BAND July Discussion: What’s Your Favorite Type of Nonfiction?

by Kim on July 12, 2011 · 70 comments

Post image for BAND July Discussion: What’s Your Favorite Type of Nonfiction?

Hey all! Welcome to the first discussion topic hosted by BAND, the Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees. Each month a new blogger will host a discussion related to nonfiction, and all bloggers (regardless of how much or how little nonfiction you read) are welcome to participate.

Like fiction, nonfiction isn’t a monolithic term. Just like there are sub-genres or types of fiction (literary, women’s, mystery, thriller, horror, the list goes on), nonfiction has many varieties too. There’s creative nonfiction, essay, travelogue, self-help, biography, memoir, and more. With so many types of nonfiction (as well as topics covered), there are nonfiction options for everyone. With that in mind, this month’s question is a simple one:

What is one of your favorite types of nonfiction to read? OR What is one of your favorite nonfiction topics to read about?

Once you write up a post on the topic, leave a link in the Mr. Linky below. At the end of July I’ll post a wrap up of the different types of nonfiction we love. And right below the Mr. Linky is my answer to this question.

 

Stunt Memoirs: The Candy in My Nonfiction Diet

While I wouldn’t say that stunt memoirs are necessarily my favorite type of nonfiction, I have to admit a soft spot for books that Creative Nonfiction terms “Look What I Did for a Month/a Year/Until I Couldn’t Stand It Another Minute” stories. In these memoirs, the author decides to do or not do something for a length of time, then chronicles what they learn (or sometimes don’t learn) in a book.

candy The idea of stunt journalism (sometimes called immersion journalism) has a long history. You might be able to take it all the way back to George Orwell — for his memoir Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell took a job as a dishwasher at “Hotel X” in Paris, then as a chef’s assistant in a new restaurant, and finally decides to be a tramp on the outskirts of London exploring life for the downtrodden. Sounds a lot like a more recent example — Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, perhaps?

Stunt memoirs cover just about every topic imaginable. In The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs spends a year living life following all of the tenants of the Bible as close to the letter as possible. In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin spend a year working on simple ways to make herself happier. In Moonwalking With Einstein, Joshua Foer spends a year working to become a memory champion. And Stefan Fatsis, he’s a favorite. In Word Freak he spends a year becoming a champion Scrabble player, and in A Few Seconds of Panic he tries to become a professional football player.

As much as I love them, I think of stunt memoirs as the candy in my reading diet because they don’t demand a lot from me. Quite often they’re very easy reads — the writing is usually clean and the stories are entertaining without expecting that I think too much. They don’t often present huge moral quandaries or ethical dilemmas to consider (Nickel and Dimed may be an exception to that one). And while I usually learn something when reading a stunt memoir, most serious takeaways end up being incidental to the sheer entertainment factor in reading these stories.

That said, it does take some skill to pull off a good stunt memoir. It’s important for me to feel like the author actually experienced some sort of significant change during their experiment or that they took the stunt seriously. This doesn’t mean the stunt itself has to be serious, just that the author invested themselves into doing it well. If the story feels like a gimmick, like the author wrote the book entirely because they got an advance to do so, I get turned off. The author also needs to be a good character — there’s no point in reading about someone doing something crazy if that person doesn’t seem like fun.

One recent stunt memoir I was disappointed with was Up for Renewal by Cathy Alter. In the book, Alter spends a year following the advice she gets from women’s magazines, ranging from everything to cooking to organization, relationships to sex. However, it never feels like Alter truly learns anything from the experiment, and her life only improves because of a relationship she gets into soon after the stunt starts. The magazine experiments seemed random and half-hearted, which is disappointing in a stunt memoir.

I’m not going to start reading only stunt memoirs, but when I need a break or just want to read a good story, this is the genre of nonfiction I usually turn to. I love reading about people who try new things and use those experiences to teach me about things I didn’t know I wanted to learn about. Stunt memoirs seem to be all the rage right now, and I for one am glad to keep reading them (in moderation, of course).

Photo Credit: libraryman via Flickr

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

bermudaonion (Kathy) July 12, 2011 at 7:27 am

I love a good memoir and have found a lot of stunt memoirs to be great!

Reply

Kim July 12, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Yeah, I enjoy them as well. I think there’s a trend for stunt nonfiction right now, which I’m liking a lot.

Reply

Ash July 12, 2011 at 8:59 am

Stunt memoirs are fun and I’ve read quite a few of them myself. They can often be disappointing because the author doesn’t seem to go through any change, and I agree with you that it’s kind of the point.

Reply

Kim July 12, 2011 at 6:13 pm

That’s one of my big beefs. Although I know you can’t make up change if it didn’t actually happen, if the author doesn’t learn something from the stunt then what was the point in doing it, and what was the point in me reading about it?

