50 Shades of Nonfiction

Okay, so maybe not quite fifty shades. Not in this post, anyway. There are more types of nonfiction than Christian Grey had riding crops and whips, but for now, we’re just going to focus on a few of our favorite subgenres, why you may be interested in writing or reading them, and a great read for each.

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Memoirs

Memoirs aren’t just for celebrities—not that we don’t love celebrity memoirs (because we really, really do). Your life doesn’t doesn’t need to be glamorous or tragic to be worth telling stories about. Whether your story is about growing up with family members’ mental illness or addiction (Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club), or raising your kids (Susan Cheever’s As Good As I Could Be: A Memoir of Raising Wonderful Children in Difficult Times), your perspective, your experience, and your way of expressing both are totally unique to you. You have a story to tell that people want to hear. You never know whose life could be improved by being able to relate to something you went through.

One of our favorites: Just Kids by Patti Smith

In her first book of prose, singer, songwriter, artist, and poet Patti Smith looks back on her life with legendary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in this fascinating, beautifully written memoir. Even if you have no interest in either Smith or Mapplethorpe, in a matter of just a few pages, you’ll find it difficult to put this book down.

 

Literary Journalism

Literary journalism requires the facts of traditional journalism, but not the objectivity. Often written in first person, a journalist relates their experiences while living in dangerous, dire, or unusual situations. Whether the author is embedded with troops in the midst of war—like Evan Wright’s account of the 2003 invasion of Iraq in Generation Kill—or even just a circumstance very different from their own—Barbara Ehrenreich’s attempt to live on minimum wage in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America—we see news headlines brought to life through the author’s subjective experience.

One of our favorites: War by Sebastian Junger

Between 2007 and 2008, Junger was embedded with an American infantry platoon in Afghanistan. Without any political editorializing, Junger shows us what life is like for the young troops in likely the most dangerous part of the country, with each day spent in mortal danger and living in untenable conditions.  

 

Graphic Nonfiction

Yes, graphic nonfiction, as in graphic novels. As most savvy readers know by now, this medium is no longer limited to the kids’ fare it’s been in the past. Graphic novels can combine stunning, disturbing, or abstract visual storytelling with literature to entertain and inform. And they’ve done it about everything from the atrocities of the Holocaust (Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the Pulitzer Prize–winning account of a son’s interviews with his Holocaust–survivor father) to science (The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA by Mark Schultz). There's even a graphic version of everyone’s favorite Strunk and White writing manual: The Elements of Style Illustrated by Maira Kalman.

One of our favorites: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

This graphic autobiography recounts Satrapi’s life growing up in Iran during the Iran/Iraq war. Told in two volumes—the first about her childhood in Iran and the second about her adolescence and young adulthood in both Vienna and Iran—Persepolis won the Angoulême International Comics Festival Prize for Scenario and was turned into an animated movie that won the Jury Prize at the Canne Film Festival in 2007.