Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
As some of you will recall, my first blog for 2013 was to ask you what your favorite book was that you read in 2012. You may read that blog here, if you’d like. I didn’t specify fiction or nonfiction, yet only 10 nonfiction titles were suggested while 44 novels were mentioned. Why?
Maybe we all just got caught up in thinking about novels. But I suspect there’s more to it than that.
Is nonfiction publishing’s red-headed stepchild?
Here are the reasons it just might be:
1. Fiction connects readily with our emotions. When it comes to recalling a favorite book, we tend to retrace our reading experiences. That takes us down the trail of how we felt when we read a book rather than down the path of what knowledge we gained. And that tends to take us to fiction. I don’t see that as a ding against nonfiction; it’s just that story passes through our hearts on its way to our brains. A memoir or narrative nonfiction also has our hearts as its trajectory.
2. Nonfiction is harder to talk about because categories offer vastly different types of experiences. Fiction=story. Nonfiction could be a book on apologetics, a devotional, a self-help treatise, a memoir, etc. In other words, when we talk about fiction, we have set categories: the plotline, the characters, the writing. But with nonfiction, we read and talk about each category differently. I think that makes nonfiction more difficult for us to discuss with each other.
3. We don’t always talk about the nonfiction book that was meaningful to us because it was on a personal topic. Do you want to admit the best book you read was on how to deal with unruly children? Um, probably not. We don’t often ask someone why they decided to read a certain novel (and, if we do, the answer is easy), but I think we wonder what made someone choose a particular nonfiction book. And the reader might not want to explain. So a great nonfiction book might not get the same kind of word-of-mouth marketing as a novel. (This, of course, doesn’t apply to devotionals, memoirs or narrative nonfiction. See how hard it is to talk about nonfiction as a group?)
3. Nonfiction often is centered on ideas rather than storyline. My book club just finished reading The End of Money (a book I highly recommend, by the way). Our discussion touched on the writing style, but for most of the evening, we talked about money, using ideas from the book as our springboard. I think talking about a book’s ideas is a more complex, involved conversation than talking about a story. If I say I just read The Paris Wife, I can easily summarize it by saying it’s a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, whom he viewed as the love of his life. Voila! I can fill in lots of details, but it’s easy to grasp in a few words. (And, to be fair, The End of Money is easy to talk about simply as well: Why cash is about to become a dinosaur.)
Despite these arguments for why we seem to prefer fiction to nonfiction, I contend nonfiction is not publishing’s red-headed stepchild. If you look at best-seller lists that blend fiction and nonfiction, nonfiction wins the most slots–by a lot. One list that blends the two is ECPA’s (Evangelical Christian Publishing Association). For February, 46 of the top 50 best-sellers are…trumpet, please…nonfiction. I should wish to be such a red-head!
Do you think our reading preferences will change because of e-readers, which people have found are great for fiction but not so satisfying for nonfiction?
What percentage of your reading is fiction vs. nonfiction? If you have a preference, why is that your choice?
Let me add, as a PS, that I will be limited in my ability to discuss my thoughts with you because I’m attending a funeral today. Please enter into a hearty discussion with each other, and I’ll join in as I’m able.