Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Flavors of non-fiction

In the comments to the post below, Steve wondered if my division of novels into four groups could also be applied to non-fiction. I think it can with a slight tweaking of the terms. For novels, I said the key variable were literary value and entertainment value. In each case, these terms serve as buckets for a variety of sub-variable. Individual books would have their own mix of each.

For non-fiction, I think the variables are quality of argument of ability to engage the reader.

Quality of argument: This consists of the strength of the authors thesis, how well it is argued, how well it is tested, and an explanation of why you should care. At first blush, this may seem ridiculous, but for non-academic books isn't this incorrect. No it's not. All non-fiction books have an argument of sorts, for example Kitchen Confidential argues that the restaurant life is so wild and crazy and you should understand how food is made. Other books make their arguments up front like this one titled Screwed, the Undeclared War Against the Middle Class and What we Can Do About It.

Engagement: This pulls in some of the elements in the fiction categorization including clear, understandable writing, a strong point of view, effective and limited use of humor, and any other means that make the work of understanding the argument easier or even fun. More serious works will focus on clarity, where lighter works amp up the fun.

The four categories require a bit of work, but I think that same analysis holds. There is a category exception worth mentioning, the essay. These are works of non-fiction that are written and often read like fiction. They are therefore hybrids. I think they are best analyzed using the fiction model.

What's the point of all this jibber jabber? It's just a means to think about what makes a book worth reading. Too many reviews just spit out the reviewers point of view, or depth of expertise, without answering the essential question of whether or not you should read the book.

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