The Biggest Nonfiction Bestsellers of the Last 100 Years


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the biggest nonfiction bestsellers of the last 100 years.

For more visit:
https://lithub.com/here-are-the-biggest-nonfiction-bestsellers-of-the-last-100-years/

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The Shortlist for the 2018 Baillie Gifford Prize for NonFiction


2019 Carnegie Medals Shortlist


The link below is to an article reporting on the shortlist for the American Library Association’s shortlist for the 2019 Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and NonFiction.

For more visit:
https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/blogs/the-scoop/ala-unveils-2019-carnegie-medals-shortlist/

For centuries, anonymous insider accounts have chipped away at ruling regimes – and sometimes toppled them



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Copies of Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear: Trump in the White House’ are displayed for sale at a Costco in Virginia.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Rachel Carnell, Cleveland State University

Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” seems to contain scant new information.

Like Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” it portrays President Donald Trump as an “emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader,” whose senior staff struggle to contain his most dangerous impulses.

This same view of Trump was reiterated in a Sept. 5 anonymous New York Times op-ed, which, as Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse observed, is “just so similar to what so many of us hear from senior people around the White House, you know, three times a week.”

But whether “Fear” tells us something new matters less than the fact that the book is yet another broadside against Trump’s image. It adds more fuel to the suspicions many have about the president’s behind-the-scenes behavior.

In fact, Woodward’s “Fear” – together with Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” Omarosa Manigault’s “Unhinged” and the anonymous op-ed – is part of a long tradition of political “secret histories,” a genre that recounts salacious and scandalous details about the dealings, relationships and temperaments of those in power. It’s a practice that goes back centuries, and it’s one that my co-editor and I explore in our book “The Secret History in Literature, 1660-1820.”

Secret histories tend to take two forms. There is the plain-spoken, just-the-facts approach, similar to Woodward’s “Fear.” Then there are novelistic accounts with major figures depicted using pseudonyms, as in “Primary Colors,” a lightly fictionalized dramatization of the Clinton White House.

But the secrets unveiled in these works usually don’t come out of nowhere. Instead, they contain anecdotes that have long been whispered or suspected. The goal of secret histories is to emphasize embarrassing stories about a ruler or government – to propel the drumbeat of negative coverage in order to strengthen the opposition and, in some instances, to even topple governments.

Justinian was the subject of a secret history circulated by the military historian Procopius.
Petar Milošević

Secret histories date back at least to the sixth century, when the military historian Procopius wrote down sordid anecdotes about Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, in a work that became known as “Anekdota,” which translates to “unpublishable things.” Ten centuries later, it appeared in Latin as “Historia Arcana,” or “Secret History.”

As a military historian, Procopius had helped create the myth of Justinian’s greatness in his eight-book treatise “The Wars of Justinian.” But in his “Anekdota,” Procopius finally told the ugly backstory of Justinian’s reign: his lust, his seizure of others’ property, his petty vengefulness and his persecution of non-Christians. The work was almost certainly circulated in manuscript scroll among Justinian’s enemies. While it probably damaged his standing, Justinian was nonetheless able to retain his grip on power.

After French and English translations of Procopius’ “Anekdota” appeared in 1669 and 1674, secret histories in the same style began to appear about King Charles II of England.

These tended to focus on his mistresses – particularly the infamous Duchess of Cleveland, who manipulated Charles for over a decade, persuading him to grant her land and money and bestow titles of nobility on their illegitimate children.

Speculation over King Charles II’s relationship with the Duchess of Cleveland was rampant during his reign.
National Portrait Gallery

These reports, which read like tabloid-style gossip, were never just about sex.

Readers of one account, titled “The Amours of the King of Tamaran,” likely realized that if the king could be duped and controlled by his powerful mistress, he was also susceptible to being influenced by England’s adversaries.

Indeed, he was: Another secret history, Andrew Marvell’s “Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England,” described the backstory of the Secret Treaty of Dover, in which Charles II accepted large sums of money from the French king in exchange for promising to return England to Catholicism.

These publications didn’t bring down the politically skilled Charles II, who was glad to take Louis XIV’s money but savvy enough to decide against changing his country’s religion.

