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What Makes a Non-Fiction Writer?

Today’s Writing Definition of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is a continuation of last week’s exploration of “genre.” Only this time, it’s all about non-fiction writing and writers.

There’s a whole long list of non-fiction genres and sub-genres (i.e., book categories and non-categories). Go into your local bookstore and check out the various non-fiction sections. There, you’ll find that while those sections are probably smaller than the fiction areas, they’re just as diverse.

Or save yourself the trip by browsing Barnes & Noble’s website instead, where you’ll find sections like:

  • Biography

  • Business

  • Cookbooks, Food & Wine

  • Diet, Health & Fitness

  • History

  • Mystery & Crime

  • Religion

  • Self-Help & Relationships

  • Historical

  • Self-Help.

And a whole lot more.

So what classifies all of that as non-fiction? The definition of non-fiction essentially comes down to this: It’s a true story or accurate assessment of a subject.

Once upon a time, these subjects could be presented in pretty dull and dry ways. But the category is moving and shaking so far this century.

For instance, historical non-fiction isn’t comprised of just history textbooks anymore. Turn to David McCullough’s 1776, Hampton Sides’ In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, or Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History.

If you do, you’re going to discover some really great reads that flow off the pages much more like fictional stories.

Or how about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? In that one, its author, Rebecca Skloot, weaves a magnificent account of a former Maryland slave’s life and the scientific research she inspired, which – incidentally – continues to this day.

Non-fiction writers are getting on the ball more and more. It's to the point where they’re giving the usually much more popular and well-paid fiction writers a run for their money, showing up prominently on lauded lists like Oprah’s Book Club, kicking butts and taking names.

With that all said, non-fiction writers are sometimes tempted (or accused of being tempted) to dramatize their true-to-life stories with fictional details. Take the cases of A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, and Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.

Unlike the other books mentioned in this blog post, I never read A Million Little Pieces. But I do distinctly remember the drama surrounding it several years ago. It was all over the news, so I know that Wikipedia has it right when it describes the book this way:

A Million Little Pieces is a book by James Frey, originally sold as a memoir and later marketed as a semi-fictional novel following accusations of literary forgery. It tells the story of a 23-year-old alcoholic and drug abuser, and how he copes with rehabilitation in a 12 steps-oriented treatment center. While initially promoted as a memoir, it was later discovered that many of the events described in the book never happened.

Oops. Big time.

As for Three Cups of Tea, which I read and really loved, Wikipedia has this to say:

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time (original hardcover title: Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations… One School at a Time) is a book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin published by Penguin in 2007. For four years, the book remained on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller’s list.

Three Cups of Tea describes Mortenson’s transition from a registered nurse and mountain-climber to a humanitarian committed to reducing poverty and elevating education for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan…

In April 2011, critiques and challenges of the book and Mortenson were released. Author Jon Krakauer alleged that a number of Mortenson’s claims in the book are fictitious and accused him of mismanaging CAI [Central Asia Institute] funds.

To my knowledge, Mortenson never admitted guilt. And who knows? The man might have done absolutely everything he said he did. But, unfortunately, the whole thing tainted my opinion of the book.

So the lesson to learn here? If you’re going to write non-fiction, stick with non-fiction. Stick to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, even when citing opinions.

Leave the fiction stuff to the guys and gals who write across those genres.

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