Fiction and Nonfiction Writers Can Be One and the Same

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.

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

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 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.

227 thoughts on “Fiction and Nonfiction Writers Can Be One and the Same

  1. Always an interesting one. As you say there’s those who have to research, those who probably throw bits of autobiography into their fiction, and there’s those who are better known for one or the other but do both. I remember reading a Roald Dahl autobiography that was on the book shelf in a villa in Greece. i think ti was mainly for children but it was very funny. I#d also cite Stevenson’s Travels With A Donkey,

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  2. A great list – if I may, I would like to add Walker Percy, known to some probably through his national book award winning novel “the moviegoer”. He wrote brilliant nonfiction — I only just discovered & read (some of) his collection “Message in the Bottle”. Its language is beautiful as it is in all of Percy’s writing – quite fitting for a book that is about the importance of language and symbols to man. It’s also not a book for the faint-hearted.

    To widen the focus a little: I have believed for some time that good fiction and good nonfiction rely on the same principles of writing — this is something that I hope to exploit with my students over the next few years: I’m currently designing a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) for research methods which uses narrative methods known from fiction to transport the content, and which teaches students to use principles of good fiction writing when composing their theses (“Research Methods for Androids“). We’ll see how it goes and if the students, the guinea pigs of my blooming experimental imagination as a teacher, take to it!

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    • Thanks, Marcus, for mentioning Walker Percy! I’ve read “The Moviegoer” — a very intriguing novel — but none of his nonfiction. Sounds like he was a master at that genre, too.

      You make an excellent point that fiction and nonfiction rely on some of the same good writing principles. I can sense that intuitively when reading a great memoir or biography; the experience really can be as compelling as a first-rate novel. Examples that come to mind include Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” and Edgar Johnson’s massive biography of Sir Walter Scott, to name a couple of titles.

      The best of luck with your “Massive Open Online Course.” Conveying the writing principles you mention, combined with your teaching expertise, could potentially have some magnificent results.

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  3. A once extremely popular genre author who seems to have been forgotten would fit into this discussion nicely .Patrick O’Brian’s 21 book series of seafaring tales set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars are ripping good yarns featuring a literary friendship I can’t believe I overlooked when the topic was such a couple of weeks ago. Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor, naturalist ,spy, and Irish rebel Steven Maturin did the seven seas for some forty years of adventure as comrades in the highest sense after an initial meeting in which they almost dueled to the death in an argument over women and music. As a taste of the wit brought to the tales in one of the later novels a scene had Jack ,who was light on education and perhaps intelligence, doing his duty tutoring a young charge on board ship. The topic at hand is the causes of the American revolution. A bit muddled he asks Steven ” What was it the Colonist’s complained of ,no taxation without copulation ?” Doctor Maturin good naturedly responds ” No ,It was taxation ,I believe the Americans are all in favor of copulation”. As to non fiction Mr. O’Brian has written two volumes related to his fictional concern one a History of life in the navy under Nelson the other a bio of the great 18th century scientist Joseph Banks. More interesting is he did not only a respected book on Picasso but translated from the French the true prison adventure story Papillion but also some of the works of Simon De Beauvoir .

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      • Speaking of another O’Brien, I had forgotten to mention Tim O’Brien who wrote semi-autobiographical and biographical war events “If I Die in a Combat Zone…”, “The Things They Carried”during the Vietnam War, and also write fiction as in the novels “Tomcat in Love” and “In the Lake of the Woods.”

        The first chapter of “The Things They Carried” is often anthologized as a stand-alone short story of the same name. The story is often cited as a prime example of both physical baggage and emotional baggage of burdens that people carry and the conclusion that emotional baggage can often weigh heavier on the mind than physical possessions.

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          • Thanks, Dave. Some of O’Brien’s accounts are hard to believe including one where it seems he caused the death of fellow soldiers, but you really can’t be sure of what is really going on sometimes. That must have been what it was really like.

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          • He and I were employees at the Washington Post, me as a jumped-up copyboy who wrote occasional things on a free-lance basis, he as a national news reporter just cutting his teeth. It was instructive and marvelous to watch the quiet re-assessment cross the faces of his co-workers and bosses when quiet Mr. O’Brien’s first novel made so much noise among reviewers.

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            • jhNY, you sure ran into a number of interesting and famous people!

              Also interesting how some journalists can write great novels and some can’t pull that off. I recently read “March” by former Wall Street Journal reporter Geraldine Brooks, and it was riveting. (If you haven’t read it, Brooks’ book fictionally focuses on the awful Civil War experiences of the absent father in “Little Women.”)


              • Most often, in my experience, the structure and scale of a novel, or for that matter a book, seems to be what stymies the journalist– he can make good parts, but less often, a good whole. I’m guessing the same thing bedevils the greeting card rhymer who would make a nepic…

                Haven’t read “Little Women”, though I’ve often sipped espresso across the street from Alcott’s house in the Village here (Cafe Reggio), so I’m not yet qualified to read something based on her book.

                You mentioned somewhere amongst the threads here that I was ‘well-read’. I have read widely, I think, but not well, and have, being a sort of iconoclast by inclination, read more outsider types over the years. In so doing, I have missed a great many more essential works– now, so little time and so many books being the byword, I wonder if and when I’ll get around to so many of them.

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                • Yes, the length and integrated structure of a book can be hard to handle when one is used to writing journalism that rarely exceeds 1,000 words. I wrestled with that while writing my memoir, before finally getting into some semblance of a long-form writing rhythm. (The book ended up being about 110,000 words before I spent many months laboriously slicing it to 80,000 or so.)

                  Loved your greeting-card comparison!

                  I didn’t realize Louisa May Alcott spent significant time in NYC! Thanks for that info. I associated her mostly with Massachusetts.

                  “Little Women” is quite a nice book, on the sentimental side at times, while “March” is an intense read. Very different novels, though connected.

                  As for being well read, I guess it’s all in how one defines that. From what you describe, you still seem to me to be well read in an eclectic, adventurous, offbeat way. Not getting to some of “the classics” doesn’t change that.


                  • No Trollope, no Thackeray, no Eliot save what I faked my way through in high school, no Brontes save Charlotte, and that thanks to your unflagging enthusiasm for a certain novel, no WD Howells, no Wolfe save “Orlando”,no Forster beyond “A Passage to India”, no Wharton (though I do own a book or two– as yet unread), no Goldsmith– Could go on and on and on, but shouldn’t, as this is already more than an elegant sufficiency.

                    When you read what you like when you feel like it, there are gaps at least; at worst, chasms, as you follow no program beyond impulse– but that’s just me.

                    BTW, is “Middlemarch” the Eliot book to read if one were going to read but one?

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                    • I hear you, jhNY, but I think MANY avid readers have big gaps because of the time factor we’ve so often alluded to — one can’t read even a tenth of what we want to read. For instance, all I’ve read of James Joyce is “The Dead” short story (or novella); I definitely want to try at least one of his more challenging works. And, like you, I’ve just read one Virginia Woolf book — in my case, “Mrs. Dalloway.”

                      One of the great things about “leisure” reading is the right to read whatever the heck we want, and you’ve done that!

                      “Middlemarch” is great, but when I finally decided to tackle Eliot in earnest about a year ago I started with her shortest novel, “Silas Marner,” and found it very affecting. I also thought the long “Daniel Deronda” was more dramatic and page-turning than “Middlemarch” — though the latter is a more profound creation.

