Do you have different criteria for fiction versus non-fiction books?

I recently realised that I have a different attitude towards books based upon whether or not they are classified as fiction or non-fiction and wondered if I am alone in my bias.




Why Care About Fictional People?

A fictional writer needs to work really hard to make me connect with their invented characters. It is a real talent that very few manage to achieve. If I know the people actually existed then I find I have more compassion for them. I’m sure that the quality of Joe Simpson’s writing did not alter between his books, so I was surprised to discover that I didn’t care about the characters in The Sound of Gravity, his recent fictional book.  I think this is simply down to the fact that I know they don’t exist and so I’m not rooting for their survival in the same way I am with those in his autobiographical work.


I also find I am far more tolerant of unrealistic plot threads in non-fiction. In fact, the more unbelievable the plot, the better. I am quite unforgiving of coincidences and extreme plot twists in fiction, but put exactly the same plot in a non-fiction book and I’ll be amazed, telling all my friends and family about it.

Writing Quality

I am happy to accept a lower standard of writing if the non-fiction book reveals an insight into someone who is not normally a writer. An example of this is the outstanding Born on a Blue Day The standard of writing was actually quite poor, but who cares when you can gain an insight into a completely different world? I have a far higher standard with fiction books – I am distracted by poor sentence structure and really appreciate writing quality.

Why don’t I read more non-fiction?

This leaves me asking the question:  Why don’t I read more non-fiction? I’m beginning to think that I might enjoy it more as I seem to have lower expectations and more tolerance of its flaws. At the moment my favourite books seem to be historical fiction or books based on actual events, however recent. I love books that take real situations and then add characters with an emotional depth. Fiction gives the ability for history to be brought to life, without having to worry about accuracy. Non-fiction can be quite dry and facts often remove the book’s momentum, but perhaps I’m just reading the wrong ones?

Do you approach fiction and non-fiction with different expectations?

Can you recommend any non-fiction books with the narrative drive of fiction?


56 replies on “Do you have different criteria for fiction versus non-fiction books?”

Hi Jackie

I am primarily a fiction reader – often just for a ‘good’ story but more usually for great characterisation and insight into the ‘human condition’. I do enjoy non-fiction though from time to time and enjoy reading biographies about and by mathematicians, doctors and scientists (I know – weird!. I have also enjoyed ‘historical’ non-fiction and occasionally writers autobiographies, so …

Fermats Last Theorum (you really don’t have to understand all the maths)
The Man Who loved Only Numbers
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sachs
Alex’s Adventures into Numberland
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
Katherine by ? Weir (about Katherine Swynford)
Paula by Isabel Allende
Experience by Martin Amis

I loved all of these

Jackie, Thank you for all the recommendations! The only one I’ve read is Wild Swans and I loved that. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat has been on my wishlist for a while – mainly because I love the title! I’ll have to do some more research into the other titles you mention, but I look forward to trying a few. Thanks again!

Interesting, I’ve never thought about or verbalized it, but I feel very much as you do. I’m especially prone to be less hard of the quality of non-fiction writing. Actually, I even tend to ignore the writing style as long as it doesn’t get on my nerves and the subject interests me.

Lately I’ve realized that 2011 might be my “non-fiction year”. Before starting to blog I read almost no non-fiction, but recently discovered that I really enjoy it. Good ones: “Extra Virgin: Amongst the Olive Groves of Liguria”, “The Brontës”, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat”, “The Art Detective”, “The Ghost Map”.

Alex, Perhaps 2012 will become my year for non-fiction? I agree about the non-fiction writing style being almost irrelevant – I think it would have to be very annoying for me to stop if the subject interested me. Thanks for all the recommendations – I’m going to enjoy looking them all up later this evening.

I am a lot pickier when I choose non fiction because I want it to have a flow like fiction does. Years ago I was much more inclined to read non fiction over fiction, so my reading tastes have certainly changed!

Stephanie, I haven’t read enough non-fiction to know whether or not I’m pickier. I haven’t abandoned that many non-fiction books, but that is probably because I haven’t read that many and those I do read have been raved about by so many people that they are more likely to have a certain quality.

