Good examples of exemplary creative nonfiction?
September 14, 2008 12:28 PM   Subscribe

What are your favourite pieces of creative nonfiction?

I want to be exposed to a wide variety of 'CNF' and am interested in the stories you have come across, whether it be a publication like your friendly local independent weekly or the New Yorker. So if you can recall any of your favourite articles/essays/stories that fit within the broad genre of creative nonfiction, I would like to read them.
posted by ageispolis to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Laurie Colwin's stories in her collections Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen and More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen are two of my favourite things to read, ever.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:36 PM on September 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Are books out of the question? The Shrine of Jeffery Damer is this generation's In Cold Blood (you know about In Cold Blood, right?) Both books are disturbing and brilliant.
posted by Bookhouse at 1:04 PM on September 14, 2008

I highly recommend The Next American Essay. It's a great collection of essays ranging from pretty straightforward journalism to very experimental pieces.
posted by roll truck roll at 1:14 PM on September 14, 2008

Well, my timing might be in poor taste, but I would recommend David Foster Wallace's essays. I haven't kept up with all his magazine articles, but I loved several of those collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster. And this is from a person who has yet to make it through Infinite Jest.

Otherwise, I would suggest Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. I was surprised how much I enjoyed that book, given that I was initially lukewarm on the subject matter.
posted by bibliowench at 1:17 PM on September 14, 2008

This is an ENORMOUS genre- what have you already read? Is there a particular style or vein you're looking for? This genre emcompasses travel writing, humor, memoir, investigative journalism, "new" journalism, and so on.

In honor of David Foster Wallace, the title story in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" is brilliant and awesome. The essays that make up anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and full of swagger and humor, and make you feel like the fly on a wall in a kitchen. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a great piece on the Three Gorges Dam in China for Spin in the mid-90s that was excellent, but I haven't been able to find it online. Malcolm Gladwell writes consistently awesome pieces for the New Yorker.

And then there's David Sedaris!
posted by lunasol at 1:18 PM on September 14, 2008

Oh, and following on rock truck roll's comment, The Best American Series is excellent: every year they publish a number of books with the best essays and short stories from a number of genres: fiction, long-form journalism, travel writing, sports writing, etc.
posted by lunasol at 1:21 PM on September 14, 2008

Hunter Thompso, Hell's Angels. Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
posted by fixedgear at 1:25 PM on September 14, 2008

Hunter S. Thompson
posted by slimepuppy at 1:25 PM on September 14, 2008

This story changed my life

I'm sorry I could'nt find an online version

I remember the first time I read it, I just thought, "Holy Crap, that's the same way I do it, and this guy was winning Pulitzers when I was in diapers.

Total inspiration for me.

FWIW, I have six books out now, none of them selling much.

and there it is.
posted by timsteil at 1:27 PM on September 14, 2008

Don't know if it qualifies as "creative nonfiction" but I've been re-reading Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own every couple of years or so since about 1985.
posted by angiep at 1:29 PM on September 14, 2008

Underground by Haruki Murakami (translated by A. Birnbaum and P. Gabriel) is an amazing work of non-fiction. It's a book about the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system, and combines traditional-style journalism (interviews with survivors and rescue personnel) with meditations on the larger meaning of the attack.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:30 PM on September 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

What first got me interested in reading and writing in the genre were articles in The Sciences, now sadly defunct. Finally, all the beauty and mystery of science written in a way that made you want to read it all in one sitting and then get more!

John McPhee's articles, mostly for The New Yorker, are considered classics and I love them for their attention to the mundane, which suddenly turns it fascinating.
posted by cocoagirl at 1:49 PM on September 14, 2008

See here and here for non-fiction recommendation threads which, while they don't mention 'creative non-fiction', per se, almost certainly feature much that would interest you.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 1:52 PM on September 14, 2008

seconding Hunter S. Thompson - try "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail."
posted by krautland at 2:01 PM on September 14, 2008

The Professor and the Madman. A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. by Simon won't be disappointed. Thirding Hunter S. also check out old issues of Rolling Stone.
posted by docmccoy at 2:09 PM on September 14, 2008

A great big second for John McPhee - I've become so smitten that I'm reading my way through his entire catalog. I read Levels of the Game a few weeks ago. I am completely apathetic about sports, but this book was beautiful - symphonic.

I also quite like Sue Hubbell, who's also written for the New Yorker. I think I started with A Book of Bees and then A Country Year. She's published a couple of collections of her New Yorker pieces; Far-Flung Hubbell has some good stuff.
posted by kristi at 2:17 PM on September 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thriding John McPhee, I particularly like Pine Barrens.
posted by fixedgear at 2:24 PM on September 14, 2008

Seconding David Sedaris and Capote's In Cold Blood.

Joan Didion - particularly Slouching Toward Bethlehem

Dave Eggers - particularly A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
posted by LiveToEat at 2:32 PM on September 14, 2008

Werner by Jo Ann Beard. I read it shortly before a horrific car accident, and it perfectly encapsulated what I felt afterwards.
posted by melodykramer at 2:37 PM on September 14, 2008

The Aztec Treasure House by Evan S. Connell
posted by jammy at 3:26 PM on September 14, 2008

Dave Eggers - particularly A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Can't second that enough. Brilliant book. Schoolkids will be reading it in 100 years. His "What is the What" is technically a novel, but constructed from real events in the life of Sudanese "Lost Boy" Valentino Achak Deng. It is also a great book.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:45 PM on September 14, 2008

Oh and Jon Krakeur (sp?), especially "Into Thin Air." "I couldn't put it down" is a cliche, but just try to stop once you've started it.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:47 PM on September 14, 2008

Response by poster: This is an ENORMOUS genre- what have you already read? Is there a particular style or vein you're looking for?