                      I traveled a similar road with Edith Wharton, first sampling her work with the novella “Ethan Frome” — which was depressingly riveting — before moving on to the longer, excellent “The House of Mirth” and “The Age of Innocence.”

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                  • The thread is maxed, so I’ll answer here.

                    Thanks for your thoughts and recommendations– “Silas Marner” was what I faked my way through in HS– I am determined to try “Middlemarch” next time I see one on the street bookseller’s tables in the neighborhood. I have read “Dubliners” and about half of “Portrait of the Artist etc.” (didn’t make it past the fire and brimstone speech– it felt, at the time, as if the rest of the book could be worked out from there…but I was young and in a hurry), and I’ve read various bits of “Ulysses” yet not a bunch. It remains on a shelf nearby, daring me, so far, to no avail. “Ethan Frome” sounds like my kind of book– as a starter on Wharton, anyway.
                    And thanks for correcting my spelling of Virginia’s married name.

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                    • Wasn’t consciously correcting the spelling of Virginia’s last name. 🙂

                      I realize “Silas Marner” had/has a bad rep among many high schoolers, but I was very moved by the book. Perhaps I would have felt differently if I had first read it as a teen!

                      “Middlemarch” is truly worth reading, and the two major marriages in that novel are astonishing in the psychological complexity Eliot gives those troubled relationships.

                      I almost dread trying one of Joyce’s classics, but I feel a self-obligation to do so at some point!

                      “Ethan Frome” could probably be knocked off in 2-3 hours tops. But it will be enough time to be quite shaken.

                      Thanks for another great comment, jhNY! (I’ll hopefully be posting a new column tomorrow evening.)


    • Thanks, Donny, for all those great thoughts and facts about Patrick O’Brian! (Including the friendship between two of his characters.) Loved that hilarious dialogue you excerpted!

      Your mention of O’Brian’s nonfiction reminded me that I read a biography of Horatio Nelson a few years ago — and what an amazing life that guy led.

      A lesser-known Alexandre Dumas novel, the unfinished but compelling “The Last Cavalier,” depicts a fictionalized version of Nelson’s death.


  4. Not non-fiction books per-se, but I think of Charles Dickens who, despite his reputation as novelist, wrote his share of non-fiction. One piece I came across when doing a Brit. Lit. class which I had never read was “A Visit to Newgate Prison (1836).” It reads like a piece of journalistic reporting (appeared in Sketches by Boz). It’s an account of the prison conditions which we can imagine were horrific. At the end of the essay, Dickens does something interesting: he contemplates the final hours of a condemned man, which may have been about a real prisoner, or he could have simply imagined it. The prisoner seems to be dreaming of escape. Permit me some citations:
    “…there are the judge and jury, and prosecutors, and witnesses, just as they were before. How full the court is — what a sea of heads — with a gallows, too, and a scaffold — and how all those people stare at HIM! Verdict, ‘Guilty.’ No matter; he will escape.
    The night is dark and cold, the gates have been left open, and in an instant he is in the street, flying from the scene of his imprisonment like the wind. The streets are cleared, the open fields are gained and the broad, wide country lies before him. Onward he dashes in the midst of darkness, over hedge and ditch, through mud and pool, bounding from spot to spot with a speed and lightness, astonishing even to himself. At length he pauses; he must be safe from pursuit now; he will stretch himself on that bank and sleep till sunrise.
    A period of unconsciousness succeeds. He wakes, cold and wretched. The dull, gray light of morning is stealing into the cell, and falls upon the form of the attendant turnkey. Confused by his dreams, he starts from his uneasy bed in momentary uncertainty. It is but momentary. Every object in the narrow cell is too frightfully real to admit of doubt or mistake. He is the condemned felon again, guilty and despairing; and in two hours more will be dead.”
    See how a fiction writer’s “non-fiction” could influence another writer. Dickens’ account bears an uncanny resemblance to the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Ambrose Bierce (1890). A civil war spy is about to be executed. The reader thinks he’s escaped. See the ending:
    “Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene—perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!”
    Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
    It would take some digging to see what Bierce used for his sources. He probably read Dickens. Did he read “Newgate Prison?” As an aside, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone did a close adaptation of Bierce’s story.

    (And Dave, glad you are liking Principalities of Darkness. Thanks!)

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    • Thanks, Joe, for your excellent comment and the excerpting of two pieces of exceptional writing.

      I appreciate the reminder that Charles Dickens also wrote some nonfiction, and the passage of his you posted is gripping. The idea DOES sound a lot like that amazingly powerful section of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which I have read. It’s a justly famous short story, and it does seem like Bierce might have read what Dickens wrote several decades earlier.

      As for your “Principalities of Darkness” novel, of which I’ve so far read 250 of its 297 pages — bravo! A real page-turner, with all kinds of compelling plot strands involving politics, religion, cults, tech, pharmaceuticals, and more. But with all those strands, the story remains VERY readable and the characters believably endearing or hateful. As I mentioned elsewhere, you really know how to depict teens! (As well as older members of your novel’s cast.)


    • I’m convinced!

      Given the popularity of Dickens, which was probably at fullest flower in Bierce’s youth, I’ll bet the connection you make between that piece in “Sketches by Boz” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is spot-on. And I’ll bet it’s also the most famous of all of Bierce’s writings and has been for years, much to the sadness of those of us who read “The Devil’s Dictionary” from time to time for courage.

      It’s been many years since I saw it last, but I recall that the Twilight Zone treatment, my favorite over all other episodes, was actually made by another outfit– a French one– and that Serling purchased it for the show, but otherwise had no hand in its making.

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    • The reference to Dickens and Visit to Newgate Prison seems to me to invite comparison with an under appreciated work by Anton Chekov .In 1890 the 30 year old author undertook what was an arduous two and a half month journey across Siberia to do a census on a remote internal exile prison island. He spent 3 years working on the resulting book, Sakhalin Island, detailing with intelligence and compassion the miserable lives of entire families incarcerated in the predecessor of the even more brutal “Gulag’s that the following century would see. It is always good to see serious and popular writers engaged in social issues though I don’t think it as common as it could be. What I find especially admirable about Chekov’s Journey to Sakhalin is it is pretty much completely unrelated to any of his literary works or concerns, while Dickens should be commended for humanizing societies’ outcasts it was also the case that as a writer it was where he often lived in a manner of speaking. Still it is nice to see that in both cases the writers put serious work into their efforts rather than just latching on to the cause du jour which is more common in literary circles today.

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      • Superb comment, Donny!

        I didn’t know that about Chekhov; I thought he only focused on plays and short stories in his literary life. Thanks for that information.

        It IS interesting when a writer does something not that related to his or her other writing, as opposed to Dickens, who, as you allude to, had a strong social conscience in both his fiction and nonfiction. Of course, Chekhov also had a social conscience in his stellar work, but its presence was more subtle.

        This is kind of out of left field, but someone writing in a way that’s much different than their usual work reminds me of the “Cathy” comic. That strip of course was pretty much entertainment-only despite its vague feminism and its main character being a working woman. But then, in 1988, cartoonist Cathy Guisewite suddenly did some rather awkward “Cathy” episodes endorsing Michael Dukakis for president.


        • And your reference to “Cathy”‘s Guisewite awkward endorsement, as it was a departure from her earlier doings and the expectations of her audience reminds of Bill Murray, who made a film of Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge” starring himself as the straight-faced earnest protagonist. There were laughs to be had there, but they were not intentional. Most who saw it found little to praise.

