The “matrix nonfiction” genre

Once again, I’m indebted to Bryon Cannon and catsignal for the gumption to write this essay.

My wife Susan first made me aware of this class of expository literature. I believe it started when she was reading The Perfect Storm and remarked that she enjoyed this kind of book where you learned so much about so many fields of knowledge related to the topic. Since then “this kind of book” has been an item of household discussion. We’re always finding new examples of it, but we keep floundering on what to call it.

In the last decade or two several nonfiction books have appeared that seem to pay more attention than their predecessors did to the wider scope of lore relating to their topics. Suppose you pick up a book on Kansas wind power. Certainly you’ll read about the big wind farms that have sprung up across the state. But you might also get chapters on folk stories and songs celebrating Kansas wind; a history of the familiar windmill stock-tank pump; home-made wind generators; aerodynamics; Kansas landforms and meteorology; a narrative of the legislative lobbying conflict between the normally like-minded Sierra Club and Audubon Society concerning the effects of wind-turbine placement and design on migratory fowl; and so on. Once upon a time, a writer may have considered these interruptions more appropriate for footnotes than for entire chapters. Nowadays many writers freely expand these peripheral discussions.

Suppose a biographer of Jane Austen, prefacing her work with a discussion of some social themes in Austen’s work, mentions Lizzie’s description (in Pride and Prejudice) of women as “rational creatures.” She may decide to devote the first chapter to a bio of Mary Wollstonecraft and the second chapter to the impact of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” on 19th-century feminist attitudes, before eventually launching Austen’s own life story — providing a social context for understanding properly the development of Jane Austen’s mind and art. Before long she may find it instructive to include a digression on the social pros and cons of the entailment system of inheritance. She may unify her book along the thread of a narrative of her own modern-day walking tour through the rural landscapes around Alton, Chawton, and Winchester. In earlier times, I believe it would have seemed impertinent for a biographer to include her own experiences in the discussion.

Apparently modern readers accept or even welcome this kind of author-intrusion, digression, and chasing of tangents. Modern journalistic styles like feature writing and “new” and “gonzo” journalism may have accustomed us to this.

Reviewers seem to need a name for this modern genre. “New journalism” itself may be a term for it, but it seems too inclusive to be really descriptive. Other terms, on the other hand, are too exclusive: describing a particular book with a term like “history/biography,” “narrative nonfiction,” or “historical journalism,” while probably accurate, leaves us without a generic category for what I perceive as a distinct kind of modern expository writing.

Therefore I propose calling this genre “matrix nonfiction.” I take my metaphor from geology and paleontology: the “matrix” is the material that surrounds an item of interest.

ma·trix (mā’trĭks) n. [4.a.] Geology: The solid matter in which a fossil or crystal is embedded (American Heritage Dictionary).

I propose this definition for the field of literary criticism:

matrix nonfiction: expository literature that illuminates a topic by exploring its contexts and tangents. Matrix nonfiction uses in-depth discussions of related scientific, historical, social, political, artistic, biographical, economic, philosphical, technical, cultural, and other knowledge to explain the origins, the qualities, and the broader importance of a phenomenon. The typical organizational structure is narrative punctuated by expository digressions.

For subgenres a reviewer could pair the adjective “matrix” with the dominant mode of the work, such as “matrix biography” for the Austen bio imagined above.

Here are a few works of matrix nonfiction. Simon Winchester is a model writer of this genre:

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded by Simon Winchester. In the process of documenting the 1883 explosion that destroyed an entire island, this book discusses the history and prehistory of volcanic eruptions, geology of continental drift and plate tectonics, the history of the science of geology itself, evolutionary theory and a biography of Darwin contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace, mechanics of volcanic island destruction and creation, biological recovery after a cataclysm, social recovery after a cataclysm, Islam in Indonesia, the rise and fall of Dutch imperialism in the East Indies, and travel information.

The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. Explores the history of dictionaries, the science and method of lexicography, history of the English language, Oxford University culture and politics, publishing, literary criticism, biographies of James Murray and several other interesting personalities associated with the project, including the fascinating story of a convicted murderer who contributed huge amounts of literary reference material through correspondence from prison, as well as vignettes and anecdotes about other contributors worldwide.

Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. Peppered with equestrian lore, but also examines the Great Depression and the FDR administration from several socioeconomic perspectives, ranching and range conflicts, cowboy culture, racing culture, the science and athletics of race jockeying, and the early automotive industry.

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger. Along with information about this recent weather cataclysm, Junger’s digressions inform us about meteorology, history of sea disasters, the science of waves, the New England fishing industry, history of fishing territorial conflicts, swordfish habits, nautical culture, Coast Guard rescue training and practices, New England sociology, the psychology of sailors, and on and on.

If anyone knows of an already existing term that serves this purpose, please alert me. I couldn’t find one. If you have suggestions about the definition, I’d be interested in those too, along with any other comments.

© 2010 Greg Bryant under the Creative Commons

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About Greg Bryant

I teach writing and literature at Highland Community College in northeast Kansas.
This entry was posted in essays, literary criticism. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The “matrix nonfiction” genre

  1. bryon says:

    Great article, Greg! “This kind of book” does, indeed, need a name, and “matrix nonfiction” is both accurate and eloquent. Now you need to e-mail a link to this post to those in the position to adopt and popularize it.

    It was helpful and kind of you to make the short list of books of this type for our reading lists.

    Bryon Cannon and catsignal are pleased to have played our small role in the birth of this article and terminology.

  2. Pingback: Making a scene « The Poet's Eye

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