As a kid, I thought that I hated nonfiction. Granted, I had never really read any besides textbooks, so of course I thought it was dry and boring. The first time I thought I could like nonfiction, I was in early high school, and I picked up a book that my dad was reading–the John Adam’s biography by David McCullough. I remember reading the first couple pages, thinking that it might actually be interesting. I never read the book, but that was the first moment of my development into and avid reader of nonfiction.
As I continued to grow into my own literary tastes, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I began to love nonfiction. I often feel, however, that it is, as Marc Aronson writes in his book Beyond the Pale, “the neglected stepchild” of literature. Especially in teaching literature for teens, nonfiction is often secluded to one unit that is only fit in to meet state standards. The breathing, living genre is too often treated like material that just must be covered before moving on, like the periodic table or the quadratic formula. I think this is one of the great tragedies of English instruction.
One of the most important lessons that I believe we can learn from nonfiction is the art of storytelling. As Aronson suggests, sometimes we are wary of nonfiction, too afraid that we are not “experts” ourselves, so we have no right to take any license besides reporting the straightforward, dry facts. To me, though, the most talented storytellers are those that can take a real life situation, one that others may not see as an interesting story, and tell it in a creative and engaging manner while staying true to real life. That, I think, is the mark of a great writer.
Aronson’s essay about boys and nonfiction fascinated me. I see proof of his argument in my own life all the time. My husband, my brother, and my dad all talk about how as children, they were reading either fantasy novels or outdoor/special interest magazines, and they were never interested in what they were reading in school. Even now, my husband reads historical nonfiction almost exclusively. Aronson’s argument that this interest in nonfiction comes from their need to alter their world with their hands and are seeking instruction in how to do that was convincing to me. I do think, though, that this is not strictly a male phenomenon, and that nonfiction can be just as interesting to girls for slightly different reasons.
We have been doing our students a disservice by not exposing them to engaging nonfiction in the classroom. I remember when I first started reading literary nonfiction, my first thought was, “How did I not even know that books like this existed?” Sure, nonfiction is not great for book reports, as Aronson suggested, but we shouldn’t be having our students do book reports anyways! Many types of nonfiction lend themselves perfectly to the types of student performance we’ve been discussing thus far. Students, I think, should also have the opportunity to try to write their own nonfiction, (other than analytical essays), because I think they storytelling techniques they can learn will translate into many other types of writing. I plan on using multiple forms of nonfiction in my own classroom.
Now for a short musing about creative nonfiction. Dr. Crissman asked in a previous comment what I thought about creative nonfiction. Well, I love it, as long as it is actually nonfiction. What Aronson wrote about it resounded with me:
“Historical novels are new creations built out of an admixture of materials of the past and present. Creative nonfiction is also an amalgam of present insight and past artifact, and surely all history also reflects the time in which it was written and the conscious or unconscious drives of the author. But there is a crucial difference between the two forms. In historical fiction the author’s first obligation is to be engaging, moving, living, revealing, insightful. In creative nonfiction the author’s first obligation is not to be false” (110).
One of the worrisome trends in nonfiction writing is to write a book that is based on real life an call it nonfiction. For example, Lauren Slater’s Lying is based on true life. It is designed to tell her story, but she leads readers to believe things that are not actually true. For example, to illustrate her feeling out of control, she suggests that she has epilepsy. In reality, she does not have epilepsy, and she never comes out and says it explicitly in the book, but the fact that she leads readers to believe that she does makes her dishonest. If the book were classified as fiction, I would love it. It was interesting and well-written. But dishonesty, of any sort, does not belong in nonfiction. So here’s my stance on creative nonfiction: I love nonfiction that is creative as possible in how the story is told, as long as the real story is told. Bookhenge
Aronson, M. (2003). Beyond the pale. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, INC.