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 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.

53 thoughts on “Authors Who’ve Excelled at Fiction and Nonfiction

  1. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) also wrote a book of chess problems, a book on lepidoptery, and six works of literary criticism, including works on Gogol, Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”. Quixotically, he made a translation of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” which runs four middle-sized volumes to Pushkin’s original slim one. Possibly overkill.

    “Lolita” his most famous and infamous work of fiction, was written mostly over a butterfly-collecting summer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great example of a doubly talented author, jhNY, and thank you for those interesting facts! Nabokov is not one of my favorite writers, but he certainly was a learned one.

      (There’s currently a power outage in parts of my town, so I’m replying — somewhat briefly — on my phone. 😦 )

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  2. Stephen Crane, author of “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” and “The Red Badge of Courage”, came to public notice first as a contributor and later a reporter for the New York Tribune.

    from wikipedia:
    “Late that year (1896) he accepted an offer to travel to Cuba as a war correspondent. As he waited in Jacksonville, Florida for passage, he met Cora Taylor, with whom he began a lasting relationship. En route to Cuba, Crane’s vessel the SS Commodore sank off the coast of Florida, leaving him and others adrift for 30 hours in a dinghy.[1] Crane described the ordeal in “The Open Boat”. During the final years of his life, he covered conflicts in Greece (accompanied by Cora, recognized as the first woman war correspondent) and later lived in England with her.”

    John Dos Passos, author of the “USA” trilogy, traveled to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. After his experience there,his disenchantment with communism inspired him to write a series of articles critical of communist political theory and Stalinism.

    Norman Mailer, author of “The Naked and the Dead” reported on Ali’s fight with George Foreman for Esquire, and previously, on the 1960 Democratic convention, and the 1967 march on the Pentagon which he later expanded into a book, “The Armies of the Night.”

    Mailer was also a co-founder of the Village Voice, and wrote columns therein.

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    • Thank you, jhNY, for those three great examples of writers who did fiction and nonfiction — and the facts you included! The accomplishments of Stephen Crane are especially astonishing given that he lived only to age 28.

      As you probably know, Dorothy Parker and John Steinbeck were among other fiction writers who also did some war correspondence.

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        • All I have left in memory of this book is that I thought it was a good read several decades ago. But I also liked Deer Park and Why Are We in Vietnam?– the latter being, among other things, a sort of cop of Bill Burroughs prose style, only with much more linearity.

          I find the very best thing about some artists is what they make in art, and not what they make of themselves.

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  3. William Hazlitt (1778-1830) did not write fiction, but did write essays, philosophize and eruditely entertain.

    I came upon his works via a provocative title in a collection of essays, “Man is a Frog-Eating Animal”, and read on, amazed at the force of his prose and opinions. For the better part of a year, I read little else save what I could find of Hazlitt, and one of the pieces I enjoyed thoroughly is also the first first-hand account of a boxing match, titled, naturally enough, “The Fight”. In the early days of the sport (revived during that period of renewed interest in all things classical), boxing was not quite legal– you had to know people to know where the match was taking place, you had to get there on your own,etc. Hazlitt’s description of the journey to and from, the fight itself, the crowd, is all-around great stuff, and in its way, ground-breaking journalism.

    Incidentally, much else of what is known about the beginnings of boxing come from another, more famous literary titan, whose dressing screen was covered over with handbills advertising matches. In boxing histories, it is referred to as the Byron Screen, and Lord Byron used to clothe himself behind it.

    Here’s a quote that in these daze is never far from my mind:

    “There is nothing truly contemptible save that which tacks and veers relentlessly before the breath of power.”– Wm. Hazlitt

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    • Thank you, jhNY! Very interesting information about William Hazlitt and Lord Byron. I’ve never read Hazlitt, but his writing sounds amazing! And that quote in your last paragraph is VERY relevant to today. (If there were a Republican sitting next to me, I’d nudge him while reciting that quote. 🙂 )

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      • Dave and jhNY, I must admit to having a prejudice against boxing. I can’t watch any movies that are about that, including Rocky and Raging Bull. I stopped reading Joyce Carol Oates after she wrote an essay “On Boxing” back in the early 1970’s. It’s just something I detest, and I’m sorry for that but it’s a visceral thing for me. I’d rather watch a war movie that at least has some point to it.

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  4. Howdy, Dave,

    — Which authors do you feel have written novels AND nonfiction books really well? —

    Ay caramba! Their numbers are legion! (And most wouldn’t be caught dead saying anything like “Their numbers are legion!”)