Reply

Deanna July 12, 2011 at 9:15 am

Thanks for the quick review of Up For Renewal. I have it on hold at the library, but I’m thinking I will cancel it. Doesn’t sound appealing.

Reply

Kim July 12, 2011 at 6:14 pm

I found it a little disappointing. I mean, in some ways it was to be expected — it was about advice you find in women’s magazines, after all, but I still felt like there should be more. The heavy emphasis on her relationship also took a bit away from the story; I wasn’t sure if her improvement was because the advice actually helped or just because he had a more stable man in her life (which would have defeated the point, I think).

Reply

Bree July 15, 2011 at 2:14 pm

I felt the same way. I love stunt memoirs as well and have read most of the ones you mentions. Very disappointed in Up for Renewal. The relationship totally took over the experiment. After reading the book though, I was inclined to order some magazines and would like to try such an experiment.

Reply

Kim July 17, 2011 at 6:42 am

I’m glad I wasn’t the only person disappointed by that one. But I agree — I almost wanted to try something like that for myself to see what might happen.

Reply

Joy Weese Moll July 12, 2011 at 10:51 am

I love stunt memoirs, too. I hadn’t heard of Word Freak — I need to take a look at that one!

Reply

Kim July 12, 2011 at 6:14 pm

I loved Word Freak! It’s so, so funny — highly recommended.

Reply

Gwen July 12, 2011 at 1:03 pm

I never knew that there was an actual term for that sort of memoirs. The only Stunt Memoir that I have read is The Happiness Project. I enjoyed that one…..but as a whole, they don’t really do it for me. Being sort of madcapish, moody, and a total flake, it is just too hard for me to fathom sticking to one stunt for a very long time and therefore, hard for me to get into reading about them. They tend to lead to me beating myself up for never sticking with anything; books shouldn’t make you feel bad about yourself:)

Reply

Kim July 12, 2011 at 6:17 pm

I’m not sure if “stunt memoir” is the only term, but it is one that I like. I think there’s something aspiring about them for me. I’m like you, I don’t know if I could do something like that, but reading about them makes me want to try it.

Reply

Margot July 12, 2011 at 8:46 pm

I like most of the stunt memoirs I’ve read. Nickel and Dime is one of my favorites. Another favorite is “365 Days of SlowCooking” in which the author attempted to use her slow-cooker every day for a year. Her blog was fun to follow as she did things like melting crayons into crayon cookies. It was primarily about food. I honestly doubted she could make it a whole year, but she did. (Made two cookbooks from it.)

Congratulation on BAND. I think it’s a great idea. Some of my favorite books are non-fiction.

Reply

Kim July 17, 2011 at 6:43 am

I read “365 Days of Slow Cooking” the blog. I haven’t tried any recipes, but they all look really easy. I think a lot of stunt memoirs start as a blog then get optioned into books.

Reply

Sheila (Bookjourney) July 12, 2011 at 8:56 pm

This is so fun! I am finding I like non fiction more and more but still dabble in memoirs, true happenings (I like to read about other countries, crisis, historical happenings… and yeah, the occasional stunt memoir too.

I will have to think about a post for this…. :)

Reply

Kim July 17, 2011 at 6:44 am

I hope you’ll join! I like a lot of true happenings books too, reading books helps me figure out what is going on in the world.

Reply

christa @ mental foodie July 12, 2011 at 9:50 pm

I never knew these are called Stunt Memoir – but I guess it makes sense! I have to think about my answers and link my post later.

Reply

Kim July 17, 2011 at 6:45 am

I think there are a lot of things you could call them. I like the phrase “stunt memoir” personally, but “immersion journalism” is another good one for some books too.

Reply

Lauren @ UnderneathaBook July 13, 2011 at 8:35 am

If you like stunt memoirs, you should read Searching for Whitopia by Rich Benjamin. It was really, really good: Benjamin (who is black) decides to live in a series of virtually all-white communities and write about his experiences. It’s a really fascinating look at race relations in contemporary America.

Reply

Kim July 17, 2011 at 6:45 am

Wow, that sounds fascinating. Thanks for the recommendation, it’s going on my list!

Reply

Care July 13, 2011 at 10:11 am

Awesome! I want to join. Is it just as we go, do the memes, etc? GREAT idea.

Reply

Kim July 17, 2011 at 6:46 am

Yup, we’ll post the discussion each month, all you have to do to join is write up a post. We might expand to more stuff later, but for now this is what we’re working on :)

Reply

Amy July 13, 2011 at 10:43 am

I love how these are the candy in your diet! Such a fun type of book, though I rarely read them myself. Sometimes I just get so frustrated by them thinking how unrealistic it would be for most of us to try something similar!

