Des­per­ate for nu­ance, no won­der we are turn­ing to the non­fic­tion shelves

Se­ri­ous ex­plo­rations of ideas are meet­ing a need for ex­per­tise in tur­bu­lent times

The Observer - - Comment & Analysis - Stephanie Mer­ritt Stephanie Mer­ritt is a nov­el­ist and the au­thor of the non­fic­tion book The Devil Within

When

pub­lic dis­course den­i­grates ex­per­tise, when politi­cians and Twit­ter trolls alike have learned to dis­miss every crit­i­cism or un­com­fort­able truth as “fake” and me­dia out­lets com­pete for click­bait head­lines, it’s not sur­pris­ing to find a cor­re­spond­ing hunger for a deeper, more thought­ful form of en­gage­ment with ideas and for that – thank­fully – there’s still no bet­ter medium than a book.

On Wed­nes­day, the Bail­lie Gif­ford prize will be pre­sented, Bri­tain’s most pres­ti­gious award for non­fic­tion writ­ing. Which­ever of the six shortlisted au­thors takes home the £30,000 prize and the re­sult­ing boost to sales, it’s an op­por­tu­nity for book­sell­ers and pub­lish­ers to re­mind the pub­lic of the cur­rent ro­bust health of non­fic­tion writ­ing. Not so long ago, non­fic­tion best­seller lists were dom­i­nated by cook­books and celebrity mem­oirs, but over the past cou­ple of years a no­tice­able shift has taken place. Books about evo­lu­tion (Yu­val Noah Harari’s Sapi­ens), medicine (Adam Kay’s This Is Go­ing to Hurt), geopol­i­tics (Tim Mar­shall’s Pris­on­ers of Ge­og­ra­phy), physics (Stephen Hawk­ing’s Brief An­swers to the Big

Ques­tions) and phi­los­o­phy (Jor­dan Peter­son’s 12 Rules for Life) have all held on in the top 10. Harari’s book in par­tic­u­lar, with sales of more than three quar­ters of a mil­lion copies, her­alded a re­nais­sance of what the Book­seller mag­a­zine this year called the “brainy back­list”.

Se­ri­ous non­fic­tion is back in fash­ion, with es­say­ists such as Re­becca Sol­nit and Teju Cole build­ing de­voted fol­low­ings for work that ad­dresses po­lit­i­cal tur­bu­lence in the US, and a new gen­er­a­tion of Bri­tish writ­ers – among them Lau­rie Penny, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Nikesh Shukla – speak­ing to new, younger, di­verse read­er­ships on is­sues of race, fem­i­nism and ac­tivism.

Ac­claimed nov­el­ists such as Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen turn their hand to per­sonal es­says, a form that not so long ago seemed a quaint relic from an­other age, pre­served only in a few de­ter­minedly old-fash­ioned pub­li­ca­tions such as the Lon­don Re­view of Books and the New Yorker, but which has seen an un­ex­pected re­vival and a new ur­gency, per­haps pre­cisely be­cause on­line de­bate has be­come so su­per­fi­cial and lack­ing in nu­ance or wider ref­er­ence.

Of course, “non­fic­tion” is such a vast and non-spe­cific field as to be al­most mean­ing­less as a de­scrip­tor. Even a non­fic­tion prize with a more clearly de­fined re­mit, such as the Well­come prize (for books deal­ing with themes of health, medicine and ill­ness) can in­clude gen­res as di­verse as neu­ro­science, biography, his­tory and mem­oir – and there has been much con­tro­versy over how strictly the last cat­e­gory is obliged to ad­here to the bound­aries of non­fic­tion.

In 2007, when I was a judge for the Costa Biography award, it was clear that we were at­tempt­ing to com­pare two en­tirely dif­fer­ent types of book un­der one, un­help­ful head­ing – how could you mea­sure a schol­arly biography that has taken years of ar­chive re­search against the emo­tional pull of a nar­ra­tive that of­ten de­tails painful ex­pe­ri­ences in the au­thor’s life (and how does an out­sider ar­bi­trate on whether that nar­ra­tive is ob­jec­tively “fac­tual”)?

But sug­gest­ing that like should only be com­pared with like in one cat­e­gory makes the very idea of the Bail­lie Gif­ford – a prize open to all non­fic­tion across pol­i­tics, sci­ence, his­tory, sport and the arts – seem a com­i­cally im­pos­si­ble project, and in any case, part of its ap­peal is the sheer variety the short­list throws up. When it was founded in 1999 as the Sa­muel John­son prize, the name was a tribute to the En­light­en­ment val­ues of the great man of let­ters who could turn his vo­ra­cious cu­rios­ity to any and all top­ics. In­deed, John­son would likely not have recog­nised the mod­ern dis­tinc­tion of “lit­er­a­ture” to mean only fic­tion, a pe­cu­liar idio­syn­crasy of the con­tem­po­rary English­s­peak­ing pub­lish­ing in­dus­try, with its in­sis­tence on genre la­bels.

Per­sonal sto­ries have tended to dom­i­nate pop­u­lar non­fic­tion in re­cent years; in 2014, 2016 and 2017, three out of the four shortlisted ti­tles for the Costa Biography prize each year were mem­oirs that ex­plored wider cul­tural themes rather than tra­di­tional bi­ogra­phies. The un­stop­pable rise of the TED talk cul­ture has also had a dou­ble-edged im­pact on non­fic­tion writ­ing; on the plus side, it has helped to feed an ap­petite among a young, ed­u­cated de­mo­graphic for en­thu­si­as­tic, wellqual­i­fied ex­perts shar­ing cross­dis­ci­plinary ideas in eas­ily di­gestible and ac­ces­si­ble chunks.

But there’s a heavy bias to­wards the realm of self-im­prove­ment that has been re­flected in the kind of books be­ing com­mis­sioned by com­mer­cial pub­lish­ers (all those “How to Be…” ti­tles), lead­ing the critic Sam Leith to write in 2015 of a “cri­sis in non­fic­tion pub­lish­ing”, in which he lamented that main­stream pub­lish­ers were play­ing it safe with sim­plis­tic “talk­ing-point books”, while the most in­ter­est­ing, se­ri­ous ex­plo­rations of ideas were com­ing off the univer­sity presses.

But per­haps the great po­lit­i­cal up­heavals of the past two years are chang­ing that. The Bail­lie Gif­ford short­list of­ten re­flects cur­rent con­cerns and this year the em­pha­sis is on his­tory, tech­nol­ogy and how so­ci­ety and ge­net­ics shape iden­tity – all ar­eas with pro­found im­pli­ca­tions for the way we live now and in the near fu­ture. The great plea­sure and chal­lenge of the best non­fic­tion is im­mers­ing your­self in the com­pany of writ­ers who are un­abashed ex­perts and who will broaden your knowl­edge of their sub­ject with ref­er­ences that go beyond a purely per­sonal take.

We need pub­lish­ers to keep in­vest­ing in this kind of se­ri­ous non­fic­tion and prizes to keep cel­e­brat­ing it; books such as th­ese are solid foun­da­tions when so much of the writ­ten word is quick­sand.

Books about evo­lu­tion, medicine and geopol­i­tics have all held on in the top 10

‘Brainy back­list’: there has been a non­fic­tion re­nais­sance. Alamy

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