They did, however, sow suspicion towards Charles II and his family. After Charles II’s death, his openly Catholic younger brother, James, ascended the throne in 1685, instilling fear that England would return to Catholicism. Seven Englishmen wrote to Prince William of Orange – who was a Protestant – pleading that he invade England. In the Glorious Revolution that ensued, James II fled to France, and Parliament declared William and his wife, Mary, joint monarchs of England.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 helped inspire American colonists to rebel against another British monarch, with the not-so-secret history of George’s III’s “repeated injuries and usurpations” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

Some might disparage Woodward’s book as “anonymously-sourced gossip.”

But gossip has always been important to humankind. As Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari notes in “Sapiens,” his best-selling account of early human history:

“It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.”

Those who dismiss Woodward’s book underestimate the power that gossip and behind-the-scenes revelations wield over politics – and the way it has shaped the course of human history.The Conversation

Rachel Carnell, Professor of English, Cleveland State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2018 National Book Award for Nonfiction Longlist


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the longlist for the 2018 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

For more visit:
https://bookriot.com/2018/09/13/2018-national-book-award-longlist-for-nonfiction/

From the heart: why writers are putting themselves in nonfiction



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Waverley Cemetery in Sydney where Henry and Bertha Lawson rest.
Winston Yang, CC BY-SA

Christopher Kremmer, UNSW

History is a story about the past told by people who didn’t live there. Historical fiction and scholarly histories and biographies dominate the field, but a fresh approach, the literary nonfiction narrative of reflection, is making its presence felt. The Conversation

As a writing genre, history is no spring chicken. Livy (59 BC – 17 AD) gave us the history of ancient Rome, while Australian histories have an even longer provenance, from the First Peoples’ Dreamtime narratives to Grace Karskens’ excellent scholarly account of European settlement in The Colony: A History of Early Sydney (2009). Historical novels are nothing new either, from Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009).

A relative newcomer to the field is the literary nonfiction historical narrative, in which the archive serves as a springboard into a pool of reflection for a contemporary writer. The latest example, published this month, is Kerrie Davies’ A Wife’s Heart, published by University of Queensland Press, a book that retells the life of poet and short story writer Henry Lawson, from multiple viewpoints. Central to Davies’ narrative is a sadly damning affidavit filed by Lawson’s wife Bertha when she sued for divorce in 1903 alleging domestic violence.

When journalist and academic Davies emerged blinking from the archives and into the glare of publication and media interviews, she was greeted by headlines like “Henry Lawson, voice of a nation, larrikin, likely wife beater”.

My excitement reading that headline was due not just to the fact that Davies is a colleague and friend. I was simply happy to see that unorthodox approaches to history are welcomed, and can ignite and enrich our readings of our past.
History, as we know, is a political football. We struggle over the meaning of the past in order to control the game of present and future. A marriage like Henry Lawson’s that began in 1896 and ended seven years later can be hijacked by anyone with an agenda. Davies adopts a light touch. She moves among the many contemporaneous perspectives on Henry from friends and foes as a man who struggled with poverty, ambition, deafness, a failed marriage and alcoholism.

Bertha, who struggled to raise two children while coping with Henry’s ups and down, had her critics as well. She ended up doing a long stint in a mental institution for what today might be called manic depression. Their fraught marriage and messy divorce provides Davies with a ball of historical wool to untangle. She chases it through the archives and across the landscapes through which her subjects drifted, including a grinding stint in London. The affective impact of this pursuit turns the pond of reflection into a whirlpool, inexorably drawing the reader in.

Not everyone sees it that way. Though he has not commented on Davies’ book specifically, Sydney journalist and author David Marr recently disclosed his distaste for biographies in which authors share the personal reflections and experiences they have had while researching and writing their books.

For evidence of the correctness of his position, Marr conveniently points to his own writing, quoting from a scene in Patrick White: A Life in which he reports a medical emergency he witnessed at White’s home not long before the Nobel Laureate’s death in 1991. Marr was witnessing what could have been (but wasn’t) his venerable subject’s demise. Yet his own voice is detached. He expresses no personal emotion or reaction, acting instead as a fly on the wall observer.

As he wrote recently in The Monthly

I’m on the side of invisible biographers. I don’t give a damn about their happy thoughts as they tread in the footsteps of their subjects. Spare me their personal reflections on the Straits of Gibraltar or the old House of Reps. I’m not interested in their research triumphs. I want the life, not the homework.

