Authors Who’ve Excelled at Fiction and Nonfiction

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 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.

How Some Protagonists Respond to Provocation

White House occupant Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of a perfectly good nuclear agreement with Iran — an agreement Iran was honoring — and followed that up with intense economic pressure and military threats. So naturally Iran started to push back, though the almost-always-lying Trump administration is surely exaggerating the extent of that.

This reminded me of a number of scenarios in literature where a character is unfairly provoked to the point of she or he retaliating. Sometimes the retaliation is effective (providing readers with satisfying wish fulfillment); other times the retaliating party suffers (which frustrates readers even as that suffering scenario can often be more realistic).

One of the most famous provoked-to-retaliate novels is Billy Budd, in which the popular-among-his-fellow-sailors protagonist is badgered by the envious, nasty John Claggart. After Claggart falsely accuses Herman Melville’s kindly title character of trying to incite mutiny, a shocked Billy strikes John with no premeditation and accidentally kills him. But we don’t get a happy ending after that. (A photo from the Billy Budd movie is above.)

In modern fiction, we have Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Wrongly declared legally incompetent as a child, her appointed guardian Nils Bjurman sexually abuses her. Eventually, Lisbeth ruthlessly revenges herself on the sadistic Bjurman without killing him but in a way that deservedly ruins his life.

Sometimes in literature, abusive or otherwise despicable men ARE justly killed. That’s the case with the Karamazov father in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Ruth’s husband Frank Bennett in Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. (If you feel it’s weird to put those two novels in the same sentence, Flagg’s sprawling book is quite deep amid its entertaining aspects.)

Perhaps the greatest revenge novel of all is Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, in which a false accusation puts young Edmond Dantes into a remote island prison for many years. After escaping, he dedicates his life to some epic payback.

Then there’s Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, in which Jessie Burlingame is treated shabbily by her husband before and during a sexual game he wants to play more than she does. Jessie, partly spurred by subconscious memories of also being abused by her father, kicks Gerald away and inadvertently gives him a fatal heart attack. The ensuing problem? Jessie is handcuffed to the bed, now alone in a remote lakeside house.

And various scenarios in various Jack Reacher novels have Jack minding his own business before being surrounded by a group of bad guys who feel they greatly outnumber Lee Child’s protagonist enough to give him a pounding. Reacher, who almost always welcomes the challenge, invariably wins convincingly.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

One final note: Iran is hardly an exemplary democracy, but neither is the U.S. under Trump and his cynical enablers in the Republican-controlled Senate, right-wing media, conservative corporate circles, and right-wing religious circles.

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 The latest weekly piece — which discusses a middle-school controversy and an endangered 1890s mansion — is here.

Authors From One Country Who Set Books in Another Country

It’s of course interesting to read novels set in countries other than where the reader lives. And those books can be written from two main vantage points.

One is for a novel set in a certain nation to be written by an author from that nation. Such a book most likely offers a local protagonist, deep knowledge of the culture, and so on.

The second vantage point involves novels that are set (or partly set) in countries other than where the authors live. That can often (not always) mean a protagonist from the writer’s country, a more superficial knowledge of the other country’s culture, etc. A non-native character who visits or lives in another nation is usually not truly representative of that country, but there’s the potential positive of the sojourning protagonist being sort of a guide or surrogate who helps readers understand the other country from an outsider perspective.

This blog post will focus on the latter scenario, and an excellent example is Mexico — one of the long/heavily researched novels by American author James Michener (pictured), and a book I’m currently reading.

It stars Norman Clay, a journalist born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and American father who has lived in the U.S. for many years before returning to his native country to write a story about a rivalry between two very different bullfighters. We see Mexico, and learn a lot about its present and past, through Norman’s eyes. Several of the novel’s fully Mexican characters are more interesting than Clay, but he is a guide/surrogate that a good number of American readers might relate to most.

Then we have novels in which we see the U.S. through the eyes of English authors and characters — with two examples being Martin Chuzzlewit (Charles Dickens jump-started sagging serial sales by sending Martin across the ocean) and Paradise News (David Lodge’s Bernard protagonist is a fish-out-of-water visiting Hawaii).

