There are many sub-genres or categories in the nonfiction genre. The entire Dewey Decimal system could be used to assist this process. Bookstores are another source of understanding the sub-genres of nonfiction.
One point to understand, especially with non-task nonfiction, the category can be very blurry. It is not uncommon to find the same biography also labelled as true crime and history and science. Travel diaries can be considered a biography as can narrative cookbooks. Biography can also appear in a library under Dewey shelving in the animal section.
Even readers advisory books and websites have variances in the use of main categories and what is or is not a category/sub-genre. The terms are even varied with both ‘category’ and ‘sub-genre’ used interchangeably. Below are brief descriptions and the appeal of some of the main sub-genres of nonfiction. To emphasize how broad nonfiction is as a genre and the disparity between identifying sub-genres of nonfiction the following are sub-genres and/or categories provided in various sources that are seen as ‘general’ or even a ‘miscellaneous’ grouping: Big Think Ideas, Humour, Essays, War (Memoir, Reporting, and Analysis), Investigative, Arts, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Food, Cooking, ‘Year in the Life’.
The key authors provided with each category are ones which both Wyatt (2007) and Statz Cords (2013) have recommended in their respective works.
Biography and memoir.
The biggest difference between memoir and biography is the author. Memoir is written by the person who has lived the experience while biography is written by someone who has researched and investigated the person or people who lived or are living the experience/event.
In public libraries it is not uncommon to have these titles shelved together as the reader is interested in the person or people which can span across subjects/Dewey numbers.
The biography in particular can and does cross subject areas. Even in readers advisory discussions the use of biography as a word can be used as a sub-genre of nonfiction (biography), or a category within a sub-genre (historical biography), or a description of type within a sub-genre (science – biography). This genre guide has incorporated biography within the recommendations of biography and memoir and in both the science and the travel recommendations.
For readers, a strong narrative is high on the appeal list as is the subject. Readers will ask for books about a person (who may have both biography and memoir). Other important elements of appeal for readers of this category are language, setting, details and tone (Wyatt 2007, p. 83).
Key Authors: Memoir tend to be a ‘one-off’ due to their nature, however, as happens with nonfiction there are exceptions to the rule.
Some authors have made careers as biographers.
David McCullough (also listed in history below)
History is a very broad area. So broad, to assist wrangling the sub-genre, Wyatt breaks it into History and Historical Biography whereas Statz Cords breaks the area History and Microhistories.
The styles and types of titles held within is as broad as the timeline of history and pre-history. For readers, the subject is the driving appeal and they will be prepared to read any type of book as long as it involves the subject, for example anything on the Roman Empire.
The level of detail and description can vary in books and the level will be important to a reader. Someone who has read a lot in an area will be seeking more detail rather than a broad, light-on-detail introductory title.
Like the level of detail, the narrative continuum of this sub-genre can extend the full length, from the highly narrative storytelling to the more fact based, less narrative. This element though, may not be a deciding factor of appeal for a reader. Sometimes, the author themselves can be an element of appeal and a reader will cross subjects to read more by them.
History is one of the sub-genres where the learning/education element of appeal is as strong as the driving interest of the subject to read about.
Microhistories are those titles where “authors examine very specific people, places, or things, and relate their stories as a new way in which to view the grand sweep of history” (Statz Cords 2013, p. 450). As well, microhistory can be where the style can be filled with humour and the quirky aspects of history can be found.
Doreis Kearns Goodwin
Barbara W Tuchman
Like history, science is a huge sub-genre of nonfiction. Even more than history, its size results in variations of description in readers advisory and book websites. All of the following are used to label this sub-genre: Science, Mathematics, Nature writing, Environmental writing, Science and Nature, Nature and Natural history, Science and Mathematics. Everyone has different ways of wrangling including Dewey breakdowns of the sciences to chemistry, zoology, physics, genetics, earth sciences, geology, oceanography, the lists themselves can be overwhelming.