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          • Yes, some actors/actresses do get kind of typecast, and audiences expect certain things that may or may not be there. Fortunately, audiences “get it” sometimes, as with the admiration for the endearing Mary Tyler Moore’s hardly endearing role in “Ordinary People.”

            I loved “The Razor’s Edge” novel; sorry the movie was a “fail.”


                • Once was enough for me. The filmmakers pull all the tricks in their book to wring the tears out of the audience. Contrived and absurd, it pales in comparison to the sincerity of the drama of ‘Ordinary People,’ which is one of those rare films that is probably superior to the novel upon which it’s based.

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                  • Sounds like I didn’t miss a lot with “Terms of Endearment.” And I didn’t realize there was first an “Ordinary People” novel! Thanks for that information. Indeed an excellent film — and, as you say, it’s very rare that a movie is better than the book it’s based on. As we might have discussed before, one of the few examples I can think of is the “Being There” film, which I liked better than Jerzy Kosinski’s novella.


                    • The novel ‘Ordinary People’ is by Judith Guest and as I recall it moved me far more than ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ She wrote at least one followup novel but I haven’t heard from her in subsequent years. Have no idea even if she’s still living. I suspect not.

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                    • Just checked Wikipedia, and the 1936-born Guest is alive. She actually has the same birthday as me, but a different year. 🙂

                      MANY novels have moved me more than “The Catcher in the Rye”; I’m not a fan of that book.


          • LOL, Donny! Yes, indeed, “Cathy” had awkward written all over it — especially its clunky art. And the comic’s title character having no nose…well…many a doctoral thesis could be written about THAT.


      • “What I find especially admirable about Chekov’s Journey to Sakhalin is it is pretty much completely unrelated to any of his literary works or concerns…”

        Though those czarist prisons had become by 1890, very much an expected topic for literary consideration, having been inhabited and written about previously, from bitter experience, most famously by Dostoevsky.

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        • That of course is true but not only did Chekov not mine those experiences for his work, which would have been perfectly fine, but I don’t believe he ever had any intention of doing so. By the way JH I loved your anecdotes about working for Paul Simon you posted last week, I do hope you got a chance to actually listen to the witty little number that launched the discussion.

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          • Sorry if what I wrote seemed to imply I thought Chekhov was borrowing what Dostoevsky had written– I was just trying to point out that the subject matter, for Russian writers, was not a new one.

            Have listened to the Desultory Philippic thang– but I confess to a real aversion to S&G, which has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with the sad fact that in 1968, as a shopworker in a hippie poster and pipes and slogans-on-buttons emporium, I was, as were all my fellow employees and the customers, made to listen to eight-tracks while working. Once due to a Christmas holiday staffing shortage, a pair of us were stuck with a 12 hour shift and a stuck eight-track cartridge of “Bookends”. I’ve never entirely recovered. I will, however dig out by box set of S&G soon, and have another go at the tune, as my aversion to Ayn Rand is far more serious.

            My aversion, fortunately for me while working for the man, did not extend to PS’ solo recordings

            BTW, while working for Mr. Simon, I came across all the tape recordings of the elderly made by Art Garfunkel, a very few of which were edited and spliced together for the song “Old Friends”. There are hours of them!

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            • Cool stuff ,Paul who I believe is closing in on 70 said on a recent B.Day he answered the phone to hear Sir Paul singing when I’m 64. I didn’t take your comment to suggest Chekov was riffing off any other authors, it is more about arguing he had no motives beyond civic duty or even altruism when he undertook a project that actually helped hasten his too early demise. I guess it’s just I take any opportunity I get to throw props at the great Russian dramatist and short Story master ,he was not only a brilliant writers but by all accounts one of the rare ones whom you’d be happy and honored to be friends with.

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            • I missed the origin of the ‘Desultory Phillipic’ comment. I’ve always regarded as a sort of guilty pleasure, an absurd parody of Dylan which doesn’t hold up outside of its historical and cultural context, although there’s a kind of goofy charm (for me) attached to it.

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              • Perhaps you missed, in another thread under a previous column, my favorite Paul Simon quote, which I think is illuminating, and has some bearing here.
                When asked if he had hung around the folk scene in Greenwich Village as a teen, he said: “I hung around but could not pierce it, coming from the disadvantage of Queens.”

                Agree with your assessment of the tune.

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  5. Hi, Dave! Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” was actually “creative nonfiction.” A few years ago someone traced the path he said he followed in the book, and found that not all the hotels where he said he stayed had any record of his being there. And, I for one, find it hard to believe that he got Charlie into those hotels – I have a hard time getting my poodle into state parks! But what really bothered me about the book was that there was too little about Charlie in it!

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    • Cathy, “creative nonfiction” is a perfect description of that Steinbeck book! Thanks! And I totally agree with you that there wasn’t enough Charley in “Travels.” One of my favorite scenes is when Charley mistrusts one veterinarian and then trusts another. As you know so well, dogs can figure out exactly what’s good for them and what’s not!

      Sorry about your trouble getting into state parks with a dog. 😦 Seems ridiculous.


  6. Dave surprisingly I don’t think I’ve read non-fiction by fiction authors, at least not knowingly. I can’t seem to find anything I’ve read amongst authors I know. I still have on my list the travel books by Twain and James Fenimore Cooper. I was told many years ago that I would like Tom Clancy’s non-fiction. I’ve never gotten around to it.

    But I can definitely understand the fictionalized aspect of any memoir. The polishing up of a persons roll in an event, after the fact, can twist things a bit. Alan Alda even admits in both his autobiographies/memoirs that they might not be wholly true. This warning seems silly, but after the “Three Cups of Tea” incident I get why he did it.

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    • Well, it’s hard to find the time to read everything, and you read so much fiction, GL! I’ve drastically cut back on nonfiction books in recent years to have more time for novels.

      Yes, there are definitely fictionalized aspects to many memoirs. Sometimes there’s a deliberate attempt to hide stuff or make stuff more positive than it actually was, and sometimes so many years have passed that the writer is forced to approximate things (such as conversations) that can’t be remembered exactly.

      Thanks for your comment!


  7. “Ana” wrote:

    “What a great article. Anything that mentions Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and John Steinbeck all in the same piece automatically receives a thumbs up from me. Limited time prevents me from getting into this the way I’d like to, so I’ll be brief.

    Your mention of the Kingsolver book reminded me of a book I found this weekend while organising my bookshelf. Amilcar de Sousa (Portuguese physician and author) was a major advocate for natural eating and nature, healthy lifestyles, vegetarianism, and “back to basics” cooking/eating. I have a dog-eared copy of “O Naturismo”, which is his most popular book. It has lots of information on the health and economic benefits of self-farming, a very common activity in my mom’s home country. I received this book from my grandmother years ago, who still practices the methods from this book and other books in that genre.”

    My response:

    Thanks for your kind words, Ana! I was very pleased to include Wright, Hurston, and Steinbeck in one column. 🙂

    “O Naturismo” sounds wonderful. Amilcar de Sousa was ahead of his time when it came to healthy eating — and good for him! Nice of you to share how you had that book handed down from your grandmother.

    Kingsolver’s book, while advocating a healthier diet and eating more local produce, isn’t against eating meat — though it’s for treating animals better before they are killed. “Factory farms” are brutal for animals.

