The Neglected Stepchild

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.



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7 responses to “The Neglected Stepchild

  1. Will Isley

    I agree completely about the it not being a strictly male phenomenon. I also really like David McCullough. I am no expert in the area, but it seems like he was one of the first authors to really give history a journalistic, creative and extremely engaging treatment.

  2. Your post really got me going on a number of ideas, Hannah.

    First, off, your plans to “uncover” nonfiction and elevate it to its rightful place. So ironic that it’s writing essays on the old, dusty classics that usually drives the English classroom rather than engaging students in writing/storytelling about contemporary issues that are “living and breathing” in nonfiction. I’m excited about the possibilities. btw do you know this site on creative nonfiction?

    Second, I’m with you and Will — I don’t think the drive to act upon our world; to engage it physically — is gender-specific. You mention girls being interested in nonfiction but “for different reasons.” I wonder if you mean relationships. I think learning about the relationships of real people is a fascinating aspect of nonfiction.

    Finally, I didn’t remember the Lauren Slater affair so I had a great time learning about it. The full title was Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir. Fascinating concepts like “emotional memory” versus “factual memory.” It seems Slater makes for the ultimate “unreliable narrator.” Interestingly, there is evidence that we all may be more unreliable narrators because of a tendency to confuse in our memory what we have seen on the screen with what we have seen in the actual world.

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!

  3. I really enjoyed the point you made about nonfiction being a good example of storytelling. I do think one of the reasons nonfiction is placed on the back burner is that teachers don’t see it that way at all. Your suggestion to have students write their own nonfiction could be a great way to get them to realize that great storytelling can be done through nonfiction.

  4. Blakely

    I love the way you distinguish among the various types of nonfiction (literary, creative, historical, memoir). I think you’re totally correct that nonfiction tends to get shoved in a corner of the curriculum, which means all the subtle differences among these forms of nonfiction are never “unpacked” and certainly not explored. Students could graduate without ever realizing that there are many different forms of nonfiction, just as there are many different genres of fiction.

  5. Two statements you made in your blog really connected with me – the first was that nonfiction is actually a relevant way to tell a story. Aronson alludes to the idea that in many ways writers of nonfiction must be even more proficient in their abilities for the task they attempt to accomplish is difficult, to say the least. Something you mentioned that I commented on as well is the idea that we have been doing a disservice to our students by “not exposing them to engaging nonfiction in the classroom.” I couldn’t agree more, and, in fact, I realize that I am guilty of this disservice myself.

  6. Dr. Crissman–You bring up some interesting points about unreliable narrators in nonfiction. I think it’s a nonfiction writer’s job to become as reliable a narrator as possible. Even when writing a memoir, research and interviews should play a primary role in the text’s composition. I agree that memory is a complicated thing, but I think that especially our own memories should be checked against facts and other people’s memories. No nonfiction should be based on the memories of only one person. If we accepted nonfiction based on emotional-memory, we could open a dangerous door. I would recommend reading this book, not because I think it is true to the genre, but because it’s thought-provoking. It was a controversial book in the community for a lot of interesting reasons.

    • I appreciate your response, Hannah, and I think Aronson would, too. If a writer shares his trail of discovery, as Aronson suggests, then he and his reader have a better opportunity of seeing the big picture and believing that it is a true representation.

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