Drieluik met allegorie op het kunstonderwijs, Willem Joseph Laquy, ca. 1770 (Rijksmuseum)
In the orthodox liberal arts community, tenure-track professors are expected to teach courses while burnishing their scholarly bona fides through research and publishing efforts—the familiar “publish or perish” model. The soporific tomes churned out under this rubric are often arcane, heavily footnoted monographs relegated to “assigned reading” status; no one expects them to be bestsellers and they aren’t. With the legitimacy of liberal arts curricula being challenged daily and university presses being warned that they’ll have to start turning a profit or else, it seems obvious that the self-serving approach of scholarship for its own sake must be reconsidered.
Ironically, academic publishing could be its own salvation.
Rather than accepting an outdated publishing model as a necessary evil, scholars are increasingly choosing to write for a broader audience—the general public. They are exploring the potentially lucrative realm of creative nonfiction.
Creative nonfiction (a.k.a. literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of storytelling that presents actual events in a narrative style using techniques commonly applied to fiction writing (think: In Cold Blood, Angela’s Ashes, and A Midwife’s Tale). From an academic perspective, producing books that people actually enjoy reading yields a cascading torrent of positive outcomes: it helps educators build name recognition and strengthen their personal “brand” (and become better communicators in the process), brings prestige and a much-needed revenue stream to beleaguered university presses, and of course, makes knowledge more accessible to all, rather than rationing it out to the privileged few who can afford to shell out the inflated prices of textbooks and specialist journals. Further, successfully tapping the mainstream market makes a strong argument in favor of building and maintaining robust humanities and social sciences programs in our colleges and universities.
University press acquisition editors who once turned up their noses at such plebian literary efforts are beginning to see the potential of publishing titles that hold the promise of reaching a huge market (including digital versions for e-readers and tablets). The canny implementation of social media as an effective marketing tool also alters the calculus. Creative nonfiction is the fastest-growing literary market in mainstream publishing, having eclipsed literary fiction. Do I have your attention now?
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, I must stress that for all these benefits to materialize, scholar-authors have to craft compelling stories that resonate with readers beyond the confines of the classroom, the peer-reviewed journal, and the professional conference.
In a New York Times op-ed, columnist Nicholas Kristof cited Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution, in explaining the institutional bias against popular nonfiction writing: “Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” McCants said. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”
Writing for a general audience
In recent years, a handful of academics have bucked the establishment with varying degrees of success. Stephen Ambrose began publishing this type of crossover history in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until his 1992 publication of Band of Brothers that he managed to crack the bestseller lists. John Keegan, a military historian of impeccable academic credentials also penned gritty profiles of war and warriors that found an appreciative audience in the public sphere; his Face of Battle is considered a classic of the genre. Fellow history professor Michael Howard annointed Keegan “at once the most readable and the most original of living historians.”
Proving that creative nonfiction techniques can breathe new life into a crowded field of historiography, Allen Guelzo recently added Gettysburg: The Last Invasion to the sprawling list of over 6,000 extant titles on the subject. His study, which bagged an impressive array of awards, received glowing reviews: Military History Quarterly called it “a stylish, comprehensive, and entertaining narrative.”
Ultimately, it took someone from outside the academy—a mere journalist—to make academicians really sit up and take notice. Having convinced a small publishing house to take on her lean work of creative nonfiction, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, veteran science writer Dava Sobel finally let the genie out of the bottle.
Sobel recounted a dramatic human-interest tale in a terse but accessible journalistic style that would make Hemingway proud. Liberated from academic jargon and the intrusion of hundreds of footnotes and references, Longitude proved to be a breath of fresh air for readers interested in the history of science but unwilling to wade into a dry, academic doorstop.
Much to the chagrin (and utter indignation) of the scientific community, Sobel’s little book sold like hotcakes. In fact, the thin volume was snatched up by Penguin and later optioned for a four-part docudrama starring Jeremy Irons. Could a conventional historical monograph have made such a splash?
The ‘Sobel Effect’
The wild success of this unintimidating read drove academicians mad. One wrote a scathing journal article sarcastically titled, “The ‘Sobel Effect’: The amazing tale of how multitudes of popular writers pinched the best stories in the history of science and became rich and famous while historians languished in accustomed poverty and obscurity, and how this transformed the world. A reflection on a publishing phenomenon.” I’d provide a link, but of course the article was published in an exclusive subscription-only peer-reviewed professional journal of which I am not worthy. Just as “Remember the Alamo!” morphed from being a Mexican army taunt into a highly effective Anglo-republican battle cry, “The Sobel Effect” was soon being uttered by publishers to characterize a very desirable attribute indeed.
One academic science blog reflected, “It is not so much the scientists themselves as the science historians who object to this sort of writing. They are left wondering: why it is that they have spent their entire career in science and can barely sell one thousand copies of their book, while Sobel and company (who are mainly journalists and authors) can make the best seller list? Jealousy?”
Some academics dismiss such “simplistic” renderings of complex themes, arguing that serious scholarship cannot be presented to the lay public in a manner that does not compromise the underlying facts. Apparently, über-popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t get the memo.
Over the past decade, a number of historians have established themselves as superstars of the creative nonfiction medium—David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Civil War historian James McPherson, to name a few.
How to do it
In the wake of Dava Sobel’s enormous success, hopeful writers have struggled to replicate the phenomenon by attempting to reduce it to a formula (replete with impossibly long subtitles) with predictable results. There is no template for successfully mining this genre; it’s just so durned difficult to capture lightning in a bottle. Producing exceptional creative nonfiction calls for the scholar’s research chops and the narrative flair of the professional storyteller. Success requires a good deal of talent, deep subject knowledge, expository skill, and a crackerjack editor. In sum, it comes down to a good (true) story, well told.
Writing really meaty, commercially viable creative nonfiction has much in common with crafting a bestselling novel. Sadly, nonfiction writers—many of whom are recovering academics—are driving themselves to distraction trying to wrestle their thesis, dissertation, or pet research subject into an engaging narrative, because despite years of formal education, they were never taught to tell a good story.
Tips to get you started
When writing creative nonfiction, you must fight the urge to descend into “Great Man” hagiography, dumb-down the facts, or attempt to add color to the story when the stark reality is more compelling than the gilded lily could ever be.
Key traits of the creative nonfiction genre include
- Appropriate POV—Exercise your creativity: the author can be an objective observer, a subjective witness, or even a participant in the action. Creative nonfiction is an ideal vehicle for memoir or relating the story of an “invisible” or disenfranchised person or group.
- Narrative style—Creative nonfiction lends itself to clear, simple, descriptive language mercifully bereft of academic jargon and erudition. The prose serves the story, rather than being an impediment to it.
- Character development, motivation, and pacing are key elements of creative nonfiction writing. This is where the storyteller’s art comes into play.
- Flexibility of form—No need to follow a prescriptive structural model; rather, adapt form to content. Creative nonfiction can take the form of a book, essay, journal article, blog post, etc.
- Above all, maintainenance of authenticity—History is subjective (read my post about this here), so it follows that creative nonfiction is equally a product of the storyteller’s interpretation of the “facts.” Your truth will always be more fascinating than fiction, so keep it real.
Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.