History vs non-fiction

In preparation for an approaching holiday I borrowed two books from the public library: James Boyce's Van Diemen's Land, and Nicholas Shakespeare's In Tasmania. The first is a fairly substantial history in the traditional mold, with the requisite scholarly apparatus and a focus on the early period of convict settlement. The second is what would now be classified as literary non-fiction, with a more nebulous attachment to history, a kinship with travel writing, and good dose of memoir.

While I like the idea of literary non-fiction a lot, and I think experimentation with the form has produced some rich and luminous writing, I lost the thread of Shakespeare's book very early on, and then lost the will to find it. So much splicing of history with genealogy with anecdote, jumping back and forth between the present, the recent past and the remote past, often on the same page, with no attempt to stitch the patches together, left me bewildered, struck not so much with any sense of Tasmania's history or present life as with a sense of Shakespeare's defiance of convention. The writing, for me anyway, was too obviously its own object. By contrast, Boyce's book is logical and meticulous, but still manages to be vivid and compelling reading. He tells an unembellished but fascinating tale of Tasmania's earliest European occupants, creating an engaging mix of material and intellectual history that finds its own place in historical discourse.

Generally the idea of amplifying, personalising, beautifying, liberating non-fiction from some of its constraints is a good one and has been a constructive force, particularly in academic writing. Leaving behind the conventions of a false objectivity and a falsely impersonal tone, and pushing over some of the fences that kept out experience and lyricism has only been good for non-fiction writing. But a few recent examples - to Shakespeare I would add Rebecca Skloot and Judith Shulevitz, and there are probably others - have I think gone slightly too far. Their lush, rambling accounts, personalised to the point of idiosyncracy, so radically domesticate their subjects that little remains of that public significance which made them worthy of non-fiction in the first place. Successful literary non-fiction depends on bringing emotion, experience and aestheticism into public conversations, rather than taking public subjects home.