Reply

Kim July 17, 2011 at 6:46 am

That’s usually one of the things I think about — how likely is it someone could do this, and is it really worth doing? Sometimes it is, and sometimes the experiment turns out to be a bit of a waste of time :)

Reply

Trisha July 13, 2011 at 1:27 pm

While I can’t currently choose one, creative nonfiction, particularly essays such as Bowden’s, were my only connection to non-fiction and I lurved them something silly. Recently I’ve been enjoying graphic memoirs. There’s something about them that appeals to me…

Reply

Kim July 17, 2011 at 6:47 am

I used to read more essays and magazine story-length nonfiction, but I’ve been reading more and more books now. I’d like to get back to essays though, they’re great.

Reply

Rebecca Reid July 13, 2011 at 3:59 pm

I don’t think I’ve read any “stunt memoirs”. I’m not sure I really like memoirs, but I”m becoming more warm to them over the years.

Reply

Kim July 17, 2011 at 6:48 am

I feel like stunt memoirs are the most out there sorts of memoirs, not for people just getting into the genre because they can be sort of self-indulgent and silly at times. But I also think the really good ones can teach a lot about the topics they’re experimenting with.

Reply

Maphead July 13, 2011 at 8:43 pm

One such recent memoir I enjoyed was Working in the Shadows by Gabriel Thompson. I’ll include a link to my review:
http://maphead.wordpress.com/2010/08/15/real-dirty-jobs/

Reply

Kim July 17, 2011 at 6:48 am

I remember your review of that one — I want to read it!

Reply

Cass July 14, 2011 at 7:34 pm

You need to copyright “stunt memoir.” ALSO I need to investigate said-stunt memoirs further, because I haven’t really loved any of the ones I have read. But one day! You give me hope, Kim.

Reply

Kim July 17, 2011 at 6:49 am

I wish I’d come up with that term — I’d be rich! If you want any recommendations, let me know and I’ll come up with a list :)

Reply

Books are my Boyfriends July 14, 2011 at 10:31 pm

I know you just mentioned this on the comments section of my blog, so this is a timely shout-out, LUNATIC EXPRESS is one of my favorite stunt memoirs of recent years. And it also fits in my non-fiction candy category- American Journalists Abroad, hi-yah!

Reply

Kim July 17, 2011 at 6:49 am

That’s right, I totally forgot that one! I loved that book so so much.

Reply

Jenny July 15, 2011 at 5:22 am

I like a stunt memoir too, although I do sometimes get uncomfortable with how (sometimes) totally crazy the writer is. It’s not so bad as long as they know they’re crazy and make jokes about their craziness, but when they actually seem to be fundamentally selfish people, I can’t enjoy their crazy stunts anymore! (hem Julie & Julia hem)

Reply

Kim July 17, 2011 at 6:50 am

Yeah, that’s a tricky thing with stunt memoirs. You have to like the author, and the author has to be pretty self-aware, otherwise it’s just annoying.

Reply

Colleen July 16, 2011 at 8:59 pm

There definitely is a stunt memoir (love the term) trend going on right now. In general, I enjoy this sub-genre as long as the activity is not too contrived. I will have to check out Up for Renewal!

Reply

Kim July 17, 2011 at 6:50 am

They’re all a bit contrived, I always think it’s whether the contrived-ness of the book feels selfish, or whether others can learn from the person’s experiment.

Reply

Anastasia July 18, 2011 at 3:49 pm

I’ve actually gotten really annoyed lately with stunt memoirs (and stunt TV shows, etc.) so I haven’t read any in a while. I think the last one I tried to read was actually a stunt travel memoir that had potential, but I just couldn’t handle the contrived-ness (stealing your word) and so I put it down.

Reply

Kim July 26, 2011 at 5:47 pm

They can be annoying if they’re bad, but the good ones are just addictive to me.

Reply

Jennifer July 21, 2011 at 1:42 pm

I have really been enjoying the opportunity to read about different kinds of nonfiction and why people like these subgenres. I’m also working on a post of my own about what I like to read about in the world of nonfiction.

I have to agree with you – the stunt genre, when executed well, can be a really fun read. This is definitely how I slowly waded in to more heavy nonfiction reads.

Reply

Kim July 26, 2011 at 5:48 pm

I’ve really liked this too — it’s great how many types of nonfiction there are and the kinds people think of to read.

Reply

Books are my Boyfriends July 28, 2011 at 12:11 am

Bam, posted!

Reply

Christy (A Good Stopping Point) July 30, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Stunt memoirs often catch my attention because they have a built-in hook in their premise. I become curious to know how exactly someone would spend a year doing such-and-such. Would you consider The Unlikely Disciple to be a stunt memoir? That is one of my favorite books that I’ve read this year. I remember liking Nickel and Dimed but it’s been a while. A stunt memoir that I hated was Judith Levine’s Not Buying It, because her focus slid midway through the book from consumerism to barely-connected political diatribes.

Reply

Kim August 1, 2011 at 8:38 pm

That’s a great way of putting it — the drama is set up pretty early on and I want to know how they do it and what happens with the premise. I think I might consider that one a stunt memoir, but you have to read them to really tell.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: