Drawing Lines in Nonfiction: “Old” vs. “New”

The March/April 2011 issue of The Horn Book Mag­a­zine is a spe­cial issue devot­ed to “Fact, Fic­tion, and In Between.” It’s a fan­tas­tic com­pendi­um of arti­cles and notes from some of today’s top writ­ers of non­fic­tion for kids, and it’s giv­ing me a lot to think about. I’ll prob­a­bly post more on these thoughts lat­er, but for now, I want­ed to explore the ideas in Marc Aron­son’s arti­cle called “New Knowl­edge.”
Marc says that today’s “new” non­fic­tion is dif­fer­ent from “old” non­fic­tion in that it does­n’t just present the exist­ing work of adult schol­ars in a for­mat young read­ers can digest, but instead dis­cov­ers new knowl­edge and spec­u­lates on its mean­ings for the first time. He con­cludes with:

“Just as we have both real­is­tic fic­tion and spec­u­la­tive fic­tion, maybe we ought to split up our non­fic­tion sec­tion into books that aim to trans­late the known and books that ven­ture out into areas where knowl­edge is just tak­ing shape.”

While I def­i­nite­ly admire some of the works he cites as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the “new” non­fic­tion, includ­ing Susan Camp­bell Bar­to­let­ti’s They Called Them­selves the K.K.K. and Tanya Lee Stone’s  Almost Astro­nauts, his asser­tions make me ner­vous on a cou­ple of levels.
First, the line of “old” ver­sus “new” implies “not-as-good” ver­sus “bet­ter.” I don’t think this is nec­es­sar­i­ly true. Books that take exist­ing knowl­edge and syn­the­size it in a way that make it palat­able to kids are impor­tant, and they can be very, very good. I think this is part of what ran­kles Jim Mur­phy so in his rebut­tal blog post on the top­ic, “The Line of Dif­fer­ence.”
Sec­ond, by asso­ci­a­tion, is that he seems to imply that spec­u­la­tion in non­fic­tion is always a good thing. I agree that it can be a good thing, if done care­ful­ly and well. But if not, spec­u­la­tion in non­fic­tion can be a very dan­ger­ous thing indeed. Now, I real­ly don’t think Marc is say­ing that spec­u­la­tion should be done with­out sol­id research to back it up or with­out call­ing atten­tion to the fact that it is, in fact, spec­u­la­tion, but there’s a chance it could be tak­en that way by some read­ers. Many a won­der­ful non­fic­tion book would be ruined if the author felt com­pelled to spec­u­late beyond the facts to fit their work into a more desir­able cat­e­go­ry. As a non­fic­tion author, I am only going to spec­u­late on some­thing if the sub­ject I am writ­ing about calls for it; I have been com­plete­ly con­vinced I am right; I am able to explain how I came to those con­clu­sions so read­ers can judge for them­selves; and I’m going to tell the read­er they are MY con­clu­sions, no one else’s. Is it valu­able for kids to be exposed to that kind of spec­u­la­tion in non­fic­tion? You bet! Can non­fic­tion be valu­able and cur­rent and rel­e­vant with­out it? You bet! Do we need a way to dis­tin­guish between the two in this way? I don’t real­ly think so. Good non­fic­tion, whether it con­tains high-qual­i­ty spec­u­la­tion or not, is good nonfiction.
For me, a more use­ful divi­sion is between what I’ll call “straight” non­fic­tion ver­sion cre­ative non­fic­tion. Straight non­fic­tion is the non­fic­tion I remem­ber being exposed to as a child of the ear­ly 70s in rur­al Wis­con­sin. I admit I was an infor­ma­tion junkie, and I would pore over our ency­clo­pe­dia sets (thank you Mom and Dad!) on cold win­ter days, undaunt­ed by the dry, “just-the-facts-ma’am” presentation.
But when I first read cre­ative non­fic­tion, it set my brain on fire. Using fic­tion­al tech­niques to turn facts into a sto­ry is what I view as a big­ger shift and a more use­ful divi­sion than the one Aron­sen proposed.
If I’m doing a research project, I’ll prob­a­bly want to seek out straight non­fic­tion so I can find the infor­ma­tion I need quick­ly. Are these types of books valu­able and nec­es­sary? Of course.
But if I’m read­ing for plea­sure, sim­ply for the joy of learn­ing some­thing new, by all means wrap it up in an engag­ing sto­ry for me! Tra­cy Kid­der is a mas­ter at this for adults (Squee! I got to attend his lec­ture last week, and he’s cur­rent­ly work­ing on a book about writ­ing cre­ative non­fic­tion!); Steven John­son’s The Ghost Map is one of the most riv­et­ing books I’ve ever read, fic­tion or non­fic­tion; and I’d count BOTH Marc Aron­son AND Jim Mur­phy among the best doing this kind of writ­ing, for chil­dren or adults.
As a read­er, I most­ly want to know if the book I’m pick­ing up is straight non­fic­tion or cre­ative non­fic­tion, because they serve dif­fer­ent pur­pos­es for me, both of which I need, but at dif­fer­ent times. I don’t need to know, when I pick it up, if a non­fic­tion book will have spec­u­la­tion or not, or if the knowl­edge can be found in oth­er books. I can encounter that along the way, either in the text or in the backmatter.
So, I under­stand the dis­tinc­tion Marc was mak­ing in his arti­cle, and I great­ly admire him and the oth­er authors who are break­ing new ground in their research and think­ing and shar­ing it with young read­ers. I just don’t know if “old” ver­sus “new” is a nec­es­sary or help­ful divi­sion, and I find his choice of ter­mi­nol­o­gy to be insult­ing to the many won­der­ful authors who ded­i­cate their lives to research­ing, orga­niz­ing, and pre­sent­ing the facts to chil­dren in their non-spec­u­la­tive non­fic­tion works.

