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The rise of non-fiction: The decline of fiction and emergence of bibliomemoir

Dec 20,2018 - Last updated at Dec 20,2018

The death, or perhaps the decline, of the novel as the literary genre par excellence was announced in 2015, when Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist and essayist, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This was reinforced when Bob Dylan, an American singer and lyricist, won the Nobel Prize in Literature two years later for having created new poetic expressions. The dimensions of reading and writing, of literature, are certainly expanding, if not falling apart. Consequently, the economics of the modern publishing industry favour the personal approach.

The result is the deconstruction of meta and grand narratives and the emergence of more diverse, personal, marginal/secondary narratives. The shift of authority is alarming here. Subsequently, the thin line between reality and fiction is fading slowly but surely, and the documentation of history and events is viewed according to the multiple, not the singular. Ultimately, the connections between life and art are forever uncertain.

In intellectual discussions, you are more likely, nowadays, to quote a non-fiction book than fiction. You are more likely to refer to an (auto)biography than a novel. From an experience as a reader over the last 20-odd years, you are more likely to put a book down before finishing it more times than reading a non-fiction book; simply because non-fiction reading makes you more curious. Stop at a bookshop in an airport. There are more memoirs and autobiographies than novels. Perhaps, some people would rather fly with an anchor down earth.

Having said this, I am by no means diminishing the importance of fiction. In fact, I have written largely on the importance of literature many times and have been an academic lecturer and professor of fiction for the last 14 years. I have written a book on the understanding of home and identity in the 20th and 21st centuries through primarily fictional narratives, as well as secondary non-fiction materials. Rather, I am simply shedding light on their different purposes and ends, and highlighting the rise of non-fiction as a dominant postmodern subspecies of literature, or as a rising literary genre. Non-fiction significantly adds to bridging the local and global, glocal, and accentuates private narratives as opposed to the grand narratives.

Unlike reading fiction, reading non-fiction is not an escape. It promotes more attachment to reality. While fiction sometimes takes you to the imaginative world, non-fiction unfolds real people and their lives. Non-fiction is more subjective. Your emotional intelligence is more simulated reading non-fiction. Because the room for analysis is less available when reading non-fiction, thereby allowing more learning than interpretation, for non-fiction tells, whereas fiction shows.

Reading non-fiction helps us to assimilate the language of science, history and academia. Non-fiction can be the very best way to seduce those who do not read, too. The primary purpose of non-fiction is to explain or educate. The primary purpose of fiction is to entertain. Generally speaking, non-fiction, therefore, focuses on intelligence, whereas fiction focuses on emotion. Non-fiction is more relatable, more realistic, factual and thus more credible. Non-fiction books are usually more expensive because they are confessional, expository and they reveal truer selves and daring. You basically sell your soul to the devil for 15 pounds a copy. Non-fiction is more immediate, whereby you can learn more valuable lessons by building a much more trustworthy experience between the reader and the writer.

Travel writing, letters and essay writing are becoming more dominant. The emergence of the bibliomemoir is an evidence of such revolution in reading and writing. According to the BBC, a bibliomemoir is “a confessional ‘wild book’ that lacks shape, a subspecies in literature combining literary criticism and biography with an intimate tone of an autobiography. It is allegedly the hottest new genre in town and it is known for its flexibility to boot”. It is writing about writing, and about the books you read and those you still want to buy. It is experimental. Bookish memoirs, some call them.

It all started in 1997, when Geoff Dyer published “Out of Sheer Rage”, the book he wrote about not writing a book about DH Lawrence. A slow but steady stream followed: Francis Spufford’s “The Child that Books Built” in 2002, rare book dealer Rick Gekoski’s “Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoir” in 2009 and Elif Batuman’s “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them” in 2010.

But it was the publication of another 2014 title, Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk”, that really announced the genre’s arrival. Macdonald’s combination of grief memoir, goshawk-training and what she described as a “shadow bio­graphy” of the novelist T.H. White was an unexpected commercial and critical success, soaring high in the bestseller lists and winning both the Samuel Johnson and Costa prizes.

Almost five years later, where is the bibliomemoir going? How do we define literature? And what other forms of narration are still there to be born to imitate the debauched, chaotic life we live.


The writer is an author at Palgrave Macmillan and an assistant professor in Post-Colonial and English Literature at the American University of Madaba, Jordan. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times

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