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When the Story is True: Practicing Nonfiction Readers’ Advisory

Barry Trott of the Williamsburg Regional Library began the program When the Story is True by reading comments about the book Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle (2004). From the use of phrases about well-drawn characters, tense settings, and compelling story, he said that many readers might assume that the book was a novel. It happens instead to be narrative nonfiction, otherwise known as “literary journalism” or “creative nonfiction.”

Trott contends that readers’ advisory librarians of our time have only recently recognized the nonfiction reader’s needs. It makes sense to broaden the RA service to promote nonfiction for these reasons:

  • Nonfiction will attract new readers, especially men.
  • A large portion of our collections is nonfiction.
  • It will help move books that have been lingering in the stacks to push nonfiction.
  • Nonfiction has genres just like fiction.
  • Many readers just want good books, and it does not matter whether the stories are true or not.

Trott turned to an article by Sandra Lamb called “Narrative Nonfiction,” in Writer, 117 (May 2004): 45-46. He said the author asks six questions of authors wanting to write narrative nonfiction:

  • Is the story compelling?
  • Is there emotional architecture?
  • Who is the audience?
  • Are there recognizable characters?
  • Why are you qualified to write this book?
  • Why is this a good time for this book

He said the RA librarian needs to ask similar questions when suggesting books to nonfiction readers. Then he followed by describing the appeal factors of setting, subject matter, author’s voice, characters, story line, and pacing.

Kaite Mediatore Stover of Kansas City Public Library followed with ideas for developing an understanding of a nonfiction genre. She suggested that librarians beginning study with genres of which they already have an interest. Her steps include the following:

  • Read histories of the subject or topic.
  • Scan how-to books to get a practical understanding.
  • Identify biographies to learn the major names.
  • Find humorous books, which often address the major issues in a subject area.
  • Discover what the media emphasizes about a subject area.
  • Identify awards in the field and for writers about the field.
  • Find good websites on the topic.

Her steps became a bit clearer when she began applying them to the genre of sports books, which of course have many appeal factors: characters, settings, stories, etc. Through study of sports writing, the librarian learns the genre and identifies authors and titles. She suggested that sports books are about more than games. They include themes of overcoming adversity, contest, betrayal, redemption, and tragedy. They are books about journeys and the enduring human spirit.

In the question period at the end, both Trott and Stover suggested looking at reader comments at Amazon to get a sense of reader reactions to books and identify further reading.