Many notable novelists have also written nonfiction books — and that’s a fact. So while this blog usually focuses on fiction, I’m expanding things today to discuss some memorable nonfiction books penned by literary lions and lionesses.
I thought about this topic last week while reading My Family and Other Animals, a very funny memoir of the boyhood years British naturalist Gerald Durrell spent on a Greek island with his mother and siblings. The adult Durrell became better known for his nonfiction than fiction, but I’ll turn that around and mention writers better known for their fiction than nonfiction — one of whom was Gerald’s brother Lawrence Durrell of The Alexandria Quartet fame.
Obviously, some great novelists can write nonfiction books that are almost as compelling and readable as the best literature. One expert at that was Mark Twain, who’s a legend for fictional works such as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn but penned terrific nonfiction as well.
My favorites in Twain’s factual canon are The Innocents Abroad, which is the funniest travel book I’ve ever read; and Life on the Mississippi, which is partly a river’s history and partly a memoir of the young Samuel Clemens’ stint as a riverboat pilot before the Civil War.
John Steinbeck, a novelist icon of the 20th century, also wrote nonfiction works such as Travels With Charley — a touching book about seeing America with his dog, and a revealing book about an America partly going to the dogs (though Travels does contain some optimism).
There have been questions about whether Steinbeck fictionalized certain sections of Travels, an uneven book with both excellent and so-so moments. But memoirs and other nonfiction often contain at least some of the “imagination” fiction writers excel at, even as most fiction has at least some basis in reality.
Also, many fiction writers are as skilled as nonfiction writers at doing research; indeed, many novelists spend countless hours unearthing and confirming the facts that help make their books believable. Steinbeck certainly did tons of research before writing The Grapes of Wrath.
Another major 20th-century author best known as a novelist was Richard Wright, whose riveting Native Son is his fictional masterpiece. But he also wrote plenty of nonfiction, including the famous memoir Black Boy.
One of the living novelists who has occasionally veered into nonfiction territory is Barbara Kingsolver. Her co-authored book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle — about eating more locally grown foods — may not be as compelling as her fiction, but it’s quite informative and engaging.
Among the many, many other present or past novelists who have also written nonfiction books (with just a few examples of those books in parentheses) are Isabel Allende (Paula), Isaac Asimov (The Egyptians), Margaret Atwood (In Other Worlds), Alexandre Dumas (A Year in Florence), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Clandestine in Chile), Zora Neale Hurston (Dust Tracks on a Road), Stephen King (On Writing), W. Somerset Maugham (The Summing Up), Sir Walter Scott (The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte), Alice Sebold (Lucky), Leo Tolstoy (The Kingdom of God Is Within You), and David Foster Wallace (his Consider the Lobster collection).
What are your favorite nonfiction books by authors best known for their fiction? And, if you’d like, you could also name your favorite nonfiction books by authors who rarely or never wrote fiction.
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I’m also in the middle of writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering/meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson, among others.