I think you would really enjoy Erik Larson’s books. He wrote a book about the Chicago World Fair (in parallel with a creepy serial killer who operated in that area around that time) called Devil in the White City that was really good. It was the first piece of non-fiction I ever really read for pleasure and I enjoyed it largely because it did read like a novel. He recently has a new book out that looks at Nazi Germany to some extent called In The Garden of Beasts; I haven’t read it, but given that I enjoyed his last book (and he even has one before that about the titanic and morse code, I think) I probably will at some point.

Steph, Devil in the White City has been on my radar for a while, but I haven’t got round to finding a copy. It is great to know that you think I’ll enjoy his books – I’ll make an effort to get hold of a copy soon.

I am much less picky about non-fiction for the same reason you mentioned. When I’m reading fiction, I take sentence structure, flow, etc much more serious than in non-fiction. Probably because in fiction the writer is crafting a story to make me believe it, whereas with non-fiction the writer basically just needs to tell me the story as it happened and I’m engaged.

I very much agree about the importance of convincing characters in fiction. As for non-fiction, I don’t read very much for fun either, partly because, as a graduate student, I read enough for my PhD anyway, but on the mountaineering theme, I loved Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Mountains of the Mind’, which is a popular history of our fascination with mountains. His ‘The Wild Places’ is also good, but more of a travelogue.

I have similar biases – especially when it comes to strange coincidences or ridiculous circumstances. It’s always fun to read about weird stuff happening in real life, but in fiction it always pulls me out of the story a little bit as I ponder if that could really happen.

I love nonfiction, but you do really have to hunt for the good books or you could be snoozing in the pages of very dry writing. In some ways I’m less tolerant of boring, dry sections in nonfiction (I hadn’t thought of this till now). I have a tendency to stop reading the book after a while (usually 20 pages or so) if it’s not holding my interest. Whereas with fiction, if the writing is good, I will stick with the story a bit longer to see if things are going to develop into a larger more interesting theme. If the writing stinks though then that’s a different story, and it doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction – I will stop reading.

Alyce, You bring up a good point – I’m quite happy to have a few dry sections in a non-ficiotn book and happy to skim over them. In a fiction book I don’t feel I can do that as I might miss an important plot point. I think I’ll give up on both after a similar number of pages though – if I’m not engaged then I won’t stick around.

I’m right there with you on all these points. Just read Unbroken, which is an incredible true story. Just incredible. If it were fiction, I’d just be “oh yeah, just some author with a wild imagination”. When you know that someone actually LIVED through this stuff, it becomes a whole different ball game. I will come right out here and say that I am much more engaged in non-fiction. I cannot answer why I don’t read more of it. I just don’t think it is pushed or reviewed as much.

Sandy, I hadn’t thought about the fact it isn’t reviewed as much, but I think you’re right. I get so excited about all the fiction I read about that I don’t make the time to seek out non-fiction. I’m going to try to change that. 🙂

I’m more of a fiction reader myself, but have read some amazing non-fiction books, that have left me speechless… or left me lost in thought for ages after.

Sold – Zana Muhsen
My Feudal Lord – Tehmina Durrani
Blasphemy – Tehmina Durrani
Lajja – Taslima Nasrin
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

Not all of it’s happy – in fact, many bring out the feminist in me, but they’re still worth reading.

anothercookiecrumbles, I haven’t read any of the books you mention, but I have a copy of Angelou’s book here and I recognise the cover of Blasphemy so I think I might have a copy in my book stock – I’ll have to dig it out because I haven’t heard anyone mention it before. I don’t have a problem with them not being happy 🙂 Thanks for the recommendations!

I read fiction when I want to escape (e.g. when I am really busy at work and don’t have the mental resource to spare), or want some creativity in my life, but read non-fiction when I want to learn something. There are many genre of fiction, and there are just as many in non-fiction, so you just have to choose topics that interest you. I like reading memoir, but mostly the inspirational ones. I like reading about food, or some psychology or sociology or education or science topic. Some non-fiction are definitely more engaging than others, and can read like fiction e.g. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex is also a fun read), Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal (though the last one is also a memoir). For memoir, my favorite is The Glass Castle and Running with Scissors. I abandon both non-fiction and fiction that don’t engage me. If you have some topics you are particularly interested in, I may be able to recommend something more specifically.

