I’m getting this week’s Literary Blog Hop (hosted by The Blue Bookcase) in under the wire tonight, so I’ll get right to this week’s question.
We’re asked this week whether there is such a thing as literary non-fiction, and if so, how do you define it? (And since we all love to know about new-to-us books, to give some examples.)
I absolutely do think there is a category of written works that can legitimately be defined as literary non-fiction. To me, literary non-fiction reads like a novel, with compelling characters and a plot that unfolds in a way that that keeps one reading. The best literary non-fiction keeps you up at night turning the pages, much as any fiction book would. A literary non-fiction book is one that makes the story new (even if you know what happens) and leaves you with more depth and perspective than a “just-the-facts” type of non-fiction book. And while literary non-fiction can take many forms, I think the best books in this genre are ones that are extensively researched but where the story, the people, still shine through.
The first book I thought of for this category is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which I am currently reading and thoroughly enjoying. But since many other bloggers have mentioned this one as a deserved example of literary non-fiction (and I agree), I will instead highlight a book that will be among my favorites this year: Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, by Francine Prose.
Through her famous diary, Anne herself gives a reader a strong sense of the history and happenings of that time (earning her diary a literary non-fiction designation from some other bloggers) and Prose writes that this becomes even more critical as decades pass and memories fade.
Perhaps the best example of literary non-fiction is seeing the writing in action in order to decide for oneself:
“In a few more years, no one alive will have witnessed the scene of a Nazi arresting a Jew. There have been, and will be, other arrests and executions for the crime of having been born into a particular race or religion or tribe. But the scene of Nazis hunting down Jews is unlikely to happen again, though history teaches us never to say never. This will be the arrest that future generations can visualize, like a scene in a book. They will have to remind themselves that it happened to real people, though these people have survived, and will live on, as characters in a book.” (pg. 64)
There is also a section of Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife where Prose writes about the arrest of the Franks, details of which I again thought I knew but didn’t. The arresting officer Karl Josef Silberbauer “was disturbed by the detail of Otto Frank’s military trunk, labeled as the property of Lieutenant Otto Frank, which meant he would have been Sergeant Silberbauer’s superior when both fought in the German army during World War I.” (pg. 65)
Simon Wiesenthal later successfully tracked down this Silberbauer fellow, whose wartime activities were investigated and later dropped for “lack of evidence.” (Is it possible to arrest someone for being an asshole? Because if so, Silberbauer would have been pretty high on my list for his whining. See if you agree.)
“The suddenly notorious [after his whereabouts and wartime history became known] Silberbauer complained to a Dutch reporter that his temporary suspension from the [Vienna] police force [after his whereabouts and wartime history became known] was making it hard to pay for the new furniture he’d bought on the installment plan, and that he could no longer use the pass that let him ride the streetcar for free. Asked if he had read Anne Frank’s diary, Silberbauer replied that he had bought it to see if he was in it.” (pg. 66)
“Why did he think he might be? He knew what happened to Anne after he flushed her out of the attic. Did he imagine that, ill and starving, she could have kept up her diary in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, pausing from her labors to record her impressions of Silberbauer?” (pg. 66-67)
(I commend Prose for taking a more restrained response to this than I would have, because really … worrying about his furniture payments and losing his privileges of riding the streetcar for free? Call me callous, but those hardships don’t seem to be on par with dying of typhus at age 15 in a concentration camp.)
You can read the rest of my review here.
Some other books that I would consider as literary non-fiction are listed below (with links taking you to my reviews).
copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo’s Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.