalty, and even whether, in a sleepy small town or a big city, we are ever safe at night. Maybe today we’re used to the violence and gore of constant crime coverage on TV and in the papers. We know all about the randomness of crime and death. My door has multiple locks and a security system. But don’t you wish we could go back to a time where we didn’t lock our doors?
This is oversimplifying of course, but nonfiction is literary when it has high-quality writing, when it’s written in an artistic, creative manner, and when it makes you think not just about the facts but about how it relates to your life and the lives of others.
Another book that meets these criteria is The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough. McCullough writes about a flood that occurred in the early 1900s in Johnstown, Pennsylvania after a dam burst. This true story describes one of the largest and most deadly natural disasters ever to occur in this country, although most people haven’t heard of it. McCullough goes into great detail about how the dam was constructed and how it failed. But his story is so much larger than that; it’s about greed, power, and the insensitivity of the wealthy to the lives of the lower classes. The dam is built at the top of a mountain to create a man-made lake for a country club for the super wealthy – it’s a place for them to sail their yachts. The warnings of engineers are repeatedly ignored, and the outcome is devastating. When the dam breaks the river floods down the mountain, creating a gigantic wall of water, mud, torn up homes, trees, and other wreckage. This wall crashes into the town of Johnstown, destroying it and most of its people.
Why is this book literary? Again, because of the quality of the writing. McCullough has memorialized a tragic incident in such a way I will never forget about it. Also because every aspect of this story carries larger messages that we should think about.
A final consideration for me would be Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, for all the same reasons. Krakauer writes the story of a single tragedy – the starvation of a young man in the Alaskan wilderness. I’m not sure if this is literature but Christopher McCandless is one of the most interesting people I’ve read about. Krakauer describes him as one-part philosopher; one-part extreme thrill-seeker; and one-part troubled youth. As a reader, I admired McCandless, I sympathized with him, and at the end I agonized for him. And I also disliked him for the foolish risks he took and the people he hurt. For me, at least, Krakauer’s ability to write about a single person with this much depth makes this book more than just a sad story.
So, if you’ve read this far, what are some of your picks for literary nonfiction?