Christa, I loved Henrietta Lacks and Bonk (I’m too squeamish to try Cadavers!) and have The Glass Castle here. Little Princes sounds like something I’d like. *heads off to look into it* I’m afraid I don’t know which topics I’m interested in. The answer is that a talented writer can engage me in any topic if the facts are interesting enough – I’d never believe I’d be fascinated by 500 pages about whales until I read Leviathan. Thanks for the recommendations – I’m going to make an effort to read more non-fiction.

My book group read Unbroken this year and whilst some people were amazed at the real story I was quite skeptical to how much was really true. I’m much more tolerant in fiction of strange things because I know it’s made up I don’t have to question the author.

I do like to either learn something from non-fiction or be thoroughly entertained.

Ellie, I like the sound of a non-fiction book that people have trouble believing 🙂 Several people have recommended Unbroken now, so I’m going to have to keep an eye out for it.

If the non-fiction isn’t scholarly then I am a lot more lenient about the writing style and quality, especially if the story presented is important in some way. And similarly if the story is fantastic in a fiction book I’ll worry less about writing quality, but generally I do prefer books well written and am very picky about this in fiction.

Charlie, I avoid anything too scholarly normally 🙂

It is sounding as though aspiring authors who aren’t very good writers should give non-fiction a try 😉

My favorite kind of writing and reading is perhaps “Narrative Nonfiction,” which seems to be the kind of non-fiction that you are describing and that you enjoy. With that in mind you must read:

*The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot,
science/social/cultural/history-the best!
*The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkersen, epic story of the migration of
6 million from south to north in 20th century America

SEY, I loved Henrietta Lacks, but haven’t heard about The Warmth of Other Suns. An epic migration sounds like a fantastic premise. Thanks for drawing it to my attention!

I loved reading this and thinking about this topic. I do think I have different expectations … and, like you, “expect less” from non-fiction. However, I do expect to be either fascinated or entertained by non-fiction or else I’ll give up on it. I don’t expect this from fiction. I’ll have to ponder more on this!

Becky, I used to love Bill Bryson! It has been a long time since I read any of his books, but it is probably time I read another. I do love travelogues like that 🙂

Great post! I think I approach fiction and non-fiction differently although I appreciate it when I walk away from fiction having learned something and that is definitely what I am going into the nonfiction thing for.

Amused, Finding out new things is an added bonus in fiction. Recently I have loved books like The Abundance of Moths and Absent that have given me lots of little facts about insects. I don’t think I’d be interested enough to read a whole book on the subject, but sprinkling a few facts into fiction really adds to its appeal to me.

I have only read 4 non-fiction books this year and I enjoyed all of them. I think I take a different approach to them as I know what I am reading really happened and the people are real – I can forgive them dull moments as that’s real life. But I do put a certain amount of trust in the writer to be telling the truth.

With fiction the writer needs to be able not only to tell a good story but also to invent complex and believable characters. I’m finding fiction falls short for me when the characters are one-dimensional. Nobody is perfect all the time, and there are often underlying reasons why someone does bad things.

A grey area for me is when fiction uses real-life characters. The book that springs to mind for me is Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. We can allow the author some artistic license but are they attempting to distort history?

Liz, I don’t mind fiction in that grey area as long as the author is honest about deviations to history. I love it when an author adds a section at the end explaining exactly which events happened and which were altered.

I mused about this subject a couple of weeks ago too, when I discovered I’d only read 1 non-fiction book this year which is shocking. In previous years, 10% or more of my reading was non-fic.

I find that I’m pickier with non-fic than fiction as you have to engage your brain in a different way – unless it is non-fic written in a more narrative style like Simon Winchester’s books, or many biographies. It is easier for me to fall into a fiction book as long as there is an element to engage my imagination. I get your point totally about things that happen in real life that seem unacceptable in a work of fiction – it’s strange but true.