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  8. Dave, once again I’m glad that you enjoyed the Durrell book so much and that it inspired another great column. I’m still rereading the sequel, but I plan to pick up some of his other books as well. I had quite a few other, but seem to have lost them through the years. I looked for some of them at the library the other day, but they didn’t actually have much (I did find that he has written a few pieces of fiction, mostly stories I believe). Barnes & Noble does carry some of his other works on line, so I’ll be ordering them soon. As to other writers, the first that came to my mind was Joan Didion, who wrote in many different genres, but I loved best the two memoirs she wrote about the deaths of her husband and her daughter, “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights,” respectively. Joyce Carol Oates also wrote a very good book about the death of her husband, “A Widow’s Story.” She has written many other non-fiction books, but this is the only one I’ve read. This is probably the third time I’ve written about Doris Lessing, who wrote in every conceivable literary genre, including an opera libretto (composed by Philip Glass). Mary Harris and I must have similar tastes, because once again, I agree with her regarding the excellent memoir by Jeannette Walls, “The Glass Castle.” I was glad that you mentioned Barbara Kingsolver’s book about eating locally, and it inspired me to actually buy a bread machine, sadly just collecting dust these days. 🙂 The first book of hers that I read was actually a collection of essays she wrote called “Small Wonder.” The poet Mary Karr has written some great memoirs, “The Liars Club,” “Cherry,” and “Lit.” The first is the best, about her crazy parents and her childhood, reminiscent of “The Glass Castle.” OK, I’m happy to have mentioned Durrell first, because it looks like I only read women writers, but there are a lot of very talented women out there who write both fiction and non-fiction (a couple of others are Annie Dillard and Anne Lamott).

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    • Thanks for the kind words, Kat Lib, and I’m grateful to you and Mary Harris for inspiring this column via your love of “My Family and Other Animals.” 🙂

      (As you probably saw, I gave you a co-credit in yesterday’s first blog comment — now at the bottom.)

      You are indeed a Gerald Durrell fan, and he’s worth being a fan of!

      Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates are great additions to this discussion! They have definitely excelled at both fiction and nonfiction.

      “The Glass Castle” must be amazing (albeit painful). I keep hearing so much about it.

      I haven’t read it, but Kingsolver also wrote a book about an Arizona mine strike. She is a very diverse writer. Sorry about that bread machine. There is only so much time to do everything.

      Thanks, also, for mentioning other writers — and for your VERY comprehensive comment.


    • I’m not sure why, but as I’ve said before, I know that I’ve a fondness for memoirs. Perhaps it’s because I find them more compelling than novels. I think it goes to the comment that, “you can’t make this stuff up.” We need to realize that there is so much that has actually been done that one can’t believe, but it is real.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m a fan of memoirs, too, and, as you so accurately say, knowing that stuff actually happened (or approximately happened, depending on how reliable the memoirist is!) can make for very powerful reading.


  9. Just switching it up a bit – there are several fiction novels that I have read that are written by authors that are predominately non-fiction writers. The first that comes to mind is Tom Wolfe. He is, I think, most famous for his non-fiction (I’ve read “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, “The Right Stuff”, and “From Bauhaus to Our House”), but has published several fictional works to varying degrees of success. I’ve read “Bonfire of the Vanities” (a very good novel), and “A Man in Full” (an OK novel).

    William F. Buckley, best known for his non-fictional “intellectual conservative” work, wrote a series of cold war spy novels, with the protagonist Blackie Oakes as a CIA operative. This series of novels was actually quite good – worth checking out if you come across any of them, especially if you are a fan of the spy novel.

    I read mostly novels, but try to sprinkle in four or five non-fictional works a year. To that end, I recently purchased an anthology of Henry Adams’ work. I bought it so that I could read “The Education of Henry Adams” which is considered by the folks at The Modern Library to be the top work of American non-fiction in the 20th Century. I was surprised, however, that this volume included two novels written by Henry Adams – “Democracy” and “Esther”. I’ve not yet read any of these, but they are now on my list.

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    • Switching up works for me, drb19810! Tom Wolfe and William F. Buckley Jr. are great examples of nonfiction writers who began authoring novels after a while.

      I’ve never read any of Buckley’s fiction because I disliked his newspaper column so much, but perhaps I should have had a more open mind. 🙂

      Speaking of syndicated newspaper columnists, one of my favorites — Connie Schultz — is reportedly working on a novel after two nonfiction books.

      And thanks for mentioning Henry Adams. What a talented family line, including great-grandparents John and Abigail Adams, and grandfather John Quincy Adams.

      Like you, I mostly read novels these days, with a smattering of nonfiction books — one of which was Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” a real eye-opener about the U.S. prison system. I also love biographies of authors, which is a nice way to sort of combine nonfiction and literature.

      Excellent and wide-ranging comment!


      • I hear you about Buckley. I’ve not really read much non-fiction by him, but do recall seeing him in various television forums. He left the impression that he always thought of himself as the smartest man in the room, but I was impressed, on several occasions, when he would be in a heated but respectful debate with an intelligent liberal co-panelist. When I compare someone like him to today’s most popular conservative spokespeople (Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck), it just makes me sad. And no – I don’t think I would consider reading any novels by these clowns (and I think Beck has written several). That being said, the Blackie Oakes novels were not, surprisingly, full of snobby intellectual blathering, but rather simply page-turning good spy stories. They are by no means up to the level of John LeCarre, but were enjoyable quick-reads.
        Thank you for you recommendations. I am not familiar with Connie Schultz, but will definitely check out some of her columns. I have heard of “The New Jim Crow”. It looks like I will have to start keeping a non-fiction “to read” list to go along with my fiction list – which is already so long that I’d better start taking better care of myself so that I’ll live long enough to get to them all.
        By the way, you mention biographies of writers. You had previously recommended a biography of Sir Walter Scott – still on my list, but I’ll not read it until I’ve read some of Scott’s novels, which are still on my fiction list, but I’ve not gotten to them yet.
        I can’t wait until I retire!

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        • drb19810, you said very accurate things about Buckley! He definitely thought he was the smartest person in the room, and often used some rather pompous/pretentious words, but he did seem open to debating progressive people — which is more than one can say about many of today’s conservatives, as you aptly note.

          I remember seeing a YouTube video of Buckley and author James Baldwin debating in the 1960s, and I thought Baldwin out-intellectualized Buckley while not being as elitist. It does sound like Buckley adopted a more accessible style of writing for his novels!

          Connie Schultz is a liberal columnist, from a working-class background, whose writing is warm and interesting. She won a Pulitzer Prize back in 2005. (As an aside, she’s married to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio.)

          Ha ha — yes, we need to stay healthy to get through our massive to-read lists, and even longevity might not be enough. It’s one reason I read so few nonfiction books these days — too many novels to get to. My wife strongly recommended “The New Jim Crow,” so I made an exception for that.

          The Sir Walter Scott biography I read was LONG — maybe 1,200 pages. I think it took the author more than a decade to write. It did help that I had previously read (and loved) many of Scott’s novels.


            • I remember that conversation, bebe. After talking and emailing with Connie Schultz many times over the years, I finally got to meet her in person this past June at a conference. Such a nice person to go along with being such a talented person.

              You know a lot more about Sherrod Brown than I do, but he seems to be one of the few politicians these days worthy of respect. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are two others I admire.

              Thanks for your comment!

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              • Oh that’s so recent…I also remember all the hard times she was having for Mr. Brown being her husband. She is an amazing writer and you have so many good friends among different Columnists.
                Thanks for the reply ..

