Readers’ Advisory: Introducing Nonfiction to the Fiction Reader

June Smith is a Public Services Librarian at Greater Victoria Public Library. She enjoys the challenge of readers’ advisory, and especially enjoys highlighting interesting and quirky nonfiction books. A dedicated fiction reader she is now trying to read more nonfiction for pleasure. This has, unfortunately, only increased the number of books she now wants to read!

When doing Readers Advisory we are often guilty of separating our patrons into two distinct camps when we ask–“what do you like to read, fiction or nonfiction?” We make the assumption that fiction readers only want to read fiction and nonfiction readers only want to read nonfiction. Neal Wyatt in his book Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction suggests that readers do not necessarily want to read in these same narrow categories.

Because public libraries separate reading materials into two distinct collections, which are often housed on separate floors, it is easy to forget that fiction readers may find items of interest in the nonfiction area. Readers browsing only in the fiction section may not know there are nonfiction books that would appeal to them. So how do we help fiction readers find nonfiction materials that they might enjoy?   Wyatt suggests there are four main elements that are fundamental to all nonfiction. The elements are: narrative context; subject; type; and, appeal (which include pacing, characterization, storyline, learning/experience, language, setting and tone). For the fiction reader, who is beginning to try and read nonfiction material for pleasure, they will probably be interested in material that has a stronger narrative and characterization, and broader appeal.

Here are some categories of nonfiction that will have strong appeal for fiction readers.

  1. Memoirs: This type of nonfiction is often the most accessible to the fiction reader.   Biographies, although sometimes of interest to fiction readers, are longer in length and larger in scope and may be oft putting to the fiction. Memoirs, in contrast, are generally shorter and have a stronger narrative and storyline that will appeal to fiction readers. The language is mainly non-technical and explores more of a personal and emotional subject.The setting may be exotic or one that draws the reader in quickly, and the tone is sometimes lighter. Although learning and/or experience is part of the book – its focus is more on the author’s experiences than on imparting facts.Salinger 2

Sometimes the memoir is significant because it is by an well-known author or somehow related to a significant author, such as the recent book My Salinger Year by Joanne Rakoff – which may be of interest to Salinger readers.   Other memoirs, such as Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking which covers the death of her partner may appeal more to the reader who is looking for material on the subject than someone reading for pleasure. This is where subject can be more important than the author.

Memoirs often explore the relationship with a particular animal or animals. Someone who has enjoyed Sara Gruen’s latest book – Ape House, for example, might enjoy Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods about her experiences about the Bonobo in Congo.Bonobo 2

In addition, many of the latest popular movies have been based on memoirs – so name recognition can provide appeal. Some examples of popular memoirs made into movies recently are: Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort, Monuments Men: Allied heroes, Nazi thieves and the greatest treasure hunt in history by Robert Edsel, Eat, Pray, Love by Elisabeth Gilbert; An Education by Lynne Barber; and, Under a Tuscan sun by Frances Mayer.  Wolf

  1. Essays: Essays can be humourous or serious in tone and often cover a variety of topics. Still fiction readers who like short stories may also like this category. They have strong appeal because of possible name recognition. Authors such as: David Sedaris, Nora Ephron, Gary Sheteyngart and Christopher Buckley can offer high name recognition to the fiction reader.
  1. Adventure stories: These may appeal to the fiction reader who enjoys action or thrillers. One recent title, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everestby Wade Davis has had great interest for both nonfiction and fiction readers. In the same way The Perfect Storm:A True Story of Men against the Sea by Sebastian Junger is a classic in this area and has a high recognition factor because of the movie that was based on the book.
  1. Reading Guides: Often these little books of lists of suggested reading languish hidden in the nonfiction section. Make them known to your fiction readers and you will be surprised how quickly they move off the shelves. Just as fiction readers want our advice about what to read next – they will also enjoy reading about other writer’s ideas on novels that are worth reading or re-reading. Series such as the Bloomsbury good reading guides, by Nick Rennison or Stephen E. Andrews, include such titles as: 100 Must-read American Novels; 100 Must Read Prize Winning Novels; 100 Must Read Life-Changing Books; and 100 Must Read Books for Men. Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust and others in herseries can also be of interest to your fiction reader. Even the mega tome , 1001 Books to Read before You Die (revised and updated), is of interest to the dedicated fiction reader.1001

The idea is to highlight your nonfiction collection so that fiction readers may find books that appeal to them for pleasure reading rather than just for informational needs. Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, authors of the Novel Cure, even suggest, in an interview with CBC’s Michael Enright (May 25, 2014), that for nonfiction readers, who wish to start reading more fiction, that they should first start with narrative nonfiction.

Wyatt suggests that librarians involved in Readers’ Advisory:

  • Start reading nonfiction if we have not already,
  • Pair up fiction and nonfiction in our displays,
  • Include nonfiction in booklists if at all possible,
  • Focus on both fiction and nonfiction books in discussion groups or blogs
  • And finally try suggesting one nonfiction title to our fiction readers when doing Readers’ Advisory.

Many libraries and librarians are already doing this –but it is helpful to keep these guidelines in mind.

For further reading:

Burgin, R. (2014). Nonfiction Readers’ Advisory. http://www.rburgin.com/sites/ranf.html

Enright, M. (Host). Police background checks….the Novel cure. Sunday Edition. (2014, May 25) [Radio broadcast] retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/thesundayedition/

Hagulund, D. (2012, March 2) “Will there be a memoir move boom?” Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2012/03/02/movies_based_on_memoirs_what_are_the_best_ones_.html

True story?16 memoirs made into movies. https://read.rifflebooks.com/list/45763

Wyatt, N. 2007. The Readers’ advisory guide to nonfiction. Chicago: American Library Association.

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