In A Wife’s Heart, Kerrie Davies transgresses Marr’s “law”, sharing generously of her own life story while telling Henry and Bertha’s. Readers learn that, like Bertha, Davies is a single parent whose marriage has ended in divorce. The pressures are financial as well as emotional, just as they were for the Lawsons.

Lawson’s grave lies next to his wife’s in Waverley Cemetery.
Sardaka, CC BY-SA

At first I found these personal references, which begin on page three of the book, jarring. I simply wasn’t ready to have the focus shifted so early in the story. However, as the book progresses the personal reflections merge with her subjects’ narratives. Conflicting accounts by the Lawsons’ friends and colleagues give the book the feel of a detective novel, a texture well suited to a story of marital failure in which there seems plenty of blame to go round.

Some readers no doubt share Marr’s views about biography, but there are good reasons why younger authors working in a less journalistic genre might profitably venture where Marr warns them not to go.

The distant voice of the “invisible” biographer – like the voice of God booming from above Mount Sinai – has a slightly anachronistic feel these days. To depart from this voice challenges readers who like being reassured by an authoritative tone, or perhaps, put less kindly, enjoy being told what to think. But others prefer more open, less conclusive arguments and reflections.

For some, Marr’s preference for invisibility is out of synch in a world in which readers routinely write back at authors, questioning their logic and exposing mistakes in the “comments section” that now follows most online articles. The invisible narrator’s biases are more implicit, or opaque. That may seem subversive in an era when transparency is valued.

Marr’s argument is that the reader is not well served by an introspective or performative narrator, and that is often true. Some of the worst nonfiction I’ve read in recent years was penned by authors who lost focus on their subject by sharing too much of themselves.

The changing economics of publishing are contributing to our evolving literary landscape. The ranks of subeditors patrolling the borders of mainstream media publications, beating the literary crap out of upstarts who dare to use the personal pronoun “I” are being depleted.

On the bright side, literary rules exist to be broken in the more diffuse structure of contemporary publishing. There never was a golden age.

The subjects of Marr’s early biographies, like White and former Attorney General Sir Garfield Barwick, were alive and highly influential when he started writing about them, good reasons for being careful and adopting an orthodox style. But for Davies, archival sources were all she had. No living witnesses of the trouble between Henry and Bertha survive. The author was left to curate documents. Personalising the narrative breathes life into documentary sources.

There are dangers in interpreting the facts of history. Historians grapple constantly with the problem, while historical novelists can choose whether to stick with the facts or alter them, sometimes radically. Literary nonfiction’s third path allows the juxtaposition of an author’s experience and perspective alongside the archival evidence. This might just reduce the temptation to invent or over egg.

Meanwhile, in the world outside the book, the world in which we live, marital violence is at epidemic levels, commanding our society and governments’ attentions. In that context, Davies’ personal story as a single parent acts as a footbridge connecting contemporary readers to the world of her subjects.

Beyond questions of literary technique, Davies’ academic writing on the Lawson story reveals that her literary reflection was catalysed by previous accounts by respected historians that favour Henry over Bertha.

In a conference paper delivered in 2015 she noted:

The biographers of the iconic bush poet and writer – most notably Denton Prout (1963) Manning Clark (1978) and Colin Roderick (1982, 1991) – have all constructed a victim as hero narrative around Lawson’s life, blaming Bertha Lawson (nee Bredt) for his personal and creative decline. In their biographies, Lawson’s marriage breakdown and judicial separation from Bertha Lawson is narrated as a destructive turning point, with Bertha portrayed as a callous persecutor who “spun the wheel of retribution” … against her husband. The unanimous interpretation in these works is that Bertha Lawson in her legal claims disregarded Henry’s evident inability to pay child support, resulting in his imprisonment at Darlinghurst Gaol sporadically from 1905 to 1910.

Was Lawson a wife beater? Davies thinks so, but some who knew Bertha believed otherwise. We may never know, but it’s a worthwhile conversation in which all voices and literary styles are welcome.

Marr’s argument for invisibility is undermined somewhat by the fact – which he acknowledges – that he has previously put himself into his stories about others, including the White biography (in a note near the end of the book), and in essays on Kevin Rudd and the Bill Henson case. In all of these his narratives were better for it.

