Nonfiction is a baggy-pants term, in whose bulging pockets one finds autobiography, memoir, the essay, literary journalism, and book-length studies of ideas, trends, and much else. The only thing these various forms have in common is that all are written in prose and are based, supposedly, on fact.
Attempts have been made in recent years to elevate serious nonfiction, to pump it up into the realm of high literature. In their day, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote claimed to be writing nonfiction novels, by which they meant little more than that they brought a fiction writer’s sensibility, and a few of the techniques of the novel, to factual material. In some academic circles, nonfiction is referred to as “literary nonfiction,” or—man that pump: huff, puff—as “creative nonfiction,” and a magazine called Creative Nonfiction has been in existence for nearly 20 years now. But is nonfiction in all its various subgenres sufficiently unified for a book of advice on how to write it likely to be of much value?
Such a book has been written by a veteran writer of nonfiction named Tracy Kidder and his former editor at the Atlantic, the Atlantic Monthly Press, and Houghton Mifflin, Richard Todd, who now teaches at Goucher College. The authors claim that Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction is
mainly a practical book, the product of years of experiment in three types of prose: writing about the world, writing about ideas, and writing about the self. To put this another way, this book is a product of our attempts to write and to edit narratives, essays, and memoirs.
Though the book is written, for the most part, in collaboration, certain sections of Good Prose are written and signed by one or other of the two authors (for example, “Being Edited” by Kidder and “Editing” by Todd). Setting out the questions, problems, and issues that beset the writer of serious prose based in fact, it is earnest, sensible, and never foolish, if, at times—as perhaps all books of advice must—lapsing into the commonplace.
Kidder has written for magazines, but he is better known as a writer of what he and Todd refer to as “nonfiction narratives.” He has written at book-length about, among other subjects, early computers (The Soul of a New Machine, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982), home construction (House, 1985), nursing homes (Old Friends, 1993), environmentalism (Mountains Beyond Mountains, 2003), genocide in Burundi (Strength in What Remains, 2009), and his days as a young lieutenant in Vietnam (My Detachment, 2005).
Todd has been Kidder’s editor for more than 40 years. This in itself is an extraordinary fact, since editors tend to be more migratory than most birds, and rarely stay at the same publishing house for long. Publishing house editors are either fired for failing to bring in commercially successful books or they leave because, having succeeded in finding such books, they are in a position to better themselves by going to work for a firm with more prestige.
Kidder and Todd discovered each other when the latter was an editor at the Atlantic and the former, not long out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was eager to publish in a big-name magazine. Kidder’s subject was the effect of a serial killer on the people of the Sacramento Valley. Todd showed great patience in working with Kidder in helping make the piece publishable, even though the principal editor of the magazine, an obtuse man named Robert Manning, thought Kidder was without talent.
I call Manning obtuse not only because he was wrong about Tracy Kidder, but because the Atlantic under Manning’s editorship was unusually dull. I also harbor a mild but genuine personal grievance against Robert Manning. In 1969, he invited me to Boston to interview for a job as an editor at the magazine. We lunched at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He ordered a carafe of red wine, almost all of which he drank on his own. I laid out various ideas for the Atlantic, but, as he polished off a second carafe of red wine, I was presenting my carefully rehearsed plan for enlivening his magazine to a man utterly schnockered. If he heard a single word I’d said, the alcohol obviously erased it.
Despite Manning’s misjudgment about Kidder, Todd stood by him. The unusualness of their relationship is what makes Good Prose an interesting book, at the same time that it limits its general usefulness. No one is likely to come upon so full-court-press an editor as Tracy Kidder found in Richard Todd; nor is any editor likely to find so malleable a writer to work with as Richard Todd discovered in Tracy Kidder.