Less narrative non-fic books tend to require more concentration and take longer due to their density and more educative nature – but I do like to learn something from a book!

Annabel, My non-fiction reading has never been as high as 10%, but I think I’ve read 5 times as many non-fictions books as you this year – a shockingly low number considering how many books I’ve read altogether 🙁 I tend not to enjoy non-fiction without a narritive drive – unless it is on a specific subject I’m looking for information on (eg Aspergers) I have a couple of Winchester’s books here, but never tried him. I’ll have to find one and give him a try.

Joseph Mitchell Rob put me on to him he wrote for new Yorker non fiction narrative pieces mainly about the lower class sort of a non fiction Steinbeck his prose are wonderful for somethingore poetic and nature based try roger deakin all the best stu

What a great question! I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction and judge them the same way. I want whatever book I’m reading to have great writing and a sense of purpose. I have to care about the characters in whatever genre or I won’t read it.

Have you read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson? It’s non-fiction with a great narrative. You’ll probably enjoy it.

Vasilly, I hadn’t heard of The Warmth of Other Suns until SEY listed it in a comment above. It is great that you endorse it too – I’m going to get a copy 🙂

What an interesting question. I do read quite a lot of non-fiction, though nothing like as much as fiction. I think I’m prepared to put up with clunkier writing with non-fiction if the subject interests me enough, a badly written fiction book usually just gets put aside. I read a lot of biography, travel books, some popular science – Ben Goldacre, Bryson etc, history.
For a biography that really does read like a novel try Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir (her biograohies are so much better than her novels)
Curry- A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham is a wonderful read, offbeat and fascinating.

Victoria, Thank you for all the recommendations. A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors has particularly grabbed my attention. I hadn’t heard of that one before, but I’ll ensure I keep an eye out for it now.

Definitely sounds like you would enjoy more nonfiction! Personally I like some of the dry, fact-filled stuff, but most people don’t! I definitely like different things in fiction than non-fiction… dry and fact-filled for one 😉

Booklover Book Review, I hadn’t heard of Little Princes until this post. So many people seem to love it! It is great to see another supporter – I’ll ensure I get to it at some point.

I’m with you on all those points, especially the Coincidences one. I’m not a fan of that literary device in fiction, but I can handle that in nonfiction. Of course, if a nonfiction book is titled My Life from Birth to Death and I see coincidences every 3 pages, then I will still get bothered – I guess I’m just envious of very lucky people, or I don’t like them. One of that. But I have an even low tolerance for coincidences in fiction.

I have focussed on reading more non-fiction in the past couple of years and I’ve found that narrative non-fiction really works for me.

I highly recommend Janet Malcolm — she’s a journalist from the New Yorker — who has a wonderful way of bringing true stories to life. The “The Journalist and the Murder” is a good starting point.

Other books — all of them quite dark — that I think you might like include:
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood
Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song
Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation
Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy
Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man
Anonymous’ A Woman in Berlin

All of these, except the Capote & Mailer (I read them DECADES ago), are reviewed on my blog if you want to find out more.

Kim, Thanks for all the recommendations. In Cold Blood has been in my TBR for ages – it really is time I gave it a try. Many of the others are new to me – I’ll enjoy looking them up later. I’ll try to read more narrtive non-fiction next year.

I also mostly read fiction, but must echo the recommendations for The Devil in the White City and The Glass Castle. I thought both of those read almost like novels.
I’d also add Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt to the list of good non-fiction that reads like a novel.

The non-fiction books I’ve read this year have been very strong. Most of my fiction reads of this year pale in comparison. I definitely agree with some of what you say regarding different criteria, especially as to the tolerance for coincidence. There was a gesture of honor made at the funeral of a prominent abolitionist, described in Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains, that I would have found heavy-handed if it was made-up. Because it really happened, I instead was moved to tears.

Nonfiction with the driving narrative of fiction? Hm. Someone mentioned The Glass Castle above, and that is an excellent memoir. Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun is written as if it was a novel, but it is nonfiction pulled from interviews with the people involved. Have you read Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman? It’s basically a travel thriller. Fantastic.

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