Norris was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1870. His father, Benjamin, was a self-made Chicago businessman and his mother, Gertrude Glorvina Doggett, had a stage career. In 1884 the family moved to San Francisco where Benjamin went into real estate. In 1887, after the death of his brother and a brief stay in London, young Norris went to Académie Julian in Paris where he studied painting for two years and was exposed to the naturalist novels of Émile Zola. Between 1890 and 1894 he attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he became acquainted with the ideas of human evolution of Darwin and Spencer that are reflected in his later writings. His stories appeared in the undergraduate magazine at Berkeley and in the San Francisco Wave. After his parents' divorce he went east and spent a year in the English Department of Harvard University. There he met Lewis E. Gates, who encouraged his writing. He worked as a news correspondent in South Africa (1895–96) for the San Francisco Chronicle, and then as editorial assistant for the San Francisco Wave (1896–97). He worked for McClure's Magazine as a war correspondent in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898. He joined the New York City publishing firm of Doubleday & Page in 1899.
Charles Gilman Norris, the author's younger brother, became a well regarded novelist and editor. C. G. Norris was also the husband of the prolific novelist Kathleen Norris. The Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley, houses the archives of all three writers.
Frank Norris's work often includes depictions of suffering caused by corrupt and greedy turn-of-the-century corporate monopolies. In The Octopus: A California Story, the Pacific and Southwest Railroad is implicated in the suffering and deaths of a number of ranchers in Southern California. At the end of the novel, after a bloody shootout between farmers and railroad agents at one of the ranches (named Los Muertos), readers are encouraged to take a "larger view" that sees that "through the welter of blood at the irrigating ditch ... the great harvest of Los Muertos rolled like a flood from the Sierras to the Himalayas to feed thousands of starving scarecrows on the barren plains of India". Though free-wheeling market capitalism causes the deaths of many of the characters in the novel, this "larger view always ... discovers the Truth that will, in the end, prevail, and all things, surely, inevitably, resistlessly work together for good".
The novel Vandover and the Brute, written in the 1890s, but not published until after his death, is about three college friends preparing to become successful, and the ruin of one due to a degenerate lifestyle.
Norris's work has not fared well with certain Jewish critics in the late 20th and early 21st century. As Donald Pizer writes "Frank Norris's racism, which included the most vicious anti-Semitic portrayals in any major work of American literature, has long been an embarrassment to admirers of the vigor and intensity of his best fiction and has also contributed to the decline of his reputation during the past several generations." Other scholars have confirmed Norris's antisemitism. Norris's work is often seen as strongly influenced by the scientific racism of the late 19th century, such as that espoused by his professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Joseph LeConte. Along with his contemporary Jack London, Norris is seen as "reconstructing American identity as a biological category of Anglo-Saxon masculinity." In Norris's work, critics have seen evidence of racism, antisemitism, and contempt for immigrants and the working poor, all of whom are seen the losers in a Social-Darwinist struggle for existence. Additionally, his "exaggeratedly muscular novels" seem to posit women as biologically subordinate to men.
Norris's novel The Pit was adapted for the theater by Channing Pollock in four acts. Produced by William A. Brady, the play premiered at New York's Lyric Theatre on February 10, 1904. A film adaptation of The Pit was produced in 1917, by William A. Brady's Picture Plays Inc.
An opera by William Bolcom, based loosely on his 1899 novel, McTeague, was premiered by Chicago's Lyric Opera in 1992. The work is in two acts, with libretto by Arnold Weinstein and Robert Altman. The Lyric Opera's presentation featured Ben Heppner in the title role and Catherine Malfitano as Trina, the dentist's wife.
In 2008, the Library of America selected Norris's newspaper article "Hunting Human Game" for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime.
An alley-way in San Francisco is named for him (Frank Norris Place). It runs from Polk St. to Larkin St. and is located parallel to and in between Pine St. and Bush St. in the city's Lower Nob Hill district.
A tavern on San Francisco's Polk Street, near Frank Norris Place, is named McTeague's Saloon in honor of Norris's novel McTeague (1899). The interior and exterior are decorated with objects and imagery associated with the novel.
The popular writing quip, "I hate writing, but love having written" is credited to a letter of writing advice written by Norris, published posthumously in 1915.
