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What Are the Different Non-Fiction Genres?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 17, 2024
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Non-fiction is any narrative primarily based on fact, that is, not a work of the imagination. The word technically applies to any medium, but is most often applied to printed books, audiobooks, and ebooks. Libraries and bookstores use non-fiction genres to divide their non-fiction collections into sections. Popular genres include creative non-fiction, biography, and science, each of which can be broken into many sub-genres. Other major genres include therapy and medicine, textbooks and other manuals, and general reference.

The term “non-fiction” technically includes any narrative based on factual material, a definition that includes news coverage, documentary films, and scientific journals. In popular use, however, it refers specifically to books and literature presumed to be largely or entirely factual. Every year, many popular works of non-fiction are published; in fact, most best seller lists include sections for non-fiction. Works of history, biography, and politics regularly populate these lists, as well as therapeutic self-help books. The vast majority of works in many non-fiction genres, however, is enjoyed only by people with specialized interests.

Some of the most popular non-fiction genres are biography, autobiography, and memoir, the stories of famous or otherwise noteworthy people. Biographies can be written by anyone; autobiographies and memoirs are written by the subjects themselves. In the mid-20th century, biographies such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s Marilyn launched a new genre, non-fiction novels or creative non-fiction. The genre has been popular ever since; while these books are written like fiction, their facts are maintained to be verifiably true. In the early 2000s, several high-profile authors of creative non-fiction were found to have embellished or invented facts, causing well-publicized controversies.

History, sociology, and culture are non-fiction genres concerned with the ongoing story of how human beings interact. They are often broken into sub-genres around more specific subjects, such as African-American history or gay and lesbian culture. Works about geography, nature, and travel also make up popular non-fiction genres and sub-genres, often divided by region. Many of these are travel guides; memoirs of travel are also very popular. Photographs of animals and nature, as well as books in general about art and photography, are also considered non-fiction.

Works of general science tend to focus on current discoveries and breakthroughs, medical matters, or ongoing subjects of debate and controversy. Each specialized branch of science has its own vast library of literature. These include textbooks and technical manuals that explain many processes in minute detail. Similar references are available in every field of human understanding, from Russian literature to hairdressing. There are reference guides available both on and off the Internet to help users navigate through the vast quantity of non-fiction genres to find works in a specific subject.

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Discussion Comments

By pastanaga — On Jun 27, 2014

@Fa5t3r - Even with books that are pure research you have to be careful, because it's all too easy for researchers to pass off their theories as fact, if you aren't very good at spotting the difference.

Malcolm Gladwell, for example, has written some excellent and very interesting non fiction books on various aspects of human experience and he has some theories about ability and so forth that are backed up by studies and observation.

But I always make sure that I read other researcher's take on his books afterwards, because he tends to get carried away on his own theories and I think it's difficult for a reader without the same depth of knowledge to always understand what is speculative and what might be closer to fact.

I think most nonfiction genres will have that kind of issue, to be honest. It's always worth reading them with a grain of salt.

By Fa5t3r — On Jun 27, 2014

@MrsPramm - I'm always a little bit cautious about non fiction articles or books which are presented anonymously or autobiographically and don't have any other backup for the story. I'd rather read about famous figures, or research into a particular topic.

My other favorite is travel memoirs, but I always take them with a grain of salt as well. They are meant to be entertaining rather than instructive though. I don't think anyone takes A Walk in the Woods as a definitive guide to walking the Appalachian Trail, for example.

By MrsPramm — On Jun 26, 2014

I read a really interesting book recently about literary hoaxes and how often people claim a book is non-fiction when it's actually complete (or mostly) fiction.

It's amazing how often books will get passed off as non-fiction and have people thinking they are entirely true when they don't make any sense at all. One of the more famous books like this was "Go Ask Alice" which was supposed to be a non-fiction novel of the angst autobiography genre, but was, in fact, completely made up in an attempt to scare teenagers away from drugs.

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