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                • Very true, bebe! Connie Schultz carved out a great career long before she met Sherrod Brown (her second husband), but some idiots still feel she owes part of her success to being married to a prominent politician. Also, some people feel she shouldn’t continue being a columnist because of bogus conflict-of-interest reasons, but she and her husband are of course separate, independent thinkers. Still others feel she should quit and become a “Washington housewife.” There continues to be so much sexism — with one of zillions of examples being all the awful stuff surrounding Ray Rice and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

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                  • Good Morning iPad and computer was not cooperating last night.
                    So true sexism is everywhere in sports, politics in other places. So many spouses sacrifice their own carrier for their other half or partner and that is a fine example of that. i am so glad she fought back.
                    In OH Mr. Brown`s influence is very important for progressive thinkers.

                    In sports the players whose salaries are 40 million and up. Instant wealth does not make one a responsible citizen, they learn how to play but never learn simple social graces that makes them human.

                    When wealthy there is absolutely no one to tell them ” beating up a woman unconscious or harming a child in any way or form is not acceptable”.

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                    • Good morning to you, too, bebe, and sorry your iPad and computer weren’t cooperating last night. But you posted a terrific comment this morning!

                      Yes, sexism is everywhere — in sports, politics, business, etc. No one (woman or man) should have to give up their career unless they want to.

                      “Instant wealth does not make one a responsible citizen, they learn how to play but never learn simple social graces that makes them human” — wonderfully stated. Star athletes become so rich and so entitled so young. They may be great on the field or court or rink, but that doesn’t mean they’re great people. As we’ve discussed before, the real heroes are teachers and people like that who don’t make huge salaries but help people. Helping people is more important than entertaining people, though of course it’s nice to be entertained!

                      Star athletes and other rich celebrities feel they can get away with almost anything — and often do. 😦

                      Thanks again for your comment!

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          • I’m going to search for that clip of the Buckley/Baldwin debate. I love James Baldwin as a novelist, and he fits right in with the topic – although I’ve not read it, I’ve heard wonderful things about his non-fiction collection of essays, “Notes of a Native Son”. My non-fiction list gets longer and longer.

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  10. Here’s a few fictioneers who wrote non-, at least occasionally, that I believe, having read through other entries, have yet to be mentioned:

    Hemingway would have insisted “A Moveable feast” was non-fiction, though some of his contemporaries from those years found much to differ with him in the category of remembered events and conversations.

    Edith Wharton wrote from the front in France during World War One– her dispatches were collected later and printed in a book. And someplace around my tiny apartment, I’ve got that book. But where?

    Henry James wrote “The American Scene”, a decidedly Jamesian excursion though portions of the US written after years away, and also “The English Hours”, a set of travel essays/descriptions of England that I think were collected and published under that title posthumously.

    Stendahl wrote literary criticism: “Racine and Shakespeare”, and also biography: “A Life of Rossini” and “A Life of Napoleon”– the latter book, which I have not read, might be of particular interest, as Stendahl was a veteran in Napoleon’s armies, and participated in the Russian campaign.

    And then there’s Norman Mailer, who wrote up an Ali fight for Esquire that I remember enjoying, and also his account of Gary Gilmore’s execution, “The Executioner’s Song”– both of these can be counted as a species of reportage– not sure how to categorize his bio/thinkpiece on M. Monroe, beyond the description I just wrote.

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    • Stellar list, jhNY!

      I’ve heard that criticism of “A Moveable Feast.” Memories of the same events can of course be deliberately or not deliberately different, depending on the person doing the remembering. The Rashomon effect would relate to the not-deliberate side of that equation.

      I wonder how different Stendahl’s Napoleon book is from Sir Walter Scott’s? Stendahl certainly had the benefit of firsthand experience.

      Your mention of Norman Mailer’s nonfiction output reminded me that he also authored “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” about the 1968 political conventions and protests against the Vietnam War. Might have been some fiction in that book, too. 🙂


      • I would imagine, having read neither, that the two Napoleons, Stendahl’s and Scott’s, resemble each other but slightly, as Scott was such a hidebound royalist, whereas Stenhdahl was an ardent republican, politically, while spending his social hours, whenever possible, in salons of the better classes. Another likelihood: that the Napoleon of Scott and the Napoleon of Wm. Hazlitt, who wrote a multi-volume life of the man, were drawn very, very differently. The fact that each man wrote books about Napoleon (and Hazlitt was a sort of British Bonapartiste) may go far in explaining Hazlitt’s absolute loathing for the contemporary politics of Scott– he remained an ardent fan of his fiction, however, and his essay on Scott the writer and Scott the political man is one of the most vivid amalgamations of damnation and praise to be found under one title.

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        • Well said, jhNY! Yes, Stendahl and Scott were on different sides of the ideological/economic divide, and that HAD to affect their writing.

          Hazlitt’s divided opinion about Scott — interesting! An extreme version of how we can love an author’s work but not the author. I did find compelling virtually every Scott novel I’ve read. And to think he locked in a drawer for years a draft of the early chapters of his first novel (“Waverley”), and almost misplaced it before it was published anonymously to much acclaim. If I’m remembering correctly from a Scott biography I read, someone (perhaps the publisher of Scott’s very popular poetry?) didn’t love the novel. Also, as you know, many people in the early 19th century held poetry in higher esteem than novels.


          • Re that last sentence: I’m guessing that’s because the novel was newish and being newish, got no love (and no mention) from venerated classical giants such as Aristotle, from whose ranking of literary forms most received their own, unreflectingly, as a lesson in school. By which ranking, the epic poem is superior to other forms, if I, in turn, remember my lessons from school.

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            • You’re right, jhNY, the novel was newish then. There had certainly been some fiction books long before the early 1800s — “The Tale of the Genji,” “Don Quixote,” the 18th-century picaresque novels, etc. — but the genre didn’t reach critical mass, and gain more respect, until later in the 1800s.

              I have a lot of respect for the great epic poems, but something about the format bores me to a certain extent. Perhaps I’d feel differently if I lived centuries ago! (Guess I’d have difficulty finding a wireless connection back then.)


          • Although they’re both novels and therefore do not really belong in this discussion I was reminded of when I read Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ in which, as it reaches a climax, he is almost frothing at the mouth at the lunacy as well as the poor judgment of Napoleon. I followed this with Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables,’ which begins a few years later but has a very extensive chapter on the Battle of Waterloo along with many reverential passages (as I recall) of the mighty Napoleon. Waterloo is a background for the later story of some of the veterans of that battle in the course of the novel. Then there’s Balzac’s entire career, in which he saw himself as a literary Napoleon and there are passages in which his long shadow is cast upon the lives of many of the characters in that post-Napoleonic era.

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            • It’s okay to discuss novels anytime! Especially in a great comment such as the above.

              Napoleon indeed looms large in literature in all sorts of ways. I think he’s also mentioned in the first part of “The Count of Monte Cristo.” (Alexandre Dumas’ father, if I’m remembering correctly, was an officer under Napoleon.)


            • The Battle of Waterloo is the very one young Fabrizio insists on taking part in, and his exploits there, mostly of a fumbling sort, make up much of the first portion of Stendahl’s “The Charterhouse of Parma”.

              Stendahl was a uniformed participant in several campaigns under Napoleon, and kept a journal of his experiences. But the journal was lost, along with all his other baggage, in the Grand Armee’s disastrous retreat from Moscow. I consider the loss of that journal to be a tragedy for both historians and lovers of good writing…

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              • Such a shame that journal was lost. It must have been amazing. But at least Stendahl survived that debacle. Hard to believe a certain genocidal fascist tried pulling that same invasion-of-Russia gambit over a century later.


      • Re “A Moveable Feast”– much alcohol at the time, and much alcohol between then and the time he wrote up what he could remember, make inaccuracy and fantasy likely players, even principal players, on the stage of that particular production.