Kerrie Davies and David Marr will be speaking at separate events at next month’s Sydney Writers Festival.

Christopher Kremmer, Senior Lecturer in Literary & Narrative Journalism, School of the Arts & Media, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

True crime interrogates toxic masculinity, at last


Jay Daniel Thompson, Victoria University

True crime writing isn’t famous for its impeccable gender politics. Think of how male criminals (e.g. the late Mark “Chopper” Read) have been glorified and women law-breakers demonised. Or how women who are victims of crime can be stereotyped as either virgins or vamps.

Two new books, Mark Morri’s Remembering Anita Cobby and Martin McKenzie-Murray’s A Murder without Motive, offer a fresh approach to the true crime genre. Both were published in early 2016. Both have been penned by male journalists. Both focus on men who find themselves involved (albeit in different ways) in murder cases where the victims are women.

The “Anita” in Morri’s title is Anita Cobby, a Sydney nurse who was gang-raped and murdered in January 1986. The book discusses the experiences of her husband, John Cobby, who was estranged from his wife at the time of her death, and who has (until now) purposely eluded media attention.

Morri met John around the time of the murder, and the two men developed a rapport. In conversation with the author, John describes the grief and horror that overwhelmed him in the wake of Anita’s death. He tells of trying to escape through alcohol and overseas travel and the homicidal fantasies he continues to harbour about taking revenge on his wife’s killers.

In A Murder without Motive, McKenzie-Murray addresses the murder of young Perth woman, Rebecca Ryle. In May 2004, Ryle was strangled to death by James Duggan, a man she had just met at a local pub. In the ensuing trial, no motive could be established for his actions (hence the book’s title).

The author was tenuously connected to the victim. He grew up in the same suburb as her, and his brother once personally knew Duggan.

McKenzie-Murray reflects on the “strains of misogyny” that could be detected in the milieu in which they lived. This was a world where young men were encouraged to flaunt their “virility”, and women existed “for sex, acquisition, bluster”.

Both books cast a critical eye on a toxic strand of masculinity.

It’s an eye that has been missing from many true crime books. Two such examples were the books Blood Stain (2002) and The Vampire Killer (1992), which reproduced crude and misogynist feminine stereotypes.

In both Morri and McKenzie-Murray’s books, the male protagonists are constrained by prevailing codes of masculinity. In A Murder without Motive, for instance, McKenzie-Murray recalls his teenage participation in a blokey, boozy culture.

Still, throughout the book, he demonstrates the ability to stand back and evaluate this harmful culture. The book’s broader aim is to provide a nuanced perspective on the Ryle case. McKenzie-Murray explicitly distances himself from “popular treatments of criminality”, which (he says) are “salacious and vampiric” – and, I would add, frequently sexist.

In Remembering Anita Cobby, we read that John kept his late wife’s murder “locked up inside for thirty years.” Anita’s death became “like a dirty little secret.” A key tenet of some masculinities has been an inability or unwillingness to express emotions, especially those (such as grief) that imply vulnerability.

Yet, John Cobby and Mckenzie-Murray confront the excesses of toxic masculinity, seeing it as the lethal social construct it is – not something glamorous or natural.

Morri’s book is less overtly concerned with gender politics. Nevertheless, he does quote “Miss X” (the unnamed woman who obtained a confession from one of Cobby’s killers, John Travers) as saying that she reported Travers to police because of his “behaviour towards women”. “Miss X” was married to Travers’ uncle at the time of Cobby’s death. Morri never specifies what exactly Travers’ “behaviour towards women” entailed, though we can assume that this behaviour was derogatory.

Of course, it should not take a dead woman for men to recognise that masculinised brutality is unacceptable.

But Remembering Anita Cobby and A Murder without Motive are important because they depict men who confront and abhor a culture of misogyny. Hopefully, their work will influence other true crime writers, resulting in more nuanced gender perspectives.

The Conversation

Jay Daniel Thompson, Sessional Lecturer, Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Historians and novelists fight turf wars – let's flip the narrative


Christopher Kremmer, UNSW Australia

This article is the fourth in a series examining the links, problems and dynamics of writing, recording and recreating history, whether in fiction or non-fiction. Read part one here, part two here and part three here.