France? English author Charlotte Bronte gave her perspective on that country by setting Villette there. And Scottish author Sir Walter Scott did the same in Quentin Durward — though his perspective was on the France of the 1400s, nearly four centuries before Scott’s novel was written.

Plenty of novels have focused on white people traveling to Africa, for better or often for worse. Two American authors who made that happen with from-the-U.S. characters include Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible and Paul Bowles in The Sheltering Sky.

We also have the interesting case of Buchi Emecheta, the Nigerian-born British author whose semi-autobiographical novel Second Class Citizen is about a Nigerian woman who moves to England. The book was published in 1974, when the author was already in England for 12 years, so we had at that time a British author writing about Nigeria (early in Second Class Citizen) and a Nigerian-born author writing about England (later in that novel).

There’s a similar cultural juxtaposition in The Kite Runner by Afghanistan-born U.S. author Khaled Hosseini, whose family left his native country when the future writer was 11. Hosseini’s novel starts in Afghanistan, moves to the U.S., goes back to Afghanistan, and finally returns to the U.S.

Not a novel, but a book that almost reads like one, is Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. In that travel book, Twain is a highly observant and drop-dead hilarious guide who gave American readers a look at various European and Mideast countries in the 1860s.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

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 The latest weekly piece — which discusses a pretentious, overpriced hotel coming to my town — is here.

Literature’s LGBTQ Characters: an Update

In honor of June 2019’s Pride Month, I’m going to revisit LGBTQ characters in fiction — LGBTQ of course standing for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer.

I previously wrote about this topic in 2013 (a year before starting this blog) and mentioned a number of novels with openly, closeted, or maybe-they-are/maybe-they-aren’t LGBTQ characters in lead or supporting roles. Among those books were Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Colette’s Claudine at School, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, Margaret Drabble’s The Sea Lady, Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

This blog post will mention some of the novels I’ve read since 2013 with LGBTQ characters.

Despite the cruel right-wing intolerance in the U.S. and elsewhere that’s setting back various kinds of human rights these days, LGBTQ people are generally more accepted in many places than decades ago. This is reflected in recent literature — where there are more LGBTQ characters (from both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ authors), where these characters are usually treated more positively or at least more three-dimensionally than in the past, and where in many cases a big deal isn’t made of these characters; they’re one of the many parts of the human mosaic. That’s a good thing.

The five-person Lambert family that Jonathan Franzen focuses on in The Corrections (a great novel I also mentioned last week) includes daughter Denise, who’s had a bisexual life but is almost certainly lesbian. Her portrayal is satisfying and convincing partly because her sexual life is depicted as just one of many aspects of her — she’s also a conflicted daughter/sibling, a strong personality, very smart, a star professional chef, a hard worker, generous at times, unkind at other times, etc.

In Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy — which begins with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — the brilliant, abused, troubled, brave, vengeance-seeking Lisbeth Salander is bisexual. The most memorable character in those three riveting novels.

Among the many memorable characters J.K. Rowling has expertly created, from her Harry Potter series to her crime fiction, have been LGBTQ ones. For instance, in The Cuckoo’s Calling novel written under Rowling’s Robert Galbraith pen name, Guy Somé (pictured on the right in the above photo) is stereotypical in certain ways (he’s a fashion designer) but is depicted as a fairly complex person devoid of several other gay stereotypes.

The Secret History‘s Francis Abernathy is gay but that’s not overemphasized in Donna Tartt’s compelling debut novel. Her emphasis is more on the insularity and strangeness of the small group (including Francis) that protagonist Richard falls in with when he goes to college.

It’s not secret history that there’ve been LGBTQ people throughout time, and one example of this is in Philippa Gregory’s excellent novel Earthly Joys. Set in the 17th century, it features a master royal gardener (John Tradescant) who’s married to a woman but ends up having a same-gender sexual dalliance with a charismatic “bad boy” duke.

