Truth and Fiction

Radio's Ira Glass brings together some of his favorite writers in a new compendium.

The king is dead. More specifically, the old king of literary nonfiction - a form that incorporates fictional-writing techniques such as dramatic arc, scene setting, and extended dialogue to flavor books about true occurrences - is dead. That king would be Truman Capote, whose In Cold Blood, an account of a murder in rural Kansas, is often called the first nonfiction novel. Now, 42 years after In Cold Blood was first published and 23 years after Capote's death, Ira Glass of Chicago Public Radio's This American Life is declaring, "Long live the new kings!"

In a new compendium, Glass brings together 14 top current writers of literary nonfiction. The collection does not include works from the most visible living progenitor of literary nonfiction, the dapper Tom Wolfe, but it does include works from several familiar writers. The most recognizable are probably Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Orlean, and Mark Bowden. Others whom followers of literary nonfiction - or, at least, voracious readers of magazines - may recognize are: Jack Hitt, Lawrence Weschler, Bill Buford, Chuck Klosterman, David Foster Wallace, Lee Sandlin, Coco Henson Scales, Dan Savage, Michael Pollan and James McManus..

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Though their subjects vary widely, all these writers, says Glass, have something in common, qualities he feels This American Life also shares. Glass styles himself as a radio journalist who tells stories by “filtering his interviews and impressions through a distinctive literary imagination, an eccentric intelligence, and a sympathetic heart.” He believes that those practicing literary nonfiction well are those who think about the bigger implications of the facts they gather. “When I’m researching a story and the real-life situation starts to turn into allegory, I feel incredibly lucky and do everything in my power to expand that part of the story,” Glass says in his introduction to the compendium. “Everything suddenly stands for something so much bigger.”

That’s the prism through which Glass evaluated the writers in this book. They are all, he says, writers who share their feelings and thoughts within the text rather than mindlessly excising themselves from the story as some journalistic conventions would have them do.

By the way, Glass dislikes the term literary nonfiction. He thinks it is pretentious. He says he’s unsure what to call the true stories in his collection, but he is certain that they serve as a beacon in what he sees as a golden age of lousy journalism. He is certainly right about that.