We all love history. It helps us get our bearings, comforts us with the knowledge that we are part of the larger human narrative. But our love of history is often a jealous one that seeks to control the story and license those permitted to write it.

In 2006, at the height of the mudslinging that began when Kate Grenville allegedly claimed her novel The Secret River (2005) was a new form of historiography, historian Inga Clendinnen countered that the novelist’s only “binding contract” with their readers was “not to instruct or to reform, but to delight”.

The message was clear: if it’s reliable history you’re after, trust the experts (historians), not liberty-taking literary artists.

But is the line between truth and fiction really so clear when it comes to history? And if not, is there scope for historians and novelists to re-engage, with a view to learning from – rather than bludgeoning – each other?

It is difficult for many to imagine a solution to any practical difficulty arising from within the annals of literary theory. Yet the work of two great scholars with a literary bent – the late Russian philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin, and the very much alive historian and critic Hayden White – provides scope for a rapprochement.

Let it be said immediately that a large measure of contention is a healthy thing in intellectual and public discourse. In a sense, that is the point that this reading of Bakhtin and White’s work on historiography seeks to make.

For White, historians should be more mindful of the effect their use of narrative storytelling techniques adapted from fiction can have on their non-fictional stories about the past. Narrativisation, in White’s words:

represents a mode of praxis which serves as the immediate base of all cultural activity … even of science itself. We are no longer compelled, therefore, to believe – as historians in the post-Romantic period had to believe – that fiction is the antithesis of fact (in the way that superstition or magic is the antithesis of science).

Put simply, a set of ten facts may be capable of sustaining a variety of meanings depending up how they are narrativised and interpreted. The facts of a long-lost past do not speak for themselves. Though the archive is rich, it is patchy in parts and full of lacunae. If we can’t know all the facts, how can we know the whole truth?

White resists the assertion that only historians have a legitimate role. Novelists, poets and playwrights too have a concern with observable events of the past, but unlike historians they also deal with “imagined, hypothetical and invented ones”. He calls neo-historical fiction “the dominant genre and mode of postmodernist writing”.

Openness to history’s failings and the possibilities of historical fiction is often associated with a kind of anti-historical nihilism ascribed to postmodernist thought.

A reading of White’s Tropics of Discourse (1985), in which he pillories Michel Foucault’s approach to history as an attempt “to destroy it as a discipline, as a mode of consciousness, and as a mode of (social) existence”, suggests this is not necessarily the case.

Celebrated critic David Lodge once suggested the work of Mikhail Bakhtin could provide a way out of the opposition between humanist and postmodernist thought.

Bakhtin challenged the structuralist concept of language as a system of signs, positing it instead as a social activity in which the meaning of words is generated in the flux of human polyphony.

Along the way, he insisted that dialogic discourses were impossible unless orientated towards referential objects, such as the events of history. He lauded the novel as a revolutionary successor to the anachronistic epic with its “single and unified world view, obligatory and indubitably true for heroes as well as for authors and audiences”.

Taken at face value, Bakhtin’s dislike of epic literature seems contradictory. Is not epic another legitimate voice? But his real grouse was his view that epic expunged inconvenient or dissenting viewpoints. Our recent orgy of commemoration of the abortive attack on Turkish territory at Gallipoli in 1915 – and the sacking of a journalist who dissented from it – would, to Bakhtin, have seemed emblematic of the dark side of epic history.

This month’s premiere of the television adaptation of The Secret River is a timely reminder that once the binary concept of true and false histories is admitted, history “wars” inevitably follow, eerily mimicking the real wars that histories chronicle.

In truth, most historians and novelists admire each other’s work, and well understand how it differs and what it shares in common. But headline-grabbing history warriors have conveyed a different impression, conflating what should be thoughtful discussions about the many ways we write history with existential anxieties about postmodernism.

It is galling, but inevitable, that the work of a good historian who cannot write well will enjoy less salience than that of an amateur historian who happily constructs and publishes heavily mythologised epics. The ability to narrativise is the key to literary, social and political power, for better or worse.

Rather than engaging in turf wars, historians and novelists might more usefully share a dialogue about that.

This article is based on an essay published in the academic journal Text and is the fourth in our series, Writing History. Keep an eye out for more in the coming days.

The Conversation

Christopher Kremmer is Senior Lecturer in Journalism, School of the Arts & Media at UNSW Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.