I left the question open ended to allow for the widest variety of suggestions but perhaps I should make myself more clear. I've read Thompson and Wolfe and enjoy their contributions to the form immensely. I've read A Heartbreaking Work... but I failed to see the staggering genius. (Genius, maybe, but staggering?) In Cold Blood is a good example but I am interested more in the shorter pieces I can enjoy reading online, say less than 10,000 words. Hope that makes things more clear.
posted by ageispolis at 4:48 PM on September 14, 2008

William Gass. If On Being Blue musters too much of a philosophical bent for your tastes, you might still enjoy the literary and biographical essays in The World within the Word.
posted by rudster at 6:13 PM on September 14, 2008

I would anti-second Dave Eggers if I could (self-important, self-aggrandizing boring and boorish literary masturbation for people to name-drop so that they can seem hip) but I know that my taste isn't everyone else's, so even though I hate it with the passion of a thousand suns, and for very good reason, you might enjoy it. Who knows.

CNF is by far the genre I'm most addicted to - which might have some relevance into why I spend so much time on Metafilter, so just know that all of it you can get your hands on is good, even Eggers. I'd recommend David Foster Wallace (Supposedly Fun Thing..., Brief Interviews With Hideous Men), Sarah Vowell (Assasination Vacation, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Take the Canolli) and David Sedaris to start. If you're in Mumbai, I don't know what to tell you about finding these books aside from Amazon, and you're probably at a loss for a good bookstore to help guide your reading habits, but these are a good starting place.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:18 PM on September 14, 2008

It's not as well known, but it's become a personal favorite -- Tim Cahill is an outdoors writer and one of the editors of OUTSIDE magazine. In the 80's, he was one-half of the adventure driving team that set the Guinness World Record for driving the Pan-American Highway in the shortest amount of time -- from the tip of Argentina to the top of Alaska in only 23 days. (I think they still hold the record.) His book Road Fever is his account of that trip. It's great fun, especially the part where the two of them suddenly are overwhelmed by fatigue and caffine somewhere near Panama and start acting like six-year-olds in the midst of a giggle fit.

Cahill's other essay collections -- Pecked To Death By Ducks, Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg -- can be great fun as well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:29 PM on September 14, 2008

Okay, I'm always really iffy on what counts as "creative" non-fiction and what's just ... non-fiction, but Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand is an actual page-turner. It takes four long chapters to get to the damn horse, and you find yourself not caring because somehow, detailed explanations of the economics of selling cars in pre-World War I San Francisco have become the most fascinating thing ever. (Keep in mind this is from someone who could not care less about cares.)

Also, Stephen Jay Gould, comma, any of. Mismeasure of Man is a favorite.
posted by bettafish at 6:37 PM on September 14, 2008

A Really Good Story by David Kirby
posted by radioamy at 6:43 PM on September 14, 2008

The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism is terrific. It has 58 short pieces, many by people mentioned in this thread.
posted by lukemeister at 7:35 PM on September 14, 2008

I read this and immediately thought of this book I had as a textbook for some college lit class or other. Haven't picked it up since, but I recall it having a pretty good variety of authors and styles (and also, possibly, quality levels).

And add another endorsement for Sarah Vowell. One of my criteria for a good writer is the ability to make me interested in stuff I ordinarily care nothing about, and Assassination Vacation, about her travels as an enthusiast of presidential history (particularly the grisly bits), definitely qualifies. The Partly Cloudy Patriot covers a broader range of subjects, though still touches a lot on history and politics.
posted by Ponsonby Britt at 9:51 PM on September 14, 2008

Ooh, one more: Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman. It's a history of the Oxford English Dictionary, framed around the relationship between the dictionary's editor and one of its most prolific contributors ... who turns out to be criminally insane.
posted by Ponsonby Britt at 10:02 PM on September 14, 2008

Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer does it for me.

For something more up-to-date, try Jason Leopold's News Junkie, which is all about how he broke the Enron story as a cocaine addict going through rehab. I bought it totally unplanned at a bookshop closing down sale about six months ago for about £2 and was amazed at how interesting it was. I read through it in about three days.
posted by tapeguy at 11:58 AM on September 15, 2008

Don't know if these meet the criteria of "Creative Nonfiction", but I think they do.

The Axemaker's Gift -- James Burke and Robert Ornstein. A riveting discussion on the development of human technologies, and their influence on our evolution.

Longitude -- Dava Sobel. A fairly short book about the development of reliable time-keeping technology and scientific intrigue.

Endurance -- Alfred Lansing. The incredible story of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his intrepid crew.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 12:32 PM on September 15, 2008

Anything by Ryszard Kapuściński, Poland's only foreign correspondent from 1964 to the mid-70s. Was recommended to me by a well-known war photographer as being the only conflict writer who really gets it. The work is lyrical and introspective...really wonderful.
posted by msbrauer at 4:08 PM on September 23, 2008

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