• Why is Serious Nonfiction in the US Taken More Seriously Than in the UK?

    Sam Leith Has Some Serious Ideas

    Any bookish person who has ever passed through an airport in the United States will tend to have been struck by a contrast. Airport bookshops in the UK are piled high with thrillers, spy stories, romantic comedies and how-to books: untaxing fare for a long flight.

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    But in the States, which we Brits like to sneer at as the lowbrow land of Walt Disney and Man Vs Food, those airport bookstores have a really striking amount of hefty hardback nonfiction: thumping great presidential biographies, weighty works of serious history, chewy books of business theory and popular science.

    Americans don’t half love their history, and they take it straight up, no chaser. It’s a source of enduring wonder that the smash hit musical of the decade, Hamilton, is based on Ron Chernow’s unimpeachably serious 800+ page biography of a second tier Founding Father.

    I don’t think the UK has an equivalent of Robert Caro—who spent the best part of an entire lifetime writing the definitive biography of LBJ and warmed up with 1,300 pages on a long-dead town planner. Even David Remnick took time out from his day job editing the New Yorker to give us more than 600 pages on Barack Obama.

    That seems to point to a difference in publishing market and audience alike. At least on the face of it, the mainstream of US nonfiction is stately, thorough, chronological and substantial; whereas British nonfiction is slant, whimsical, allusive and personal. Is that a temperamental or cultural difference? Up to a point, perhaps, yes. But there’s something else at work too.

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    British nonfiction sometimes seems to make up the deficit with literary agility. The titans of American nonfiction are, by and large, doing what they do in quite a traditional way.

    There are, I think, two things going on here and both are at root to do with money. One is the flourishing culture in the US of what they call “longform journalism” and we call “magazine pieces.” With the odd honorable exception—Granta springs to mind, as do those special issues of the LRB given over to Andrew O’Hagan writing tens of thousands of words—really big, deeply reported pieces aren’t a feature of British journalism, and where they are they aren’t quite mainstream. Few of the most popular British magazines will run an article much longer than two or three thousand words. The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New Republic and any number of other outlets will run huge pieces.

    American publications pay much more than British print outlets, are considerably better staffed, and will give reporters months rather than (at absolute most) a week or two to prepare a story. The New York Times is sometimes accused of “buying Pulitzers”—but it would be kinder to say that it invests systematically in the sort of pieces that are very likely to end up winning them.

    Take the series of articles that turned into Andrea Elliott’s recent book Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in New York City, about a child growing up homeless in New York. Elliott followed the progress of one child, Dasani, for nearly a decade. Likewise books like Patrick Radden Keefe’s Baillie Gifford Prize-winning Empire of Pain, about the Sackler family and the opioid crisis exist because of the sort of investigative journalism that only publications like the New Yorker are able to support combined with the levels of book advance that only US publishers can pay. There’s a natural cultural and economic continuity, in other words, between journalism and serious nonfiction publishing that’s much less direct in the UK.

    And it’s probably no accident either that one genre which publishes and sells well on both sides of the pond originated in the US and has seldom been done better than there—the counterintuitive magazine piece blown up to book form. Malcolm Gladwell is, of course, the prince of the genre, but James Surowiecki, Steven Johnson, and many others have followed suit. Big idea books—or what now gets called, emetically enough, “smart thinking”—are another epiphenomenon of US journalism.

    I also suspect that the state of British academia—where you might expect some of our weightier nonfiction to issue from—may also play a part. Given lower levels of British publishers’ advances, the people who can afford to spend time researching and writing a substantial work of history or biography are ever more likely to be those who’ll roam the same turf in their day jobs, where they are effectively paid a salary to research their books.

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    But, where their cousins of equivalent eminence in the States will be most likely tenured and certainly significantly better paid, British academics, especially in the humanities, are more overworked, far less secure in their positions, and have to justify their existence through a “Research Excellence Framework” which, on the whole, doesn’t look favorably on those producing trade books for a general audience.

    One genre which publishes and sells well on both sides of the pond originated in the US and has seldom been done better than there—the counterintuitive magazine piece blown up to book form.

    So British nonfiction sometimes seems to make up the deficit with literary agility. The titans of American nonfiction are, by and large, doing what they do in quite a traditional way. In many ways, a book like Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain represents the triumph of the American longform nonfiction voice. Experiments with form, on the other hand, seem to be much more common in the UK.

    In one memorable prizegiving in 2005 for what was then Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction (which became the Baillie Gifford Prize in 2015), no fewer than two finalists—Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards and Jonathan Coe’s Like A Fiery Elephant—were biographies that jiggered their timelines out of all recognition. I still remember the mortification when, as the judges announced that the winner was “an unconventionally structured biography,” Alexander Masters’s table surged joyfully to their feet… only to sit down sharply when the chairman went on to say: “Like a Fiery Elephant.”

    Craig Brown’s nonfiction combines very mainstream subjects with an Oulipian eye to form: the rondeau of handshakes in One On One (101 paragraphs of 101 words describing 101 glancing encounters between celebrities), or One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (a Baillie Gifford Prize winner in 2020), which refreshed a much-told story by presenting it not as a timeline but as a kaleidoscope.

    Frances Wilson’s recent life of DH Lawrence, Burning Man, borrows a structure from Dante. Ruth Scurr’s method in her book about John Aubrey was to present an artful collage of Aubrey’s own words. Katherine Rundell’s biography of John Donne, Super-Infinite, which took the BGP in 2023, doesn’t trundle along rails but hops about thematically like the author’s famous flea. Ian Sansom’s wonderful “biography of a poem,” September 1st, 1939, is a book I struggle to imagine having been first published in the US.

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    Micro-histories around objects—pioneered, maybe, by the netsuke in Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes—are a more British than American tradition (though an honorable mention should be made, perhaps, for Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat). And memoir (which, after all, is the least research-intensive of nonfictional forms) flourishes in the UK.

    A whole subset of nature-writing—what might be called the New New Nature Writing—has sprung up in which, as in Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun or Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path or Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk (another BG Prize winner), the natural world becomes the backdrop for a story of personal transformation. And memoir, more elliptically, informs more apparently straightforward investigative work: in the quirky reporting of Jon Ronson, tone of voice is everything: the reporter’s I is at least as important as the reporter’s eye. Though, again, David Foster Wallace is an American whose magazine work fits squarely into that tradition, as is his successor John Jeremiah Sullivan.

    Which is as much as to say, I suppose, that we should be wary of harping too much on the differences. Our American cousins aren’t all sobersides. And nobody could accuse Robert Skidelsky, John Haffenden or Charles Moore—respectively the authors of substantial traditional biographies of Keynes, Empson and Margaret Thatcher—of playing literary games at the expense of getting the facts and figures in the right order. We may be two nations, as Churchill said, divided by a common language: but we are also two nations united by one. Vive la difference.

    Sam Leith
    Sam Leith
    Sam Leith is an English author, journalist and literary editor of The Spectator. After an education at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Leith worked at the revived satirical magazine Punch, before moving to the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, where he served as literary editor until 2008.

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