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
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