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  11. The first writer that comes to mind who wrote both fiction and non-fiction is Stephen King. One of the most prolific horror writers, he wrote one of our textbooks, “On Writing”, that we use every day in our 11th grade class. Another one that comes to mind is Truman Capote, with works such as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood.” But the author that did it the best in both categories will always be Isaac Asimov, who wrote in just about every Dewey decimal classification there is, which I found out years ago and mentioned before. Asimov had the versatility to write in just about every category while also penning some of the best science fiction books ever written, “I, Robot” and the “Foundation” series. His guides to the Bible and Shakespeare, and his books on popular science subjects showcase his thoughts on just about every subject imaginable. Especially Asimov’s “Annotated Gulliver’s Travels” is quite an interesting work as his notes sometimes differ with other works of writers whom have written on Swift extensively and specialize in British literature. That is why Asimov is so fascinating; I almost prefer his work on “Paradise Lost.” I also know that Tom Clancy has written both novels and works on military architecture and military warfare strategy.

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    • Isaac Asimov was amazing, wasn’t he? I think he wrote or edited more than 500 books; I’m not sure what the fiction/nonfiction breakdown of that total was. Thanks, Eric, for mentioning some of his notable nonfiction efforts. He certainly took on many interesting and important topics.

      Stephen King’s “On Writing” is one of the best books out there on that subject, so it’s very wise of you to use it in your teaching. 🙂

      Also, thanks for the mention of two TCs: Truman Capote and Tom Clancy — and for your Terrific Comment (another TC) in general!


          • “Helped”, rumor has it, far more than she was credited by her childhood pal to have done. In his defense, it was a Broadway lyricist pal of Capote’s that as a Christmas present, gave Harper Lee money equivalent to a year of her salary, which allowed her to quit her day job and write what turned out to be “TKAM”.

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              • Travel writers going on to do great fiction? You may be right, Eric. I can’t think of any examples — as far as I know, Arthur Frommer and Rick Steves haven’t written novels! I’ll take your word on Graham Greene, who I unfortunately haven’t read (yet).

                I guess if Frommer wrote “Europe on $5 a Day” in 2014, that book could be classified as a mystery. 🙂


                  • Thanks for that information, Eric! I plan to look for a Graham Greene book during one of my next two library visits. A couple of weeks ago, a commenter here recommended “Monsignor Quixote” and “Our Man in Havana.” Have you read/liked one or both of those? Do you have other Greene favorites?


                    • I had read “Our Man in Havana” after I saw it in a library and it reminded me of the film “Our Man Flint” starring James Coburn,for some reason. The book deals with spies and gadgets, which was both entertaining and funny. I have not read “Monsignor Quixote.”

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                    • Thanks, Eric! I think I’ll look for “Our Man in Havana” first. Your description makes it sound very appealing.

                      (And, in my previous comment, I fixed “Monsieur Quixote” to make it the correct “Monsignor Quixote.” Can’t believe I mixed French and Spanish! 🙂 )


                    • I don’t usually read many copies of famous works in their original other authors, unless I have read about it soemnwhere and it has received recognition for being an outstanding pastiche (?). I haven’t used that word since college.

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                    • I can recommend “Brighton Rock” and “The Ministry of Fear”. The latter title is intriguing as it’s fiction made by Greene to be like a film, one of at least three such constructions. When it was made into a movie, the director was Fritz Lang, whose movies had been a model for the novella!

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                    • Thanks, jhNY! Those two additionalGraham Greene possibilities are very helpful, because my local library — while wonderful as suburban libraries go — rarely has every book by every author.

                      That’s a Mobius-like book/film synergy you describe. Impressive!


                    • Thanks, Eric! You’re right — short stories, or short novels, can be a great way to sample an author. That’s how I first tried Edith Wharton, with the novella-length “Ethan Frome.” I loved it, and moved on to her longer works.


                    • My students really liked his short story “The Destructors,” and after we read that in class, i managed to find his book of short stories, about 22 in all. Ranging from war to peace and fantasy to realism and religious to non-religious,, he managed to get in many themes of life in such short works.

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                    • Eric, it sounds like Graham Greene was an excellent short-story writer. It’s impressive how many authors do well in that genre as well as in the novel genre. For instance, I’ve really enjoyed the short stories of Willa Cather, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Jhumpa Lahiri, and many others better known for their books. Then of course there are the short-story writers who write no novels or few novels: Alice Munro, Anton Chekhov, Jorge Luis Borges, Dorothy Parker, Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, etc.


                    • Eric, “Ethan Frome” is indeed a powerhouse of a novel. Devastating, really.

                      I haven’t read the Hemingway novella you mentioned, but I sure was impressed with his full novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” when I read it for the first time this summer.


              • Thanks for that info, jhNY! Rome is certainly a wonderful subject for a travel book. I’ve only been there once, but it’s obviously quite a place. Beautiful, ugly, historic, exciting, loud, dirty, and more. Have you been there?


                • Sadly, no. I came to Italy via Yugoslavia (which right away tells you my trip took place many years ago) via boat to Rimini. From there, I traveled to Ravenna and saw that miraculous Byzantine church decorated, most of it, with mosaic during the reign of Justinian and Theodora, and from there, to Venice, my favorite spot to moon about in person and ever after. Then on to Milan, home of that huge Gothic cathedral and that huger Fascist era train station, replete with heroic soldiers and laborers as caryatids flexing in the corners.

                  I should mention I was with my girl and her parents during the entirety of my Italian sojourn, and the itinerary was not made via democratic process. If it had been, I doubtlessly would have been outvoted.

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                  • Sorry you didn’t get to Rome, but you certainly saw quite a bit of Italy — and described that trip like a seasoned travel writer.

                    I’ve seen that behemoth of a Milan train station and cathedral. Venice I’ve visited twice — 1979 and 2004 — and it is most definitely a place to “moon” about. Unforgettably gorgeous, even with its partial decay and the hordes of tourists.

                    Undemocratic itineraries: 😦


                    • “The Pleasure of Ruins” and “In Ruins”– both enjoyable explorations along the lines of “unforgettably gorgeous, even with its partial decay”…

                      Read ’em? I have read the latter, the former awaiting me on my groaning shelves.

                      As for the undemocratic itinerary: beggars can’t be choosers. I got room and board at the lowest possible rate: free.

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  12. I have read some of the nonfiction by Mark Twain and another novelist whose approach to his non-fiction is similar, Herman Melville. The similarity between them, I suspect, lies mostly in the extent to which they ‘enhanced’ their first-hand accounts to result in books that are as readable as much non-fiction. A few years ago I attended a Southern Lives mini-book club at one of our branches and read journalist Kevin Sessums’ memorable ‘Mississippi Sissy,’ about growing up gay in Jackson, Mississippi (he even escorted Eudora Welty a few places) and Barbara Robinette Moss’ ‘Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter’. Barbara grew up dirt-poor in a large family with an often absent, alcoholic father, moving between Birmingham and Anniston, AL. She actually worked at the Museum of Natural History in Anniston around the time that I was trying to get a job down there so I could be with the person that became my first wife. I communicated with her through her website about our mutual ‘stomping grounds’ and read her followup book, ‘Fierce’. Sadly, she succumbed to breast cancer later the year that I read those books and didn’t finish her third book of memoirs. A similar account of growing up in that same Jacksonville/Anniston area is Rick Bragg’s ‘All Over But the Shoutin’. Some of same terrain and another alcoholic father, growing up in poverty. Rick has written a few others that I hope to read as well. The Irish version of this ‘poor white trash’ kind of upbringing is Frank McCourt’s ‘Angela’s Ashes’. These are nonfiction but they are primarily autobiographical rather than a book in which an author researches subject matter that is removed from his personal experience. I know of some fiction writers who have written non-fiction such as this but have not read any of them and the only one that I can recall offhand is Evan Connell’s ‘Son of the Morning Star,’ a biography of George Armstrong Custer. Connell is primarily known for his novels of an upper class married couple in St. Louis (apparently also derived from his own childhood, ‘Mr. Bridge’ and ‘Mrs. Bridge’ and made into a film by Merchant-Ivory starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Bridge’. I know there’s some other prominent fiction writer who also wrote plenty of non-fiction but I can’t recall them at the moment. If I do I will add another post.