A novel that sort of/sort of not fits this blog post is Abigail Tarttelin’s excellent Golden Boy, which — like Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex — features an intersex character. The hermaphroditic gender confusion embodied in protagonist Max Walker has echoes of what transgender people face.

Your favorite novels featuring LGBTQ characters in lead or supporting roles?

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 The latest weekly piece — which comedically compares my town in 2019 vs. 1796 — is here.

Is Overwriting a Thing?

We admire authors who are great prose stylists. But overwriting can sometimes be a problem.

There are novels that make readers gape at how well authors put sentences together. Evocative descriptions, awesome grasp of language, clever wordplay, scintillating dialogue, etc. The question is whether the writer is showing off, and whether the wonderful prose can be a bit distracting to things like the plot, character development, and the emotions we want to feel. On the other hand, maybe that wonderful prose is a joy to read and makes everything better.

I thought about all this last week while reading The Corrections, in which Jonathan Franzen unleashes writing fireworks even when describing relatively mundane things. One example:

“Chip sat on a freezing guardrail and smoked and took comfort in the sturdy mediocrity of American commerce, the unpretending metal and plastic roadside hardware. The thunk of a gas-pump nozzle halting when a tank was filled, the humility and promptness of its service. And a 99-cent ‘Big Gulp’ banner swelling with wind and sailing nowhere, its nylon ropes whipping and pinging on a galvanized standard. And the black sanserif numerals of gasoline prices, the company of so many 9’s…”

Impressive? Sure. A bit over-the-top? Probably. Franzen also periodically overdoes the language thing in his later, more-famous Freedom. But despite that and despite both novels having quite a few cringe-worthy characters, I liked the books a lot. Franzen’s skillful depiction of dysfunctional-family dynamics and his scathing social satire certainly help.

I’m also a fan of most novels by Cormac McCarthy, who’s seemingly incapable of writing a straightforward sentence — instead using rich prose that gets almost biblical at times. That’s also the case in Herman Melville’s work. Gabriel Garcia Marquez often uses lavish, bountiful wording that I feel doesn’t go overboard. And Mary Shelley, in novels such as Frankenstein and The Last Man, is a master as well at the kind of “overwriting” that’s totally welcome.

Marcel Proust is a bit of a different story for me. I was bowled over by his language and imagery when I read In Search of Lost Time, but I also found that famous fictional work frustrating enough, and sometimes almost boring enough, to give up after several hundred pages. I know that many literature lovers feel differently.

Then there’s Henry James. I’ve greatly enjoyed his early and mid-career novels, which are full of excellent literary writing but not too dense; The Portrait of a Lady is my favorite example of that. I also liked The Ambassadors — the one late-career James novel I’ve read — but it was at times somewhat of an overwritten slog to get through, even as a good deal of the prose was exquisite.

William Faulkner also elicits mixed reactions from me. I loved Light in August, liked As I Lay Dying, abandoned Absalom, Absalom! fairly early, and ran screaming from The Sound and the Fury after 30 or so incomprehensible (to me) pages.

Toni Morrison? I admired the very ambitious Beloved, but got lost in it at times and ended up liking rather than loving it. Something like Morrison’s Sula is much more straightforward, albeit not as interesting as Beloved — which wrestles with The Big Issues (virulent racism, the true meaning of good parenting, and more) amid the often-superb writing.

Umberto Eco? Big fan of The Name of the Rose; got a headache reading the overwritten Foucault’s Pendulum.

I haven’t sampled James Joyce and Virginia Woolf widely enough to comment on their most challenging works, but I really liked some of Joyce’s Dubliners story collection (especially “The Dead”) and all of Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway.

George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky have the reputation among some novel-goers of being “difficult” authors, but I find them VERY readable — even as they satisfy those of us seeking fantastic prose, literary flourishes, psychological nuance, and a deep dive into “the human condition.”

Anyway, I’m sure your opinions will vary about which novelists overwrite and which don’t. Your thoughts, and the authors you feel fit this topic? Or is there no overwriting problem if a novelist is good enough?

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 The latest weekly piece — covering everything from a march against draconian anti-abortion laws to an anti-war take on Memorial Day — is here.