Non-fiction as Narrative

In my opinion, Robert Caro is the greatest biographer of the last hundred years. Maybe longer. His life’s work is his three (soon to be four) volume series, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. When I read through the books a couple of years ago, I realized that I was reading something extraordinary. A famous author once said that she felt a profound sadness when she finished reading The Lord of the Rings, because there was no more of it and she knew that she would never find anything else like it. That sort of sums up my experience with Caro’s books.

I’m writing this for a reason. In an interview with Kurt Vonnegut years ago, Caro talked about the importance of narrative in non-fiction. He said,

“To my mind, the prose in a non-fiction work that’s going to endure has to be of the same quality as the prose in a work of fiction that endures. And I actually tested this out for myself. I read one hunk of Gibbon ‘s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, then I read a part of War and Peace which is a grand historical novel, right, so I figured that’s the closest to Gibbon. So I would read a part of one then apart of the other. I did this all summer. And the writing in Gibbon is at the same level, you know, they don’t read at the same cadences but it’s at the same intensity and level as in War and Peace. I’ve always felt that no one understands why some books of non-fiction endure and some don’t, because there’s not much understanding among many non-fiction writers that the narrative is terribly important.”

You can read the whole interview here.

The really tremendous thing about Caro’s books is the research. But who cares about that if the writing is crummy? If I can’t get through thirty pages of your book, it doesn’t matter what extraordinary quotes you have, or what startling revelations you share–no one will read it and your book will be forgotten. I think that the real tragedy of historical works is not the occasional inaccuracy; it’s that the majority of historians are poor writers. Conveying truth is important, but cultivating a love for truth in others–that’s the real trick.

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One response to “Non-fiction as Narrative

  • Charles J. Shields

    I blog about being Kurt Vonnegut’s biographer at “Writing Kurt Vonnegut” http://www.writingkurtvonnegut.com, if you’re interested.

    Also, in the right-hand sidebar, you can click on the link under “Hi, Ho BIO!” and watch a video of Robert Caro accepting our 2011 award for biography.

    Best,

    Charles J. Shields
    And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, November)

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