    I believe your George Orwell may be the best of the bunch traversing the terrain between fiction and nonfiction, but I think Jimmy “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” Breslin, Octavia E. “Kindred” Butler, Ernest “The Old Man and the Sea” Hemingway, Nat “Blues for Charlie Darwin” Hentoff, Norman “Ancient Evenings” Mailer and Edgar Allan “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” Poe are all excellent fellow travelers. (The dictum of the single effect!)

    Meanwhile, I am aware Stieg “Millennium Trilogy” Larsson’s journalism is highly regarded by many, but I have not read any of it myself.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, J.J., for those great examples of authors who were fiction/nonfiction experts — and your excellent “numbers are legion” quip!

      Interesting that several of the writers you named were journalists (for a long or short time) — Orwell, Breslin, Hemingway… To that group one could add Geraldine Brooks, Graham Greene, Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan, Mitch Albom…

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      • — Interesting that several of the writers you named were journalists (for a long or short time) . . . To that group one could add Geraldine Brooks, Graham Greene, Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan, Mitch Albom —

        One could, but I could not — with a single exception. In terms of these novelists qua novelists, I have read only Graham Greene, and I am a big fan of “The Power and the Glory,” “The Third Man” and “The Comedians.” (I am not too sure about “Monsignor Quixote,” though.)

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        • Didn’t know that, jhNY! Breslin was quite versatile.

          (I interviewed him a couple of times on the phone and once met him in person. Not the friendliest guy, but a great writer.)

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          • He stayed on the job past his prime, I thought, but even then, he was among the best in the business. Read a compilation of his columns from the civil rights days– very moving and well-wrought.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Dave,

    So many authors to contemplate. A couple of Australian writers come immediately to mind. Bryce Courtenay has written many successful fiction books including “The Power of One” and “The Potato Factory”. It was with some reluctance that I waded into “April Fool’s Day”, the non fiction story of his son’s life and death. It’s an incredibly moving story of tragic loss, but also very warm and loving, and quite funny in places.

    Peter Carey is the author of “Oscar and Lucinda” which I found quite painful to read. But he’s quite respected in Australia, and it was with some hope that I started reading his “True History of the Kelly Gang”. I thought it started out quite promising. Despite not having the best spelling and grammar, the personal journal of the infamous nineteenth century bushranger was quite a tale. Until I realised that I’d taken it off the fiction shelf at the library, and Carey had obviously fabricated a fair bit of it. I think it’s mostly factual, and no doubt Carey did a lot of research, but I found it just as pointless as his completely made up novel.

    I’ve not read “On Writing”, but I’ve heard lots of good things about it. And I always enjoy the forewords and after words that King includes in his novels, giving us little glimpses into his real world.

    Considering George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” is about poverty, it’s really, really funny. Even before the brilliance of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, Orwell was a heck of a writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sue, Thank you for the wide-ranging comment! I appreciate the mentions of, and your takes on, the works of those two Australian authors — and would eagerly read a nonfiction book by Liane Moriarty, if she ever wrote one. 🙂

      George Orwell was a just plain brilliant writer, in both the fiction and nonfiction realms!

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      • Being that the title of your blog is authors who’ve excelled, I probably should have omitted Peter Carey from my comment as, in my opinion anyway, he doesn’t excel at either fiction or non fiction. But oh well, I was struggling through his “Kelly Gang” and it was nice to have a whinge…

        JJ’s mention of journalism got me thinking about another Australian author. Trent Dalton won awards for his newspaper writing, before publishing the fictional “Boy Swallows Universe”. I didn’t think it could possibly live up to the hype that it created, but I was wrong. His writing is so engaging that I would almost go out of my way to read a newspaper, except I know that all of the real world news is depressing.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well, Sue, authors who do both fiction and nonfiction can be somewhat admired even if they don’t excel. 🙂

          “Boy Swallows Universe” sounds great! Hopefully my local library will have it.

          And so true that reading a newspaper these days is sure to be VERY depressing. 😦

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  6. Well this post was an eye-opener! I had no idea some of the novelists mentioned here also wrote non-fiction! Guess I better get busy updating my reading list. I really need to read some Barbara Kingsolver anyway, as I’ve heard lots of good things, but I have yet to dive into any of her books. Although I don’t know that he’s written any fiction books, I did want to give an honorable mention to Erik Larson, because to me, his books sometimes read more like novels, even though they are nonfiction. Especially his book “Dead Wake” about the Lusitania disaster. His book “Devil in the White City” also had me on the edge of my seat and I finished it in a day or two I was so hooked. Perhaps he doesn’t quite fit this post, but I do look at him as a “merging nonfiction with novel” kind of writer. In any case, he’s got some very worthy reading, if you ever have the time.

