Great Works of Creative Nonfiction

These are some of the best examples of creative nonfiction that I have ever encountered. Some are memoirs and some are completely researched and outside of the author’s own experience. Either way, these are book-length works of literary nonfiction that are noteworthy and deserving of praise (or at least a read-through).

  1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966) – If you let it, this book will change your life. Beautifully crafted, cleverly arranged, and resourcefully researched, this book is part of the New Journalism movement*. Capote used his skills as a fiction writer (including a strong sense of voice, scene, dialogue, point of view, vantage point) to tell the story of two murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, which he pieced together through first-person interviews with these men. Capote captured, on the page, how Dick and Perry planned to murder the Clutter family, committed the crime, fled the state, and were ultimately arrested and tried for the murder of the family of four. By leaving New York for Holcomb, Kansas, where the murders took place, Capote threw himself into the lives of friends and family of the Clutters, using interviews with them to flush out his story. Originally a story about how a seemingly motiveless and “perfect” murder disrupts the lives of a small-town population, the book slowly morphed into a story of murder and a character study of murderers, and how situations are never completely black and white. Be prepared to sympathize with the murderers, especially Perry, and to question your own thoughts about murder, redemption, and justice. (NOTE: In conjunction with reading this book, be sure to check out Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portayal of the author in the 2005 film Capote. As the movie is not an adaptation of the book–and thus won’t spoil your reading of it–its depiction of Capote’s life and how he went about writing this book will only enhance your reading of it.)
  2. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979) – Another fantastic example of New Journalism*, this book chronicles the birth of NASA, the space program, and even the great Space Race. Wolfe interviewed astronauts (who, while in the military and in their pre-NASA days, were referred to as “fighter jocks”), their wives, and various other military and NASA personnel to compose this fascinating book. Even if you’re not that interested in space flight or astronauts or NASA, Wolfe’s authoratative and witty voice is sure to intrigue you and keep you turning page after page. This is a book, like In Cold Blood, this was created out of a copious amount of research, yet still reads like a novel, rather than as a textbook. Give the first chapter a quick read and see what you think. Chances are, you won’t be able to put the book down. It’s worth mentioning that the first chapter is highly praised and, I’ve been told, widely anthologized. (NOTE: Do not see the film adaptation until after you’ve read the book. Although it is closely tied to the book, it is significantly less satisfying than the book version. It’s a difficult movie to follow unless you have background information from Wolfe’s book, because much explanation of characters and places and events are left out of the movie. If you must watch anything, then check out the Discovery Channel’s documentary series When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions. This program covers every single space mission from the birth of NASA to the present and includes interviews with almost all surviving astronauts and even some of the key players from Mission Control. This will prove a much more satisfying supplement to your reading of The Right Stuff.)
* Basically, New Journalism is a way of writing nonfiction material in an interesting, engaging way that reads like a fun fictional story and is loaded with the author’s voice. See Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe for more examples of New Journalism.