^"Now it makes no difference when or where or how a writer stumbles upon the idea which is to serve as his central purpose. It may spring from his head at a moment's notice like Athena, full armored - as was the case with the late Frank Norris, who, as has often been told, came one morning to his publisher's office, pale and trembling all over with excitement, and gasping out, almost inarticulately, "I've got a big idea! A great big idea! The biggest idea ever!" It was the outlined scheme for his trilogy of the Epic of the Wheat - the trilogy which began with The Octopus and The Pit, and which poor Norris did not live to round out with The Wolf." - Cooper, Frederic Taber (1920). "The Author's Purpose." In: The Craftsmanship of Writing. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, pp. 84-85.
^Rothstein, Morton (1982). "Frank Norris and Popular Perceptions of the Market," Agricultural History, Vol. 56, No. 1, pp. 50-66.
^Zayani, Mohamed (1999). Reading the Symptom: Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and the Dynamics of Capitalism. New York: Peter Lang.
^Geismar, Maxwell (1953). "Frank Norris and the Brute." In: Rebels and Ancestors. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, pp. 3-66.
Goldsmith, Arnold Smith (1953). Free Will, Determinism and Social Responsibility in the Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Frank Norris and Henry James. (Ph.D. Dissertation), University of Wisconsin.
Goldsmith, Arnold Smith (1958). "The Development of Frank Norris's Philosophy." In: Studies in Honor of John Wilcox. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Graham, Don (1978). The Fiction of Frank Norris: The Aesthetic Context. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
Grattan, C. Hartley (1929). "Frank Norris,"The Bookman, Vol. 69, pp. 506-510.
Harrison, Robert (1941). The Writings of Frank Norris as Viewed by his Contemporaries. (M.A. Thesis), Ohio University.
Hart, James D. (1970). A Novelist in the Making: Frank Norris. Harvard University Press.
Hill, Marion V. (1954). A Study of Thematic Forces in the Novels of Frank Norris. (M.A. Thesis), Bownling Green State University.
Hill, John Stanley (1960). Frank Norris's Heroines. University of Wisconsin.
Hochman, Barbara (1988). The Art of Frank Norris, Storyteller. University of Missouri Press ISBN0-8262-0663-8
Hussman, Lawrence E. (1998). Harbingers of a Century: The Novels of Frank Norris. New York: Peter Lang Pub Inc.
Johnson, George W. (1961). "Frank Norris and Romance," American Literature, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 52-63.
Kaplan, Charles (1952). Frank Norris and the Craft of Fiction. (Ph.D. Dissertation), Northwestern University.
Kusler, Gerald E. (1950). The Evolution of Frank Norris. (M.A. Thesis), State University of Iowa.
Kwiat, Joseph J. (1953). "The Newspaper Experience: Crane, Norris and Dreiser," Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. VIII, pp. 99-117.
Letizia, Louise M. (1950). Frank Norris: A Study in Contrasts and Contradictions. (M.A. Thesis), University of Pittsburgh.
Logue, Charles William (1949). Frank Norris: A Study in Romantic Realism. (M.A. Thesis), St. John University.
Marchand, Ernest (1942). Frank Norris: A Study. Oxford University Press.
Matthews, Margaret Moore (1937). Frank Norris: Pioneer Realist. (M.A. Thesis), University of South Carolina.
McCormick, Paul S. (1931). Frank Norris and the American Epic. (M.A. Thesis), Columbia University.
McElrath, Joseph R. (1978). "Frank Norris: A Biographical Essay," American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 219-234.
McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. (1988). Frank Norris and the Wave: A Bibliography. New York: Garland Pub.
McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. (1992). Frank Norris: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
McElrath, Joseph R. (1993). "Frank Norris' 'The Puppets and the Puppy': LeContean Idealism or Naturalistic Skepticism?," American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 50-59.
McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. and Crisler, Jesse S. (2006). Frank Norris: A Life. University of Illinois Press ISBN0-252-03016-8 (the definitive biography of Norris)
McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. and Crisler, Jesse S. (2013). Frank Norris Remembered. University of Alabama Press.
McGinn, Richard Joseph (1954). The Characterization of Women in the Novels of Frank Norris. (M.A Thesis), Columbia University.
Mitchell, Marvin O'Neill (1953). A Study of Realistic and Romantic Elements in the Fiction of E. W. Howe, Joseph Kirkland, Hamlin Garland and Harold Frederic and Frank Norris, 1882-1902. (Ph.D. Dissertation), University of North Carolina.
Musich, Gerald Donald (1973). Frank Norris' Character Types. University of Wisconsin-Madison.