Nine years ago a book was published which was difficult to slot into an obvious category. Part memoir, part meditation on grief, part nature writing, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald won both the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction and the overall Costa Book of the Year award. Selling well over half a million copies, it sparked an appetite for passionate first-person nonfiction narratives – in readers and publishers alike – that continues to this day.

Macdonald’s ground-breaking book was beaten onto shelves by another bellwether nonfiction title, published earlier that year: Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm, in which the neurosurgeon combined ‘stories of life, death and brain surgery’ with more personal anecdotes. Do No Harm has also sold in huge numbers, and has been followed by a wave of what agents are now calling ‘professional confessionals’: insights into the lives of ordinary people – from nurses to fire fighters to barristers – that the public (and, therefore, publishers) can’t get enough of.

That year marked what agents and publishers identify as the start of the rise of literary narrative nonfiction, a genre that continues to sweep all before it, including titles such as Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love, an account of how her brother was knocked down by a car and the agonising decision she and her parents had to make; Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt, a ‘painfully funny’ (said Stephen Fry) insight into life as a junior doctor that has sold over a million copies and been turned into a successful TV series; Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, a memoir about being made homeless and walking the South West Coast Path; and Bart van Es’s The Cut Out Girl, a winning mix of history and biography that won the Costa Book of the Year. (Cathy Rentzenbrink is one of the core tutors at the Mslexia Memoir School, 20-24 March.)

Literary agent Cathryn Summerhayes at Curtis Brown believes, ‘People today want insight into people’s professions, but they also want insight into extraordinary lives which, on the surface, don’t seem that extraordinary – looking after a disabled child, being the first woman to climb Everest.’

Why the upsurge in interest? ‘It’s partly because in fiction it feels like everything slightly jumped the shark a few years ago, and the psychological thrillers that dominated the market became more and more ridiculous,’ she tells me. The result is a desire in readers for authentic stories. ‘Upmarket literary readers are getting more out of reading literary nonfiction than they are out of reading, perhaps – dare I say it? – the next Ian McEwan.’

And they’re not looking for celebrity memoirs. ‘They don’t really care who the authors are any more. It’s the stories that are being told that are important. You almost read these books like a thriller. That they are true and authentic and raw and straight from the heart really appeals to an upmarket reader now.’

Summerhayes, who is Adam Kay’s agent, suggests that the barriers between fiction and nonfiction may have slipped for many readers. ‘They’re thinking, “This is the subject I want to read about, and it’s being written about by a real doctor, so I will get a better understanding of the world from that than from reading a novel about it”,’ she says.

At Pan Macmillan, Kris Doyle edited The Secret Barrister’s bestselling eponymous exposé of the realities of the criminal legal system. He agrees with Summerhayes. ‘Obviously people are interested in specific jobs, and there is a lot of commissioning in that area. I’ve seen about three firefighters’ proposals, as well as a pilot and a policeman, several barristers and doctors, a heart surgeon, a forensic pathologist. The jobs list goes on and on and on,’ he says.

Doyle believes the rise in ‘jobs’ books is linked with what people are not reading: ‘Not so many people are reading celebrity nonfiction, and the traditional biography isn’t getting as much space as it once would have,’ he says. ‘I call it “extraordinary ordinary people”, this space for people who aren’t famous. People have always written amazing memoirs that are moving and well written with strong voices, but this focus on society and having something urgent to say, and the book being an agent of change, I think that is new.’

Nielsen data shows a considerable rise in what it calls the ‘learning about the world’ subcategory, which includes biography, memoir, ideas, culture and history – up 10.2 per cent since 2017. Autobiography, in particular, was up 64 per cent, the biggest increase for any nonfiction category. And although there were celebrities in the mix – Peter Crouch, Tina Turner – Adam Kay and The Secret Barrister were also among the year’s top sellers.

‘The celebrity thing is completely absent from the conversation,’ says Summerhayes. ‘It used to be that people wanted the anecdotes – “I remember the time I met Prince Charles” – but they don’t want that any more. I think it’s hugely positive for publishing. Seeing books like Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, or H is for Hawk, or Christie Watson, winning big prizes and being on promotion in W H Smith and supermarkets is a massive sea change.’

