Can Non-Fiction Really Be Discussed?

It came up again Wednesday night. Right in the middle of our book club meeting, someone suggested using Randy Shilts’ The Mayor of Castro Street as a future book club selection. Not that it isn’t a superb biography, there’s no question about that. “But you’re discussing history, not the book,” said someone else. “You could watch the movie Milk, and join in the conversation just as easily.”

I’d encountered the very same issue two nights before. Just as our Monday night meeting was about to begin, Paula, our college literature professor, had two biographies she wanted us to consider. They weren’t personal memoirs, but instead factual accounts. There was resistance. And this very same topic of non-fiction had come up at our competitor book club the Saturday before that – the Q-Squared Book Group actually spent four different meetings discussing The Mayor of Castro Street. They’re convinced they were discussing the book, not gay history. Interestingly enough, according to Lillian Dabney, who belongs to a number of Seattle book groups, the very same controversy is being hotly discussed at the Seattle Public Library.

  A topic which finds me so completely on one side that I’m not sure I can adequately represent the opposition.

Can non-fiction really be discussed?

I’m not talking about memoirs. Those are effortless conversation pieces, as thrilling as first-person confessions always are and just as open to evaluation. No, I’m asking what kind of conversations are generated by high quality non-fiction like The Botany of Desire or Collapse? People who’ve read them can sit in a circle and compare their reactions, can recount their favorite sections. But do third-person, objective facts presented as non-fiction generate thoughtful discussions about books?

  There is a philosophy of book conversation that contends the best exchanges occur with a text that is ambiguous or unresolved enough to allow interpretation.  A multi-dimensional character like Balram the boss-murdering chauffeur in this year’s Booker winner, The White Tiger, makes an ideal pivot for intense moral debates with multiple points of view.

In Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking? or in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, you have a narrator who leaves things out when she talks about herself. That, in itself, is worth discussing. What do we ever really know for sure about another human being? Not a lot. How much do we keep hidden about ourselves? Mucho. A narrative that preserves the same ambiguity about other people that we encounter in life makes the best possible conversation piece, calling forth our life skills to discuss literature.

Non-fiction in book clubs generally results in a conversation that amounts to, “Oh, I didn’t know that,” and “Wasn’t that interesting?” I don’t willingly give up a snug evening at home for that kind of book group exchange. At most we can discuss the author’s selection process. The conversation revolves around the data contained in the book.

For book conversations I prefer novels or memoirs where the truth may not be exactly what the words say, where I can question the narrator’s reliability, where I can build opposing arguments and come to my own conclusions, with life-like characters I can debate, incidents that can be interpreted but not known. I like the feeling that a human being with virtues and flaws has joined us for the night, trusting us to discuss his/her choices honestly and compassionately.

Book clubs are about seeking out the truth, bouncing our truths off each other trying to find out what’s really there. Non-fiction presents the truth as a given. In first person narratives, the text of the novel or memoir is the evidence we’re given for a truth that’s hiding just beyond the words. We acknowledge the author may have other motives besides factual honesty. As in life, it’s our job to sift the evidence.



About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

5 Comments on "Can Non-Fiction Really Be Discussed?"

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  1.' Holley says:

    Are book group discussions confined to being discussions of books? Is that all books are good for? I don’t think so. I believe books should foster discussion, thought, innovation, and ideas outside of their covers. I lead a genre reading group at my library (participants all read a different book on one topic, fiction or nonfiction) and our discussions frequently revolve around the ideas and history of a topic rather than the actual books each participant chooses to read. Books broaden lives, not just reading skills.

  2.' Elizabeth says:

    Our book club read a book about Lincoln, in terms of his being a writer (just looked it up — it’s “Lincoln: the Biography of a Writer”). It was a fine discussion because we could get into Lincoln’s life, and not just his writing. Plus, we also brought in the inevitable Obama comparisons. So it worked OK. I think some of the fiction works have been better and made for livelier conversations. I was interested in what you had to say about memoirs, too, because at this month’s meeting I’m getting ready to recommend a really great memoir about growing up with bipolar disorder, “bipolar bare.” Very powerful stuff here, about the author’s struggle to come to terms with his mental illness. The sex is pretty in-your-face, but it points out the wild forces that drugs and the mania unleash in the mentally ill.

  3.' Anne says:

    One of my bookclubs, at the college where I work, has had several lively and stimulating conversations about nonfiction, such as What’s the Matter with Kansas, Nickel and Dimed, and The Year of Magical Thinking. I think we appreciate the opportunity to share and reflect about such thought-provoking books.

  4.' Gloria Walsh says:

    For more than five years, our library has been facilitating a successful book discussion group that is completely nonfiction based. We have had groups from 4 to over 16 come to discuss nonfiction titles. I find nonfiction a marvelous vehicle for book discussion (and certainly not just memoirs).

    For one thing, nonfiction brings out a variety of readers. You don’t have to “belong” to our nonfiction book discussion group – if you see we’re discussing a title that interests you, you are welcome to come. We have had much success in our goal to attract male participants, and while we have a core group of regulars (female and male), there are almost always new faces each month because of the variety of material available for the program. We’ve had World War II submariners (for Terrible Hours)to employees of GE (for Jack: Straight from the Gut) to scuba divers (for Shadow Divers) to people with family histories dovetailing our books at discussions. Their experiences always lend insight into a title. The fun thing, as with fiction, is that readers bring their own individual experiences to the book, and that always makes for interesting discussion.

    Our readers are often very animated about their feelings about the author, the author’s angle on an issue presented, the readability and language of a work, and the broader truths a book may point toward. Sure, there’s always discussion about interesting “data contained in the book,” the author’s version of facts, which I rarely consider irrefutable or non-discussible, and there are (hopefully) always some “I’ didn’t know thats” about a book. Our job as facilitors is to go beyond those to open up the controversies, the dicotomies, the thoughts that were either only hinted at or those left unsaid. Good nonfiction is ripe with material to chew on, pull apart, and discuss.

    In fact, we do quite a bit of “questioning the narrator’s reliability, building opposing arguments, coming to new conclusions, debating characters and interpreting events” in the nonfiction we discuss as a group.

    While nonfiction may present a certain truth as a given, that is all the more reason to discuss it – how better than among other interested folk to tease out the truths that may lay outside the bounds of an author’s view or motivation?

    I agree with Holley that books, both fiction and nonfiction, should take us beyond the book covers, whether that is dissecting a character’s motives, the causes of a war, ways to sustain human life on earth, whatever. Nonfiction is a legitimate and popular venue for reading, and it should be for discussion as well, from literary elements to real life truths.

    Gloria, Downers Grove

  5. Nick DiMartino says:

    Thanks Gloria, Anne, Elizabeth and Holley. Sincerely, I adore the passionate energy of your responses and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the piece was intended to be provocative. I really like your idea of holding the author to account for his facts the same as you would a narrator in fiction. Thanks! And if you’re ever in the Seattle area looking for a book club, well, …


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