For the reader, especially the avid readers, in this sub-genre the need to learn and understand is the driving force in choice. Subject can be a determining factor but for some, curiosity about the world and how it works or why an animal or place is what it is, where it is, this will determine their choice and it can go across the categories held within ‘science’. For other readers the people behind the discoveries, the experiments, the outcomes will be the primary appeal.
Another aspect of appeal in this sub-genre and all its iterations is the oftentimes quirky component of science, either the people involved or the quirky facts of science, has created, other than the topic itself, a swathe of books that use a humourous approach to share the information.
Subject is usually the starting point. Narrative continuum is vast like history and the reader may want a more factual explanation style of title before delving into a higher narrative style of title. The explanation type of books are the ones that are commonly labelled “popular science” with the information pitched for the general reader rather than those with a depth of knowledge or specialist of the field. The investigative type of science books are a level deeper and require a commitment (at times a deep commitment) to read (Wyatt 2007, p. 63). This commitment (sometimes a deep commitment) is held by the reader’s interest in and desire to understand the subject matter.
Key Authors: Note in this area of nonfiction, the authors can change quite rapidly dependent on the discoveries made, new theories created and experiments undertaken, for example in the field of physics.
Richard P Feynman
Stephen W Hawking
Sherwin B Nulad
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Edward O Wilson
Travel as a readers advisory category do not consist of the how-to, fact filled guidebooks. Rather, travel comprises of the titles that focus on setting, location, destination and associated with compelling stories and characters. The characters in travel titles can be both the author and the people encountered (Statz Cords 2013, p. 435). The range of travel titles is broad, from those with a focus on the location to those who use the destination and journey to reach it to further expand on wider ideas. It is not uncommon to find types of travel stories to be classified memoir. Statz Cords extrapolates a further category with travel as expatriate life with the focus about the ‘stranger in a strange land’ experience (2013, p. 437).
Travel readers find appeal in the learning about place as well as enjoying the tales and experiences encountered by the authors. Travel readers also can tend to enjoy true adventure, as the difference between the two sub-genres is slight and the crossover of similarities is high.
J. Maarten Troust
Wyatt likens true adventure as the “X Games of the reading world” (2007, p. 151). Both Wyatt (2007) and Statz Cords (2013) agree that this sub-genre is the most amorphous with the ability to be placed in other sub-genres. True adventure can be found in: history, intrigue and espionage, sports, travel, war, biography, and science.
The reason to note them as their own sub-genre is the style of story told. They have “strong plots, heavy with action, and are usually page-turning, or quickly paced reads” (Statz Cords 2013, p. 432). This style is also one of the strongest appeal elements for readers of this sub-genre of nonfiction.
The appeal for readers are the descriptions of events, the characters involved as well as details of place, training and/or gear required, the planning involved and actions undertaken for rescues or escapes (Wyatt 2007, p. 152).
Piers Paul Read
A very popular category of non-fiction. True crime has the appeal of crime fiction with the added bonus of being based in real life and actions. True crime is one of the sub-genres many think of when nonfiction as a reading option is mentioned. It encompasses all types and manners of crimes, people involved from the criminals, the victims and law enforcement personnel, as well as law enforcement developments and techniques, for example forensics.
There is also a historical aspect to true crime as a sub-genre with the advent of true crime titles during the Victorian era and the advent of the role of detective in law enforcement. Another historical element in true crime with many titles that investigate crimes of the past and/or the technologies developed as a result of a crime and of course a plethora of biographies.
The appeal factor for this sub-genre is not dissimilar to crime fiction, in particular pacing, story line, tone and attention to details (Wyatt 2007, p. 120). A fascination with the darker side of human behaviour and a need to understand why is another driving force of appeal as it the need to see how justice was served. Character can be another element of appeal, for example the curiosity or need to understand a particular serial killer.
Statz Cords, S 2013, ‘Nonfiction’ in Orr, C & Herald, D.T. (eds) Genreflecting: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests, Libraries Unlimited, Santa Barbara, ch. 17, pp. 425-466.
Wyatt, N 2007, The readers advisory guide to nonfiction, American Library Association, Chicago.