Publishers embrace short nonfiction

Posted: Friday, February 29, 2008

NEW YORK - As he prepared a biography of Edgar Allan Poe, author Peter Ackroyd read through more than 20 volumes of Poe's work and filled two file cabinet drawers with notes - more information than the most devoted fan could absorb in a lifetime.

Shoun A. Hill / The Associated Press
Shoun A. Hill / The Associated Press

It was all for a book that will run less than 200 pages, that can be read within a few hours.

"It's like writing an essay, rather than a biography," says Ackroyd, who has written an 800-page book about London and 500 pages about Shakespeare. "It's an exercise, in style as much as in substance. It's an opportunity to capture the broad strokes of a life, a career, a world, in ways which are probably impossible in a large-scale biography."

It is a showcase for the art of brevity.

In the decade since James Atlas revived the form with his "Penguin Lives" series, at least 10 publishers have started their own lines of short, nonfiction books, on subjects ranging from scientists to presidents to mythology. Although the advances are low - and sales often to match - short books have attracted such best sellers and prize winners as novelists Jane Smiley and Larry McMurtry, essayists Christopher Hitchens and Bill Bryson, and historians Robert Dallek and Sean Wilentz.

"I like this trend. It's fine, old-fashioned self-improving middlebrow literature," says humorist P.J. O'Rourke, who wrote a brief work on Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" for Grove/Atlantic's "The Books That Changed the World" series.

The nonfiction sketch dates back at least to Plutarch and has been upheld over time by John Aubrey in the 17th century and Lytton Strachey in the early 20th century. But never, Atlas and others say, have so many publishers been in on the trend at the same time, even if opinions differ on why there is a trend.

"I imagine a highly educated, reading public, readers of The New York Review of Books, readers of The New Yorker, readers of The New York Times Book Review," says Atlas, who currently edits the Eminent Lives series at HarperCollins. "There is an audience I know empirically exists out there of several hundred thousand readers who have a dedication to the idea of being educated, in the highest sense."

"It's not a gigantic commitment to read one of those books," says Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin. "It's not like picking up 'The Looming Tower' or 'The Coldest Winter.' You can educate yourself about something in a short period of time."

Graywolf Press has started "The Art of" series, edited by award-winning fiction writer Charles Baxter, who contributed a work on "The Art of Subtext." At Palgrave/MacMillan, former NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark is overseeing a series of short military biographies, including books on Stonewall Jackson, Omar Bradley and Douglas MacArthur.

"They're written in a very direct style, for the general public, to make these stories more accessible," Clark says. "They're the kinds of books you can pick up at an airport and finish in four to five hours and if readers are really interested, they'll seek out longer, more scholarly books."

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