There are many great fiction authors and many great nonfiction authors, but obviously a smaller number of authors who’ve written excellent books in both categories.
The skill sets for each category are similar in certain ways and different in others. Many novels contain at least some of the level of research we often find in nonfiction books, and obviously it helps any type of book to be well-written and interesting. But not every author can capably create fictional characters and fictional dialogue, or have the qualities (such as scholarly chops) to create top-notch nonfiction.
One who did excel in both categories was John Hersey, whose Hiroshima nonfiction book — originally a very long article in The New Yorker magazine — takes a riveting look at six survivors of the devastating atomic bomb unleashed on Japan by the U.S. in 1945. I finally got a chance to also read one of Hersey’s novels, and found A Single Pebble to be really compelling after thinking it started rather slowly. The book is about a young American engineer’s river voyage on a junk in China, and it has a lot to say about cultural differences, cultural misunderstandings, the “old ways” vs. the new, and more. (Hersey’s most famous novel is the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Bell for Adano, which I haven’t read.)
More recently, we have Barbara Kingsolver — who has written many a memorable novel (including The Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summer, The Lacuna, and Flight Behavior) but has also penned absorbing nonfiction books such as Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a Year of Food Life.
Another living author who has ably spanned the fiction and nonfiction worlds is Stephen King, who’s of course famous for dozens of best-selling novels but is admired by fellow wordsmiths for the advice in the partly autobiographical On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
Alice Walker has penned an almost equal number of novels and short-story collections (13, including The Color Purple) as nonfiction books (12, including Go Girl! The Black Woman’s Book of Travel and Adventure).
Zadie Smith has produced several novels, such as White Teeth, as well as essay collections, such as Feel Free.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction includes The Namesake novel, and she turned to nonfiction with works such as In Other Words — about her immersion in Italy and the Italian language.
Some deceased authors in addition to Hersey? Moving backward chronologically from the writers’ birth years:
James Baldwin toggled between categories with novels such as Go Tell It On the Mountain and nonfiction such as The Fire Next Time.
As did Richard Wright with works like the novel Native Son and the memoir Black Boy. (Wright is pictured at the top of this blog post with Zora Neale Hurston, who’s mentioned a few paragraphs below.)
John Steinbeck is famous for novels such as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, but Travels With Charley — his uneven but great-in-spots chronicle of a cross-country road trip with his dog — is pretty well known, too.
George Orwell wrote three nonfiction books (with Down and Out in Paris and London having the highest profile) and six novels (of course including Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four).
Aldous Huxley? We have novels such as Brave New World and Point Counter Point, and nonfiction such as The Doors of Perception. (Yes, The Doors rock group named itself after that Huxley book, which in turn was named after a William Blake line.)
Dorothy L. Sayers is best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mysteries such as Gaudy Night, while also producing plenty of nonfiction — including the Christian theological book The Mind of the Maker.
Zora Neale Hurston is most remembered for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but the author/anthropologist wrote nonfiction books such as Mules and Men, too.
Readers admire Edith Wharton for fiction classics such as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, but she also penned popular nonfiction books such as Fighting France (a contemporary look at World War I) and The Decoration of Houses.
Mark Twain of course penned novels like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn while also writing nonfiction classics like The Innocents Abroad and Life on the Mississippi.
And Elizabeth Gaskell authored Cranford and other novels even as she was perhaps best known for her biography The Life of Charlotte Bronte.
I’ll end by saying (as a Facebook comment I just saw from Brian Bess noted) that some nonfiction books can have a lot of made-up elements — just as novels (and not just historical fiction) can include plenty of facts.
Which authors do you feel have written novels AND nonfiction books really well?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which discusses everything from the future reopening of an old movie theater to a cruel jail for immigrants near my town — is here.