Narrative Nonfiction: Definition & Books

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  • 0:00 Narrative Nonfiction Defined
  • 2:40 Examples of Narrative…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

A lot of the nonfiction you've read may not have been for pleasure, so you might not think that factual works can be any fun. You can dispel that myth in this lesson, where you'll be introduced to the entertaining yet informative genre of narrative nonfiction and get to see a few popular examples.

Narrative Nonfiction Defined

Your idea of 'nonfiction' may involve dusty old reference materials, textbooks, and yellowing newspaper archives. But true stories can be just as engaging as their fictional counterparts when their authors are committed to the craft of storytelling. Also known as creative or literary nonfiction, narrative nonfiction is a genre of nonfiction in which factual matter is presented in a narrative style using literary techniques.

But what does that mean, exactly? Think about the last time you saw a report on the local news or read an article in the newspaper. What sort of style do you associate with these media? How was the information presented to you? Chances are you would consider the presentation very 'dry' and straightforward, with little room for or embellishment. Nonfiction sources like these tend not to employ literary techniques such as character narration or complex metaphorical imagery. On the other hand, literary nonfiction authors handle the same type of material as your local news anchor, only they do so in a way that tells a personal and richly detailed story.

In effect, this genre is a blend of the artistic touches we're used to in fictional works, like novels and short stories, and the factual accuracy we expect from our news sources and reference materials. Although creative nonfiction authors craft their stories artfully, they are still obligated to ensure that what they say is true. Otherwise, it couldn't be classified as 'nonfiction.' For instance, James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, passed his work off as narrative nonfiction, but was heavily criticized for all of the fictitious elements he included. To make sure that their facts are not as 'creative' as their expression of them, narrative nonfiction writers must quite often engage in rigorous research of their subject, even if the subject is part of their own personal experience.

Once a considered a work of literary nonfiction, this work by James Frey is now seen as semi-fictional following revelations of fraudulent claims
Cover of __A Million Little Pieces__

The term 'narrative nonfiction' could be applied to just about any subgenre in the nonfictional category, but there are a few that lend themselves to it more readily than others. Many of these rely on first-person narration, so they tend to be autobiographical in nature, like diaries and memoirs. Another instance in which first-person voices are typically heard is the personal essay, which presents an individualized approach to a scholarly subject, for instance, your take on climate change. Some examples of literary nonfiction use third-person narrators, which is often the case in literary journalism, an investigative piece reported in a narrative rather than purely journalistic fashion.

Examples of Narrative Nonfiction

In his personal essay, 'Self-Reliance,' published in 1841, famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses the importance of individualism. Long before your high school buddies adopted the notion of 'non-conformity,' Emerson had already stressed the need for individuals like himself to derive their senses of identity and accomplishment not from external measures, but rather from their own personal assessments. The main message of Self-Reliance conveys the idea that we must love and accept ourselves before we can expect the same from others.

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