Summerhayes is clear that ‘there are celebrities with amazing stories to tell’, but these days a straight story is not enough. She has just sold a book by Radio 5 DJ Nicky Campbell, ‘but instead of it being a “rags to riches tale of how I became an amazing radio presenter”, he’s going to talk about being adopted as a child, about his depression, about how his relationship with animals counselled him through his dark days’.

At Waterstones, nonfiction category manager Clement Knox says medical memoirs have done ‘extremely well’ in his shops. ‘Publishers are going all out for medical memoirs now. They’ve been doing well for a while but are still finding huge success,’ he says. ‘I think it’s great that people are interested in reading, say, a nurse’s story, rather than that of a reality TV star.’

Knox identifies two clear growth areas in narrative nonfiction: the ‘professional confessional’, led by the likes of Kay, Marsh – and Christie Watson’s The Language of Kindness, about her 20 years as a nurse. And nature memoirs à la Helen Macdonald. ‘The barrier to entry for the latter is slightly lower – you don’t need to do ten years as a heart surgeon first. But that means it hinges more on voice. As with novels, sometimes it catches, sometimes it doesn’t,’ says the bookseller.

This is something literary agent Anna Webber at United Agents would agree with. Webber represents Marion Coutts, who won the Wellcome prize in 2015 for The Iceberg, her unflinching account of her husband’s illness and death from a brain tumour. Webber describes herself as an agent who has ‘always been very keen on sentence-by-sentence prose’.

‘For a long time that was fiction’s main domain,’ she says. ‘And nonfiction was very much no-nonsense storytelling about a specific subject. That changed a few years ago. Suddenly here was a new trend, for nonfiction books where language was much more of a consideration. Not only what story you told, but how you told the story.’

Since the success of The Iceberg she has taken on more of this ‘genre-defying’ nonfiction. ‘The year The Iceberg was published, it was on all three big nonfiction prize lists – as was the Helen Macdonald – and people woke up to the fact that there were books that did surprising things, mixed up the personal with the historical, the nature writing with memoir – not just “here’s another biography on Stalin, which is 900 pages long and tells you everything”.’

Everyone I talked to was clear that narrative nonfiction is having a ‘bandwagon’ moment. ‘Publishers tend to be quite timid at first, but once a trend is established, they all pile in at once,’ says Knox. Doyle agrees. ‘Success breeds success. You have something in the industry that works and then people commission more in the area,’ he says, citing the recent 13-way auction for forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist Dr Gwen Adshead’s investigation into the nature of evil, The Devil You Know.

For Webber, ‘what is interesting is the shift from the authoritative impersonal third-person narrative to a much more personal, subjective way of telling stories’. She sees this as a move from ‘talking down to the reader from a point of view of knowledge’ to ‘being on a level with the reader and telling things from your perspective’.



There are several genres of narrative nonfiction that revolve around what PanMacmillan’s Kris Doyle referred to as the ‘extraordinary ordinary’. But the temptation when you’re writing about your own experiences is over inclusiveness. So decide in advance what kind of narrative you want to write – and stick to it.

  • Struggle: Uplifting narratives about confronting a serious personal issue, e.g., agoraphobia, painkiller addiction, parental neglect
  • Quest: Detective-like narratives, in which the writer investigates a mystery, e.g., family scandal, drug side-effects, workplace corruption
  • Passion: Enthusiastic narratives exploring and extolling the writer’s personal passion, e.g., hen-keeping, skydiving, dog-training (best if it also includes an element of quest or struggle)
  • Case notes: Episodic narratives based on stories encountered in the course of your day job in, e.g., remedial teaching, physiotherapy, psychiatry


ALISON FLOOD is the Guardian’s books reporter, covering book news, profiling authors, and championing libraries, diversity and freedom of speech. She also writes the Bookseller’s monthly paperback preview and reviews thrillers for the Observer.

This article was originally published in Issue 82 of Mslexia.

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