According to the website Masterclass:
Narrative nonfiction, also known as creative nonfiction or literary nonfiction, is a true story written in the style of a fiction novel. The narrative nonfiction genre contains factual prose that is written in a compelling way—facts told as a story. While the emphasis is on the storytelling itself, narrative nonfiction must remain as accurate to the truth as possible.
Using this definition, I think that probably the first book using this style that I read was A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr, which I read around the time it was published, in 1995 (all title links are to the GR book page). It’s sometimes difficult for me to distinguish “narrative” non-fiction from just garden-variety non-fiction, though. For the most part, when I think of narrative NF, I think of books that are sort of pot-boilery, that more obviously sets out to hold the reader’s attention by using devices like suspense, foreshadowing, irony and vignette, as opposed to it’s dryer cousin.
Here is a round half dozen suggestions for great narrative non-fiction that I would recommend to anyone, even readers who primarily read fiction, or who are generally turned off by the dry reputation of non-fiction.
- Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen: there was a point where this book was everywhere, back in the early 2000’s, and for good reason. It is a ripping story.
- A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson: this is the only book by Bill Bryson that I’ve read, and I don’t know why because it was hilarious. I still remember sitting on my couch reading next to my husband, who was watching t.v., and laughing to the point that he made me read part of the book out loud to him because I was being so annoying.
- Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer: I have also read Missoula, Into Thin Air and Into the Wild by Krakauer, and his books are riveting. I will concede that I have heard him criticized for presenting a biased perspective, especially in Into Thin Air, so YMMV.
- Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann: Martin Scorsese recently adapted this for film, although I haven’t seen it yet. The book is really good, although also deeply infuriating. Grann also wrote The Lost City of Z, which is also terrific.
- The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan: I actually mentioned this book in my review of Fever in the Heartland. It’s a deep dive into the dust storms of the 1930’s, and is bleak, heartbreaking, but also a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Egan won the Pulitzer for it in 2005.
- Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams: This is the only book on my list that I’m not positive really belongs here. I read it a long time ago, and it’s a memoir as well as a piece of nature writing, but I remember being transfixed by it.
I’ve tried not to overlap with the other topics I am planning to discuss later in the week, so I’ve left off some books that would definitely fit here that I’m planning on talking about in a future post.