Why is Serious Nonfiction in the US Taken More Seriously Than in the UK?

May 12, 2023
Dimitris Passas

NOTE: This article is a republication- Source: Literary Hub (via Baillie Gifford).

Any bookish person who has ever passed through an airport in the United States will tend to have been struck by a contrast. Airport bookshops in the UK are piled high with thrillers, spy stories, romantic comedies and how-to books: untaxing fare for a long flight.

But in the States, which we Brits like to sneer at as the lowbrow land of Walt Disney and Man Vs Food, those airport bookstores have a really striking amount of hefty hardback nonfiction: thumping great presidential biographies, weighty works of serious history, chewy books of business theory and popular science.

Americans don’t half love their history, and they take it straight up, no chaser. It’s a source of enduring wonder that the smash hit musical of the decade, Hamilton, is based on Ron Chernow’s unimpeachably serious 800+ page biography of a second tier Founding Father.

I don’t think the UK has an equivalent of Robert Caro—who spent the best part of an entire lifetime writing the definitive biography of LBJ and warmed up with 1,300 pages on a long-dead town planner. Even David Remnick took time out from his day job editing the New Yorker to give us more than 600 pages on Barack Obama.

That seems to point to a difference in publishing market and audience alike. At least on the face of it, the mainstream of US nonfiction is stately, thorough, chronological and substantial; whereas British nonfiction is slant, whimsical, allusive and personal. Is that a temperamental or cultural difference? Up to a point, perhaps, yes. But there’s something else at work too.

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