3 thoughts on “Drawing Lines in Nonfiction: “Old” vs. “New””

  1. Lau­rie:
    Thanks for engag­ing with my arti­cle — I’ve respond­ed to you and Jim over in my SLJ blog. But I real­ly don’t agree that the key dif­fer­ence is between “straight” and “cre­ative.” That is a dis­tinc­tion. But the kinds of writ­ing I am talk­ing about gets its excite­ment not (or at leat not nec­es­sar­i­ly) from using “fic­tion­al tech­niques to turn facts into sto­ry” but rather from emu­lat­ing real detec­tives or sci­en­tists in the quest for knowl­edge. In oth­er words, the thrill comes from think­ing, not (or, again, not only) from sto­ry­telling. Sto­ry­telling often aims for clo­sure after tak­ing a read­er on a sat­is­fy­ing jour­ney. Think­ing is open end­ed, it leaves the read­er to keep hunt­ing for new answers. That is the kind of NF for younger read­ers I see tak­ing shape.

    • Marc,
      Thanks so much for read­ing for my post and for expand­ing and clar­i­fy­ing your argu­ment your respons­es here and here. As I post­ed over there, my con­cerns can be (and were) addressed sim­ply by chang­ing the ter­mi­nol­o­gy used. With this kind of label, I agree it is a use­ful dis­tinc­tion in the minds of both authors and read­ers. I’m all for “spec­u­la­tive non­fic­tion,” just as long as it is revealed as such (which I’m sure any respon­si­ble author would do). Look­ing at the books that have been recev­ing atten­tion in recent years, I would ven­ture that the mar­ket is embrac­ing this new­er approach to chil­dren’s non­fic­tion as well. Thanks for start­ing, and con­tin­u­ing, the debate! I think it only helps make the indus­try we love stronger. 🙂

  2. Ah, inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion that makes me think of our con­ver­sa­tion last week­end about the chakra ms. Fic­tion? (Not for a Hin­du, maybe.) Non­fic­tion? (Not for any­one of a tra­di­tion­al med­ical bent.) Spec­u­la­tive non­fic­tion? Poten­tial­ly. I think it could be any of the above, depend­ing on how it was treated.
    Any­way, this might be a good dis­cus­sion top­ic for our non­fic­tion mas­ter class, huh?


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