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    • Thanks, Brian, for the apt mentions of Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and others! It was wonderful and interesting to read your descriptions of authors who were based not that far from you. And memoirs by people dealing with huge challenges — such as growing up in poverty or being gay in a conservative area — can be painfully compelling to read.

      Melville certainly perfected a nonfiction/fiction hybrid in books such was “Typee,” “Omoo,” “Redburn,” and “White-Jacket” — taking his real-life sea voyages/adventures and turning them into novels by embellishing them, changing them, and/or using them as inspiration to make things up completely.

      I appreciate the wide-ranging, informative comment!


      • When I was in bed last night I was struck with the thought, “How could I have forgotten Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’? After the emotional turmoil of researching and waiting for a verdict and the writing of that book he had a complete breakdown that I think propelled his descent into drugs and alcohol for the rest of his life. He tried to write short, non-fiction pieces (“Hand Carved Coffins”) and he boasted of writing a magnum opus called ‘Answered Prayers’ that would have the scope of Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’. Alas, after he was gone, we finally got the 100-200 page fragment of what he had claimed would be several hundred pages. Going in the other direction from non-fiction to fiction is Tom Wolfe who, after writing such vivid non-fiction word adventures as ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ and ‘The Right Stuff’ turned to actual novels with ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities.’ I believe everything he’s published since then is fiction. The French titan that he models himself after is Balzac; however, I think he’s got a LOT of catching up to do to turn out even a third of that coffee fiend’s output.

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        • Well, I forgot quite a few authors myself — such as four mentioned by Donny Backes Jr.: Tolkien, Orwell, Huxley, and Nabokov.

          I didn’t know Capote’s work on “In Cold Blood” had such an impact on his psyche. I guess he had trouble compartmentalizing that admittedly stressful experience from the rest of his life. I also didn’t know about his (very abbreviated) effort to write something with the length and scope of “In Search of Lost Time.” Almost any author would fail at THAT quest.

          Interesting mention of Tom Wolfe’s career trajectory. His canon is impressive in its way, but I agree that it doesn’t come close to Balzac’s — however Balzac’s writing may have been fueled. 🙂 “Le Pere Goriot,” “Eugenie Grandet,” “The Magic Skin,” etc. — Balzac’s work is riveting. And he did all that writing in a life that lasted only 51 years.

          Thanks, Brian!


          • Balzac, was one of the earliest practitioners of the ‘we’ll sleep when we die’ lifestyle, fueled by dozens of cups of coffee daily, made up in a special blend of beans that had him and his help scampering all over Paris to collect.

            I remember seeing his a collected works of the man– ran to three full library shelves. That Wolfe guy had better pick up the pace. And also, the quality.

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            • “…we’ll sleep when we die” — that was indeed Balzac, and, to perhaps a slightly lesser extent, other 19th-century authors such as Dickens and Zola who also lived only to middle age.

              Dozens of cups of coffee a day — yikes!

              And, jhNY, I loved your droll second paragraph about Tom Wolfe picking up the pace and quality. In that “competition” against Balzac, it’s over for the 83-year-old Wolfe. He’s the Avis to Balzac’s Hertz and the Mets to Balzac’s Yankees, though Wolfe does win the fancy suits contest…


              • Yeah, he wins if your palette runs no further than various shades of ice cream. Besides, Balzac had flowing cravats, and a face that has physiognomical echoes in Leo McKern (see Rumpole of the Bailey)– that pinched up arriviste’s teensy features are an embarrassment of economy, in comparison.

                Lots of the greats of the era died young as compared to ourselves, but Balzac worked harder at it than most. I love him for his own sake, and I love him for his letter of encouragement to the then-obscure author, Stendahl.

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                • I met Tom Wolfe once, and his suit indeed looked like it had been rubbed with vanilla ice cream.

                  Great description of Balzac’s appearance! He was definitely distinctive-looking in his way, and I’m glad he lasted just long enough to live in the dawning age of photography.

                  I had no idea he wrote a supportive letter to Stendahl! I now like (the perpetually exhausted) Balzac even more. 🙂


      • I hope you like it. Compared to the later novels, it’s relatively straightforward and is pretty much the first of his major American (the character is intentionally named ‘Newman’ – new man) encountering older and possibly more corrupt old world manners and morals. He continued to work on that theme. The later novel counterpart to ‘The American’ is ‘The Ambassadors,’ also superb although the prose is much denser.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks, Brian, for the description and the interesting information! I’ll let you know what I think of “The American”!

          (When you mentioned the evocative name Newman, I immediately thought of Newland Archer of “The Age of Innocence” by Henry James’ friend Edith Wharton.)


          • Yes, they were both thinking along similar lines. Henry James cast a huge influence over Edith Wharton. ‘The Age of Innocence’ was published in 1920, four years after the death of James and almost 50 years after the publication of ‘The American.’

            Liked by 2 people

            • I’ve heard about that huge influence, which lasted — as you allude to — beyond Henry James’ death. One divergence, I guess, is that Edith Wharton’s highly accomplished prose was more straightforward/less dense than a lot of James’ prose.


              • Not many people, even if they wanted to, could ever approach the denseness of Henry James’ prose. Like him or not, there’s only one Henry James. One influence on his density, I’m suspecting, might have been the mighty George Eliot. I have to dissect many of her sentences in my mind before I can proceed to the next ones. Her style, approach and themes (as I’ve cited before in the ‘Middlemarch’/’Portrait of a Lady’ similarities) left an impression on him even if the choice of subject matter was slightly different. Aside from Eliot, other rivalries to James in level of complexity are Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad and Thomas Mann (as I recall from reading the masterful ‘Magic Mountain’ over 20 years ago.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Thanks for another terrific comment, Brian!

                  I guess I’ve never read Henry James’ more challenging novels, but he certainly has that reputation for denseness. You’re right that George Eliot also has that reputation. Still, during my Eliot reading binge of the past year (“Adam Bede,” “The Mill on the Floss,” “Silas Marner,” “Middlemarch,” and “Daniel Deronda”), I always found her far-from-simple prose wonderfully clear. I may feel the same way about James’ word alchemy when I eventually read his more complex fiction.

                  You certainly named several other challengingly superb authors!


                  • Hey Dave, I was wondering if you’ve read either of her ‘middle’ novels–‘Felix Holt’ and ‘Romola.’ They’re not highly regarded critically but I’m still curious about them and why they fall short in relation to those other impressive novels. ‘Middlemarch’ directly follows ‘Romola’, so whatever lull she suffered from in that book she recovered from magnificently with ‘Middlemarch.’