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    • Thank you, M.B.! When researching my post, I was also surprised to learn that a couple of the novelists I ended up mentioning had written nonfiction books, too.

      I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed with anything written by Barbara Kingsolver. 🙂

      I haven’t read Erik Larson, but I love nonfiction books that read like novels. Your point regarding that is relevant to this post!

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  7. Thanks for mentioning a lot of great AND versatile authors, especially Alice Walker and Mark Twain! I’ll have to bring in my beloved Dick Francis again, who started his second career as an author by writing his autobiography after retiring as a jockey. The book was so successful that he became a sportswriter and then turned to writing fiction a few years later.

    Tolstoy also wrote a considerable amount of non-fiction, including essays and teaching materials, along with his prodigious output of short stories, novellas, and of course his great novels.

    I’m currently listening to an audiobook of the Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton, who also wrote a number of non-fiction essays and religious apologetics.

    And, to go back to the Russians, Yevgeny Petrov, one half of the comedy duo Ilf & Petrov, became a war reporter during WWII and wrote a number of interviews and dispatches from the front lines, before being killed in a plane crash while flying back from observing the siege of Sevastopol.

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  8. Hi Dave, I’ll add a couple of my favorite women writers (in addition to Barbara Kingsolver who you mentioned in your column). There is a writer who is mostly known for her memoirs, and filmscreens, also her fiction works like “Play It As It Lays,” that I read years ago. Her memoir about her husband dying, “The Year of Magical Thinking” is so compelling, as well as “Blue Nights,” about her daughter dying. The other writer is Joyce Carol Oates, who has written so many novels (50, I think). The last one I read is “We Are the Mulvaneys,” which was great. I think one of the first novels I read of hers was “them,” way back in college, and she has said that she would hope that first time readers would read that novel and “Blonde” that I haven’t read but mean to. She has written the memoir of “The Widow’s Story,” another book about a husband who dies. I think I read Didion’s book and Oates’ book back to back, and they were both wonderful, but somewhat sad.

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    • Thank you, Kat Lit! Two very respected, very prolific authors in fiction and nonfiction — and you know a lot about them!

      Part of me has wanted to read Joan Didion’s books about her husband and her daughter dying, but, however eloquent those books surely are, I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it. I did enjoy Joyce Carol Oates’ intense novel “Solstice” a year or two ago.

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      • Btw, my reading material these days are vegetarian cookbooks, such as “The Moosewood Cookbook,” “New Laurel’s Kitchen Cookbook, and ” “The Vegetarian Epicure (Book Two).” I know you are a vegetarian, and though I’ve been on-again and off-again, I’m ready to commit to this diet for the rest of my life! The amusing thing is that I don’t really cook, but I do want to try.

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        • Sounds great, Kat Lit — the vegetarian-cookbook reading, and your plan to go vegetarian! Good luck with that diet! There are so many wonderful vegetarian meal options these days, whether one cooks or not. 🙂

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          • The Vegetarian Epicure has been in my kitchen for decades, on the strength of the recipes for potato leek soup and lasagna alone. Oh yeah, and the minestrone. I can personally attest that if you follow a recipe therein, you will be rewarded by the assumption, on the part of your diners, that you’re a pretty good cook– even when if the truth were told, you’d deserve credit only for being a pretty good reader. And heck, you know already you’re a pretty good reader!

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            • Greatly enjoyed that comment, jhNY!

              I don’t have it myself, but “The Vegetarian Epicure” sounds like a terrific cookbook. And your mentions of potato leek soup and lasagna remind me that one of the favorite vegetarian dishes I cook is pasta with leeks. 🙂

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  9. Pete Hamill comes to mind. “Snow In August” is a favorite fictional story of how a rabbi and a Catholic boy can find common ground. Hamill also wrote non fictional memoir on his life dealing with alcoholism and others works on baseball so he crossed both fiction and non fiction worlds.

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    • Thank you, Michele! Excellent mention! Pete Hamill is definitely a person comfortable writing in different categories. His “Forever” novel (about a man who can’t die if he never leaves Manhattan) is also really good for the most part.

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    • Thank you, Neil, for adding John Updike and Robert Louis Stevenson to the list of novelists who also wrote nonfiction books! I hadn’t been strongly aware of those two authors’ efforts outside the fiction realm.

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    • Thank you, Clanmother! I totally agree that “The Poisonwood Bible” is a brilliant novel with many insights into sociopolitical matters, into cultural differences, into human emotions, into family dynamics, etc.

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