biography, fear and loathing, gonzo journalism, hunter s thompson, literary nonfiction, meme, percy bysshe shelley, peter ackroyd, richard holmes, romantic poets, rum diary, shelley the pursuit, victor frankenstein
Welcome to the ‘Literary Blog Hop’, a meme hosted by The Blue Bookcase for book bloggers who focus on reviewing literary fiction. This weeks’ hop comes with the question:
Is there such a thing as ‘literary non-fiction’?
My rough answer to this question would be yes, there is most certainly a genre that can be called ‘literary non-fiction’. However, if you want a succinct description pinpointing exactly what that might be, I honestly can’t say for sure. And the reason for this can be found in a post for the previous hop ‘What is Literary Fiction?’. Here I explored the fact that the term ‘literary’ is a Gordian knot unto itself, an overarching, super genre that has been equally revered and reviled over the years due to one of its’ characteristics: literariness or ‘writing in a writerly way’. Confused? I thought so. To put it crudely, a piece of literary fiction usually focusses on philosophical or psychological issues and often has an inner theme or subtextual nuances. People argue that it’s nothing but a vehicle for the author to showcase his or her literary dexterity by using as many tricks and techniques as possible. Unfortunately this can also mean archaic language and difficult plot-structure that readers may find hard to follow. While this may be the exception, it is certainly not the rule.
Overall critics do not look favourably upon the amorphous, and this extends to the even more illusive genre of ‘literary non-fiction’. But even if I can’t pinpoint EXACTLY what it is, I can certainly come up with some examples that might illustrate the point a bit better than my own flawed attempts.
When one says ‘literary non-fiction’ I suppose the first thing that comes to mind is journalism, but not the kind that is buried in facts, mind you, but those that create a ‘factually accurate narrative’. What I’m thinking of is the sub-sub genre of ‘New Journalism’ first penned by Hunter S. Thompson: ‘Gonzo Journalism’. I think this is a good example of how literary non-fiction illustrates its’ hereditary trait of hybridization and its’ power to fuse fact and fiction without completely blurring those boundaries.‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ is probably the pioneer piece of Gonzo journalism, which has now become so popular that every magazine today has interviews and articles with a dash of Gonzo thrown in for good measure.
Added to this are biographies that read like fiction, in the way that as readers we are ‘living’ the history of that person, and are not being constantly hit over the head with dates and other historical data. The most famous literary biographer at the moment would probably be Peter Ackroyd (see ‘The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein’ and ‘Poe: A Life Cut Short’). Yet in my opinion the best biography I have read has got to be ‘Shelley: the Pursuit’ by Richard Holmes.
“If the art of biography was ever damned, Shelley: The Pursuit redeems it” – New York Times
Aside from it being an amazingly detailed account of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s short but tumultuous life, it is also packed with of a lot of painstaking research which reveals aspects of Shelley’s character and life that has never been published anywhere else. The book itself is as thick as ‘Les Miserables’, but is an absolute must read for any self-respecting enthusiast of Romantic Poets and Poetry. As a Mary Shelley enthusiast, I picked up the book hoping to shed some light over the origins of Frankenstein (the ever-popular topic of research for us Frankenstein freaks). To my delight I found it to be a gold-mine of information. Holmes is so very thorough in his research, and to think he wrote this when he was 29.
What I also like about it is how Holmes cast aside the popular ‘ethereal’ image of Shelley and persevered to portray him warts and all. He was no angel, far from it; he was a pyromaniac, an adulterer and a hypochondriac. He was obsessed with electrocuting cats by tying them up to kites during thunderstorms and also his siblings who during childhood were constantly experimented upon with acids and caustics. It wasn’t for nothing that his peers called him ‘Mad Shelley’.