Nonfiction November Week 4: Reads Like Fiction

The topic for Week 4: (Nov. 19 to 23) is Reads Like Fiction (Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction): 

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?

It doesn’t matter to me whether a nonfiction book reads like a novel, although I think those that do read like novels are easier to read, even though they are packed full of details and information. It does depend on the topic though and looking through the nonfiction I’ve read in recent years I see that most of the ones that read like fiction are either autobiographies or biographies.

Biographies are written using a mass of material gathered from various sources and are a result of selection – choosing what to include and what to leave out, how to interpret the gaps in the material available. Claire Tomalin in the foreword to her biography of Dora Jordan writes that ‘History – and biography, which is a branch of history is always a matter of choice and control. The writer or editor decides what is history and what is not.

Likeness must be there in a biography, whether it is more like history or fiction. I like historical fiction and, to a certain extent, fictionalised biography but I like to know what is fact and what is not. But then facts are open to interpretation – biographies are given a story-like shape  but still need to be accurate.

Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Actress and the PrinceSisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels

Mrs Jordan’s Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a King, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dora Jordan. It is both well researched and well written making it easy to read despite being packed with information, brilliantly bringing the late 18th and early 19th centuries to life as she tells the story of Dora and her relationship with the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV. Dora was an actress, known as ‘Mrs Jordan’, although there was never a Mr Jordan. She made her stage debut in 1777 at the age of 15 and her first Drury Lane appearance in 1785. She met William, the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) and she became his mistress in 1790.

Another example of a biography that reads like fiction is Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels by Janet Soskice. As I was reading I remember thinking that if this were a novel I would think it was a most unlikely story. It tells the story of twin sisters in the latter half of the nineteenth century, who travelled to St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai where they discovered one of the earliest copies of the Gospels written in ancient Syriac. They also went to Jerusalem and beyond crossing the desert on camel or walking miles on foot.

An AutobiographyCider With Rosie

Then there are autobiographies. These can be very different depending on how much the author wants to reveal about themselves. I loved Agatha Christie’s An Autobiography, written in such an easy style that it was as though I was listening to her talking. It took her fifteen years to write and is filled with her thoughts and reflections as well as telling the story of her life. But although she wrote about her childhood, teenage years, friends and family, her marriage to Archibald Christie and their divorce, about her travels around the world, the two world wars, her interest and involvement with archaeology and her marriage to Max Mallowan, she didn’t write about her disappearance in 1926.

A very different autobiography is Laurie Lee’s autobiography Cider With RosieIt is a beautiful book, full of wonderful word pictures of life in a remote Cotswold village at the beginning of the twentieth century. Laurie Lee was also a poet and this book reads like a prose poem throughout. Cider with Rosie covers his childhood years and it is absolutely fascinating. He was born in Stroud and moved to Slad when he was three in 1917. His love for his mother permeates the book (his father had left his wife with seven young children).

I’ve also read two more of Laurie Lee’s books – As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), which is about his life after he left his home in Slad, and A Rose for Winter (1955), which is a record of his travels in Andalusia 15 years after he first went there. Again in these books he writes vivid, lyrical prose with beautiful descriptions of the countryside, the scorching heat, the poverty and the people, It’s not just the scenery he captures, but also the atmosphere, the splendour and squalor, and the desperation and also the love and enthusiasm for life.

But are these books fiction? There are doubts that Lee falsified and embellished his involvement in the Spanish Civil War in A Moment of War (which I haven’t read). However, his widow denied this. In an interview recorded in The New York Times, 24 February 1985, Lee, talking about Cider With Rosie said  “… it is not so much about me as about the world that I observed from my earliest years. It was a world that I wanted to record because it was such a miracle visitation to me. I wanted to communicate what I had seen, so that others could see it.”

It’s a fascinating topic – and I’m looking forward to seeing what other readers think? do let me know.

8 thoughts on “Nonfiction November Week 4: Reads Like Fiction

  1. I feel that I got a bit tangled up with this week’s question, although I’m pleased to see that you also grappled with the whole fact and fiction thing around memoirs and bio’s.
    I really must read Cider with Rosie one day soon.


  2. It is a fascinating question, Margaret. I’m happy to have my non-fiction read like fiction in some ways. For me, it can help me the people in the book are more accessible. And, as you say, it can make a book easier to follow quickly, and more absorbing. That said, though (and, actually, for me, this is true of memoirs, too), I do like my non-fiction to be non-fiction. I’m not much of a one for a lot of embellishment. And as for Agatha Christie’s missing days? I suppose we may never know what exactly happened…


  3. Memoir is such a tricky topic considering the issues with fabrication or embellishments. And of course just the complications of memory mixed with time. Love your choices here, so varied. You reminded me that I’ve been meaning to read something by Claire Tomalin for a long time. And Cider with Rosie sounds excellent! Really enjoyed reading where your thoughts took you on this one.


  4. Reading about 19thC women exploring is always inspiring I think: what guts it took to reach for that kind of experience back then. I also enjoy autobiographies. I happened to read a children’s biography of Agatha Christie recently which makes me think I’d enjoy her own reflections on her life as well. And I am currently reading Muriel Spark’s autobiography Curriculum Vitae (for #readingmuriel2018 although I’ve had it on my shelves unread for a couple of decades – sigh). Hope you find plenty of good books to add to your TBR this month!


  5. Interesting post. Oh yes, some non-fiction certainly reads like fiction. I think it’s a mix of a good story/interesting life and really good writing. A book that read like that for me was Gardens of Stone: My Boyhood in the French Resistance by Stephen Grady. I couldn’t put it down it was so interesting and readable. And I quite agree about Agatha Christie’s autobiography, one of the best I’ve ever read, so well written… and what a life!


  6. “I wanted to communicate what I had seen, so that others could see it.” That’s a wonderful description of the role of memoir, and also brings in the tricky question of objectivity, because what I see is not always what others see. Maybe “fictionalizing” can bring out an inner truth, at times — but this is problematic. Great recommendations here, thanks!


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