                    • That’s an excellent question, Brian. I have not read those two Eliot novels, and don’t know why they are not as esteemed as her five more famous ones. My local library (like most local libraries, I suppose) doesn’t have those books, but I’ve thought I would buy them someday online. Even if “Romola” and “Felix Holt” are so-so (they might be very good), so-so Eliot would top the best efforts of a lot of other authors.

                      I did read the first story in Eliot’s written-before-her-novels “Scenes of Clerical Life” collection, and “The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton” was pretty good — not so-so!


                    • Thanks for that New Yorker link, Brian! It is indeed an impressive, thought-provoking essay. One thing it made me think of is how much I enjoy reading various kinds of fiction — from the works of Henry James to the works of J.K. Rowling.

                      Speaking of impressive — reading 6,800 pages of James (in two years). Wow! But I can certainly see the benefits of chronologically enjoying the works of a somewhat “difficult” author; walking is a lot easier and understandable once one has mastered crawling. 🙂

                      Liked by 1 person

                • No fictioneer, but an original thinker, a superb and complex essayist: John Ruskin, who deserves more modern readers, but whose complexity and radically reactionary priorities will probably continue to keep them way.

                  A good taste of him can be had by seeking out “The Nature of the Gothic”, a chapter out of “The Stones of Venice”, if memory serves.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • Thanks, jhNY! You are indeed well read! John Ruskin is one of those iconic thinkers who I’ve heard of but never read. Looking at Wikipedia, it looks like Ruskin did a tiny amount of fiction writing — including some poems, and a fable-type book called “The King of the Golden River.”


                    • My recommendation is literally what caused me, after reading it in wonder, and after reading his unique interpretation of a problematic line or three in “Lycidas”, to take an individual study course on the man.
                      He is a hyper-keen observer, as his meticulous watercolors pf Gothic architectural details attest, and among many other things, is among the first to detail the blight of industry on places in the world thought to be too far from the smoke and din and dust, and too pure, to be much affected, if at all.

                      Here is a quote from the introduction of “The Queen of the Air”:

                      ‘This is the first day of May, 1869. I am writing where my work was begun thirty-five years ago, within sight of snow of the higher Alps. In that half of the permitted life of man, I have seen strange evil brought upon every scene that I best loved, or tried to make beloved by others. The light which once flushed those pale summits with its rose at dawn and purple at sunset, is now umbered and faint; the air which once inlaid the clefts of all their golden crags with azure, is now defiled with languid coils of smoke, belched from worse than volcanic fires; their very glacier waves are ebbing, and their snows fading, as if Hell had breathed on them; the waters that once sank at their feet to crystalline rest are now dimmed and foul, from deep to deep, and shore to shore. These are no careless words– they are accurately– horribly– true, I know what the Swiss lakes were; no pool of Alpine fountain at its source was clearer. This morning, on the Lake of Geneva, at half a mile from the beach, I could scarcely see my oar-blade a fathom deep.

                      The light, the air, the waters, all defiled! How of the earth itself?

                      Ah, masters of modern science, give me back my Athena out of your vials, and seal if it may be, once more, Asmodeus therein. You have divided the elements, and united them; enslaved them upon the earth, and discerned them in the stars. Teach us, now, but this of them, which is all man need to know,– that the Air is given to him for his life; and the rain to his thirst, and for his baptism; and the Fire for warmth, and the Sun for sight; and the Earth for his meat– and his Rest.’

                      Ruskin seems, in the midst of all this horrified reaction to the Industrial Age, most backward-looking, yet somehow he anticipates much of what lay ahead, and would reappear in the passionate concerns of environmentalists walking among us today.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Those impassioned, poetic words by Ruskin nail some of industrialization’s horrors. And his rare combination of writing and artistic talents makes one think of William Blake. I appreciate the “introduction” to Ruskin’s work!


  13. Hey Dave, big topic as always . Four authors sprang to mind after reading the essay, all British save one, odd that.J.R.R. Tolkien was a scholar of Middle and Old English along with various other ancient languages and their literature ,as an Oxford Don he wrote extensively in these fields but also found time to publish a Fantasy of some note the prelude to which is now being dragged out by a trilogy of movies. George Orwell while perhaps best known for his dystopias 1984 and Animal Farm managed in his short life quite a few works on political, historical topics such as Wiggin’s Pier and Homage to Catalonia which may well be superior to his fiction from a strictly literary point of view. Aldous Huxley was a brilliant polymath who published in philosophy , science , politics and even a laudatory memoir on the beauty of dropping mescaline. He is perhaps also best known for a dystopia, how often does one get to use that word twice, Brave New World but novels like Point Counter Point and his highly polished yet idiosyncratic short fiction truly deserve to be better read. The non Brit I referenced was also a remarkable polymath ,Vladimir Nabokov but as Sunday Night Football is calling I’ll leave him for later or perhaps another fan of chess ,butterflies and translucent prose would care to take him up?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Donny, you named four authors who wrote GREAT fiction and nonfiction. Regrettably, I haven’t read a lot of the latter by that quartet. I did get to the fascinating nonfiction work “Brave New World Revisited,” which Huxley wrote 27 years after “Brave New World.”

      “…a Fantasy of some note the prelude to which is now being dragged out by a trilogy of movies” — loved the droll way you put that! Yes, three films of a not-very-long novel are a bit much. I’m sure making tons of money had nothing to do with it, no siree.

      Thanks for the excellent and learned comment!


  14. I am so happy you enjoyed the book, Dave! I hope you laughed out loud! I know that I did!

    The nonfiction book by Steinbeck that I truly want to read is “The Log from the ‘Sea of Cortez'”. I want to read about the real Ed Ricketts who is the inspiration for Doc in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. My brother tried to find it in his bookshelves to loan to me, but he must have loaned it to somebody who never returned it. It was not to be found. I’ll find a copy to buy online.

    I know I’ve mentioned her before but she’s worth mentioning again. Jeanette Walls wrote the most compelling autobiography of her childhood growing up with an alcoholic father and an “artistic” mother who would rather paint than cook for her children. It’s called “The Glass Castle.” They moved from place to place and often left in the middle of the night to avoid apprehension by the authorities. She has since written “Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel” which is on my list to read.

    Another non-fiction author whose work I enjoyed immensely is Elizabeth Gilbert. Her chronicle of self-discovery called “Eat, Pray, Love” was well worth reading. I enjoyed going along with her, figuratively, through her journey. She has also written fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did often laugh out loud, Mary! Such a bright/eccentric family, with some offbeat neighbors, teachers, etc. At the same time, I learned a lot about nature and animals. Quite a book. Have you read one or both of the sequels?

      It WOULD be great to read the Steinbeck book you mention, and see the real-life inspiration for Doc. Must be a very good book for someone to have possibly swiped it from your brother!

      I do remember you and others highly recommending “The Glass Castle.” You described it in a way that makes one want to read it very much, despite the depressing subject matter. It’s on my list for when I start reading nonfiction books regularly again.

      And thanks for your paragraph about Elizabeth Gilbert! I hadn’t realized she also wrote fiction.


      • I haven’t read the sequels to “My Family and Other Animals” simply because I knew so little about Durrell that I didn’t know they existed until I started researching him. We never bumbled across them in our rambles through second-hand book stores.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Mary, I imagine the first book is better than the sequels; it would be hard to top “My Family and Other Animals”! Whether there’s any correlation or not, I recall the two sequels to “Angela’s Ashes” not being anywhere near as good as that first memoir by Frank McCourt.

          Second-hand bookstores — love them! I hope you still have at least one in or near your town. My town has one that’s pretty big.


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