The five major problems with all contemporary non-fiction

I read a lot. When I was younger I read a lot of fiction and I wasn’t very critical. Nowadays my time is valuable. I expect to be entertained and to learn. Fiction rarely holds my interest – while some books are good, most are bad.

This is even more true of non-fiction.

The non-fiction I read often makes these errors:

1. Pretentiousness

Especially when the the stories are really autobiographical and the author is reveling in the awesomeness of their own experience, filtered through educated pandering reflection and elevated, flowery word choice. Always a turn off.

Pretentiousness is obvious when the words themselves are more important than the content or the story; when otherwise boring material is being dressed-up to show off how clever the author is.

2. No guide or organization

A lot of non-fiction these days is actually a collection of short articles or blog posts; research writing without a common theme. AKA a brain dump, as in “here’s all this stuff. Now deal with it.” What’s the point of this book? What’s your main argument or claim? I feel like a lot of people have grown an audience and now say to themselves, I better write something, so people can buy it. So they clobber together 80,000 words and send it to an editor or ghost-writer.

3. No research (lack of education)

I hate books that consist only of one person’s point of view based on their extremely limited experiences. They’ve had a couple adventures, read a couple of books, and they think that merits a book. They think they understand the universe. They may throw in some quotes by famous people at the beginning of chapters but they haven’t actually read the original works. In the old days, people would read thousands of books (and not just any – the greatest books in history) and then let those books leak out in soft references in their writing.

This kind of writing usually comes from young people who made money in business somehow and now think they’re the shit.

4. Nothing new

I find a lot of non-fiction books dumbing down much more eloquently and intelligently made arguments from far better writers. Perhaps this is necessary. Perhaps – in the same way they remake the Batman or Spiderman story every few years – successful content can be remarketed and targeted to a new generation of readers. Perhaps contemporary readers don’t have any patience for intellectual, complex writing and they need the Zig Ziglar or cliff notes version.

I can’t say it’s wrong – especially if it sells – but it is disappointing.

5. No message

What does it matter? Who cares? Why should it matter to the reader? What should they DO about it? Every book should impact the reader enough that it alters the reader’s life. It should be remembered years later. It should change behavior. Otherwise, you’re no better than a sitcom, designed to kill a few hours with banal distraction.

I’m jealous

I covet the success of lack-lustre, boring books – even those traditionally published which find their way to bookshelves in Taiwan. I’m frustrated that books with little backbone but a catchy title or idea can sell tens of thousands of copies, mostly based on the author’s platform. My plan is to write a few much better, much deeper non-fiction books, but whether or not they will be successful will mostly be an experiment in self-publishing. (ie, can a well written, well produced, self-published book make a serious dent in the publishing world despite not having a major platform?)

On the other hand, I also have non-fiction projects I intend to get traditionally published, which will be easier and easier as my platform grows. So while I’m complaining and envious today, my comments don’t matter. I can’t start a quality revolution. I can only be committed to producing quality and hoping that quality on its own will merit success.

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me

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