Monday, November 9, 2009

A Writer is a Writer, Whether Fiction or Non

Much to my chagrin, this happens all the time: Upper-echelon novelists take a break from their fiction to publish nonfiction. These books range from works about the writing process to memoirs to book-length essays on just about any topic. Examples include Philip Roth (Reading Myself and Others),  Robert Stone (Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties), and Jonathan Franzen (The Discomfort Zone).

Even though such "cross-over" is common, it still bums me out a bit. My first reaction upon seeing these books is usually along the lines of "Dammit! Why did this novelist waste all the time it must've taken to write this nonfiction book I'll probably never read? Why couldn't they have just produced another brilliant and engrossing novel?" Selfish and stupid? Probably, but I can't help it. 

I bring this up because in the last month, two of my favorite novelists — Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon — have published nonfiction books. Chabon, whose novels The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, I greatly enjoyed, published a book in October titled Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son.

JS Foer, securely installed by critics and readers alike as the "hottest young American novelist," has published two novels Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, both of which are absolutely fantastic. His recent foray into nonfiction is titled Eating Animals, a memoir about his vegetarianism. 

(Side note on Foer: I went to a Foer reading/signing a few years ago and was simply stunned by the atmosphere. It was like the literary equivalent of an 'NSYNC concert. More than half of the attendees were mid-20s women, who were openly fawning over Foer. [Isn't he dreamy?] Anyway, that made me laugh — and more than a little jealous. Also, Foer mentioned that Roth is one of his favorite novelists, so when he was signing my book, I asked him if he'd ever met Roth. He smiled and guffawed, and said, "No, thankfully." He paused a beat, and then said, "That'd be like Hamlet meeting his father." I have no idea what that means. Okay, back to the blog...)

Even though I'm not exactly enthralled by the subjects of Chabon and Foer's books, I'm thinking I may have to reconsider my long-standing resistance to favorite novelists' nonfiction books. After all, if I enjoyed their fiction, why wouldn't I enjoy their non, right?  Right?

In my entire reading career, I think the only nonfiction by a fiction writer I've ever read is Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose, which was boring, and A Tale of Love and Darkness, a memoir by Israeli novelist Amos Oz, which was actually awesome! (I've always had a strange fascination with Israel and Palestine.)

What's your take? Do you read your favorite novelists' nonfiction? Is there good nonfiction by fiction writers out there I'm missing?


  1. I can't remember the last non-fiction book I read. No wait, it was Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I tend to stay on an all junk food fiction diet. I need to read something a bit more stimulating, but I just haven't been able to persuade myself to do so for quite some time.

    I will now check out those non-fiction books you recommended from this post. Why not? I haven't anything lose but a little time.

  2. stephen king is probably my favourite writer, i've got nearly all his books on my shelf. its got more to do with a sentimental connection rather than thinking he's a literary genius (salem's lot was the first book i ever bought myself with my own money earned from my first part-time job as a teenager, i think i was 14yrs old) and i really enjoyed his book 'on writing'. i'm a real sucker for wanting to know about the back story to books, what inspired the author etc, and sk is always good for that!

    ps i loved your side note about froer - just goes to show all geniuses are a tad nuts (at least that's my excuse :-))

  3. @mummazappa - I've heard nothing but great things about King's 'On Writing' and have been meaning to check it out for years. I also enjoy finding out the backstory on books, and learning about writers' routines. Thanks for the comment!

  4. I'm with Mummazappa, King's "On Writing" was a really good read, especially for those of us who harbour an aspiration to be a write one of these days. I also loved Eat, Pray, Love as did Mary (hey Mary, have you heard she's releasing a new book next year about marriage? Google "Committed" if you haven't already!)


    I remember getting into a heated debate in one of my lit classes about a version of this topic once. Someone put forward that a poet should stick to poetry and a novelist to fiction - I think writers like Sylvia Plath were being discussed. WHY?! was my main response - why box them in and put boundaries around their creativity? A writer is a writer - someone who puts words down on paper in an interesting way about interesting things. The form seems immaterial to me.

    Having said that I freely admit it throws me when a well-known author breaks form unexpectedly!

    Just my 2 cents worth :)

  5. I feel like it doesn't really happen all that often, that fiction authors I love decide to take the jump into non-fiction writing. Although the few times that it has happened, I have been pleasantly surprised. Haruki Murikami is one of my favorite authors, and he has two non-fiction. They're of course different from his fiction, but his writing style is still there; I can still see him in the writing. And as such, I ended up loving them both.
    I also thoroughly enjoyed Stephen King's "On Writing," as did the others.
    I've never read Cabon, though the Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is slowly moving it's way to the top of my tbr pile.
    As for Jonathan Safran Foer, I adore him (N.B. I had never actually seen a picture of him until this post; I guess he is kinda cute), and yet I had NO IDEA that he had taken the plunge into non-fiction. I love memoirs, though, and I'm a vegan, so now that I do know about it, I'm extremely excited.

    I guess my thoughts on the matter are thus this: if the author is GOOD, and there is a story to tell, then it doesn't really matter what they're writing, be the story fiction, poem, non-fiction, or whatever else.

  6. @kathmeister and brizmus: Thanks for your thoughtful comments! Of course, you're both right - if the author is good, s/he's good. Good writing is good writing. Good storytelling is good storytelling. And I should work even hard to get over my silly nonfiction-by-fiction-writer hangup!

  7. On Writing is in my TBR queue right now but I am reading Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing and so far it's great!

    I don't think any of my other favorite writers have crossed into the nonfiction world but I think if they did, I would give the books a chance for sure. Especially if they were on subjects that I find interesting.

  8. Hey Greg! I JUST became a follower of your blog, I found you thru my Diana Gabaldon contest! Thanks for stopping by! I just read your review on "The Lost Symbol" and I just can't read it. I too think Brown is a COMPLETELY hacky writer. Blah. But must admit I am curious about this one.

    Have a great day!

  9. @Lisa - Thanks for following! I read it out of sheer curiousity, also. The review was fun to write, actually - almost cathartic at some level! ;)

  10. Yet another vote for King's "On Writing". A very worthy read! Love your meeting with Foer and comparing the event to an 'Nsynch concert. I wonder how many of those women had actually read (and I mean truly read) his books?

  11. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver was an excellent non-fiction book by a writer that I consider to be primarily a novelist. (I know she has published at least one book of essays, but I haven't read it yet).

  12. i am not an avid reader (2 young kids, so bon appetit is my stand-by) but whenever chabon writes something i read it & was excited by this book (manhood) for the simple reason that it was by him...i am 1/3 through it and am so happy that my wife put this in my is relevant, and though true and autobiographical, it reads as does his fiction...fluid & descriptive, rich and satisfying...only now, it has the added advantage of being a helpful resource for parenting & living...not to say that i will be following his lead, but it brings things to my attention that i should consider...The Wilderness of Childhood is particularly poignant