Narrative Nonfiction – A New Genre Heading?

With the growing popularity of Readers Advisory Services, it is to be expected that skills and expertise will grow to incorporate nonfiction as well. We are starting to see this trend in Canada.

Not only are patrons happy to seek the assistance of a Reader’s Advisor (RA) when attempting to find that “perfect” summer novel, but they are now asking RA’s to suggest nonfiction titles about travel, crime and adventure. Still seeking a fictional read, a new term has emerged among Readers Advisory Services to describe these nonfiction books; Narrative Nonfiction.

With the emergence of this genre, it is necessary to consider this term for library catalogues. If patrons and RAs are using this to find books, then we need to examine its usefulness in our catalogue and the possibility of implementing it. Currently, it is not a valid authority. However, it is being used as a valid genre in RA databases such as Novelist.

While catalogues are not resources like Novelist, it is important to note that most RAs prefer to use Novelist over our catalogues and prefer their terminology. I find myself continually encouraging RAs to use our catalogue to assist them in finding materials for patrons rather than using alternate resources. Building a partnership between Readers Advisory Services and cataloguing is important. This relationship ties us directly with front line staff and keeps us current on the latest trends in reading and “buzz” words.

It was inevitable, but recently it was suggested that we consider the implementation of Narrative Nonfiction as a genre in our own catalogue. When I first heard this term, I didn’t really know what it included. All cataloguers need their terms defined, so I began seeking out definitions; something succinct and straightforward; something that I could apply with uniformity to nonfiction items.

Definition
What is Narrative Nonfiction, exactly? According to Abby Alpert, who wrote the article Incorporating Nonfiction into Reader’s Advisory Services, Narrative Nonfiction is “a style of writing that tells us a true story as a compelling narrative”. It’s a start, but that definition makes for a poor authority and gives cataloguers no direction. As a friend of mine pointed out, that’s an awfully vague concept for a cataloguer to base an authority on. Edward Humes provides a deeper understanding of Narrative Nonfiction. However, after reading his description and Abby Aplert’s, I concluded that the term was just too vague and discretionary to use as a genre.

By its own definition, narrative nonfiction will mean different things to different people. How will cataloguers possibly decide what will fall within that genre with any consistency? Even if we implemented this genre, would patrons find it helpful? I can’t ignore my cataloguing instincts that this genre would be more of a “hit and miss” grouping of titles, rather than a useful heading.

However, with a firm decision not to use Narrative Nonfiction, I still didn’t want to abandon the idea entirely. I believe the idea of this type of nonfiction has significant merit and patrons want to be able to search it. So, I started to explore the genres and headings in our catalogue that will assist patrons and RAs to find Narrative Nonfiction titles.

What I came up with was the following list of subdivisions in our 650 fields:

History
Anecdotes
Case studies
Personal narratives
Travel
Biography

A colleague of mine is currently preparing a tutorial on Narrative Nonfiction for our Readers Advisors. As a result, I’ve sent her these terms, with search ideas and strategies such as:

History
(specifically of things rather than countries) are often written in “novel” form. Try performing the subject keyword search: “Salt history” in our catalogue.

Anecdotes
Try search a subject keyword and combining it with “anecdotes”. For examples, search “cat adoption anecdotes”.

Case studies
Search a topic like “organized crime” and combine it was “case studies”. You’re subject keyword search will be “organized crime case studies”. Most or all of the results retrieved in HPL’s catalogue will fall under the genre Narrative Nonfiction.

Helpful hint: Usually if you combine a topic with [anecdotes, case studies, personal narratives, travel, biography], as a subdivision, you’ll recall items that fall under narrative nonfiction.)

Even with the above search strategies, I believe we can do better. Our catalogue is just starting to make greater use of genre headings. In the past, we haven’t done so because the software hasn’t allowed them to be as “searchable” as subject headings.

As a result, we are considering the following terms for genre headings:

True adventure
Travelogue
True Crime (which we already use)
Biography/Autobiography
History
Micro History
Essays
Memoir
Reporting

The idea of Narrative Nonfiction is not going away. The RA movement is growing and we need to find ways to assist it. Perhaps we will not always be able to implement to exact “buzz” word, but many times, we can make these topics and genres easily searchable for patrons and RAs. Collaboration, education and a willingness to change the catalogue to meet the needs to today’s society are essential.

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4 Comments

Filed under Access Issues, Subject Headings, The Library Catalogue

4 responses to “Narrative Nonfiction – A New Genre Heading?

  1. Jake Berkowitz

    Hi CL,

    Another key sub-head in narrative non-fiction is science. Maybe it’s my own focus on that field, but in the past 20 years, science/medical writing has been driving this literary field, for example the enormous popularity of Dava Sobel’s Longitude or Simon Winchester’s the Professor and the Madman. Both writers are former science journalists and use a narrative style as a way of adding spice and humanity to what would otherwise be “facts”.

    Best,

    Jake

  2. Laurel Tarulli

    Jake,
    Science hadn’t occured to me, but you’re right, it is a new type of narrative non-fiction. I’m going to have to look into implementing this at our library.

    The new genre I really enjoy is “micro history”. At first, I was under the impression that all non-fiction books about a specific historical event were micro histories. What we decided was that micro history represents all of those unusual books like “The history of salt”. Those books that take a unique topic or thing and write a history about it. They’re quirky and fun, and readers get a kick out of them.

  3. Pingback: Narrative nonfiction | Le peuple des connecteurs - le cinquième pouvoir

  4. Hi, this is an interesting read. I am helping a friend bring out his book. And didn’t realize that there is something like “narrative non-fiction”. My friend is a first-time author and has completed his manuscript on “Business Transformation and Change Management”. We came across this word, when one of the publishers wrote back to us (rejecting the manuscript, though:)) describing the genre! Ever since, we have been using this word in our book proposal!!
    Thanks for throwing more light on the subject.
    Minal Jagtiani

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