More thoughts on the speculative nonfiction debate

Roger Sut­ton put up this post on the Read Roger blog for con­tin­u­ing the dis­cus­sion about Marc Aron­son’s “New Knowl­edge” arti­cle in the Horn Book, in which Marc argues that non­fic­tion authors should be allowed to spec­u­late, draw con­clu­sions, and reveal their points of view in their books.
While I found Marc’s ter­mi­nol­o­gy of “new” ver­sus “old” non­fic­tion to be pejo­ra­tive, I do agree with his basic the­sis that spec­u­la­tion in non­fic­tion can be valu­able when done well (which he elab­o­rates on here and here and here and here–all worth read­ing!). The “done well” part is the key, I think, and involves both lay­ing out the foun­da­tions for your con­clu­sions as well as explic­it­ly point­ing out to the read­er what is accept­ed to be fact and what is spec­u­la­tion (by any­one, author includ­ed). Many of today’s non­fic­tion authors for kids, includ­ing both Marc and Jim Mur­phy, are already doing that, and I believe it’s a good thing.
But one anony­mous com­menter to Rogers’s post dis­trusts this approach:

“The new NF seems to be all about embrac­ing the slant and delib­er­ate­ly writ­ing non-fic­tion from a spe­cif­ic view­point. Whether I agree with the author or not, I think it’s per­ilous­ly close to pro­pa­gan­da and I don’t like it.”

Okay, I can under­stand the fears behind a view­point like that, but ew, boy, does it make my skin crawl! Why? Because shar­ing an opin­ion based on one’s own broad and deep research, and then open­ly stat­ing that it is your opin­ion, is NOTHING like pro­pa­gan­da! Pro­pa­gan­da would be mak­ing a slant by manip­u­lat­ing the research or by not admit­ting where the facts stopped and con­jec­ture began. A good non­fic­tion author would NEVER con­sid­er doing either one. And any work that tried to would be quick­ly called out and criticized.
In our polar­ized, con­flict­ed soci­ety we need more oppor­tu­ni­ties to share well-rea­soned opin­ions with each oth­er, not less. This kind of debate based on the inter­pre­ta­tion of known facts is how we move soci­ety for­ward. Equat­ing opin­ions backed up by ratio­nal argu­ments with pro­pa­gan­da gives us per­mis­sion to ignore them, per­mis­sion to stay stuck in our old ways, per­mis­sion to hate. I may dis­agree with you, but I’d love to know how you came to your opin­ion so I can under­stand it bet­ter, so we can at least have a con­ver­sa­tion about it. And if you ask me to explain mine, to back it up, to jus­ti­fy it, I just might dis­cov­er that it real­ly doesn’t hold water and I have to read­just my thinking.
Marc responds to the pro­pa­gan­da com­ment him­self here. In his post, he says:

“Pro­pa­gan­da is writ­ing in which the goal of influ­enc­ing the read­er is para­mount — you select what you say and how you say it to manip­u­late, entrance, alarm, con­vince the audi­ence. It is a form of adver­tis­ing. Any book I write, edit, or praise lives and dies by the rule of “fal­si­fi­ca­tion.” That is, no mat­ter what posi­tion I begin with, or what pas­sion I expe­ri­ence in writ­ing, or what goal I have in telling the sto­ry, my first oblig­a­tion is to evi­dence. If I find evi­dence that con­tra­dicts the sto­ry I had planned to tell or the mes­sage I intend­ed to get across, or my moti­va­tion in writ­ing, I must still share it. So long as an author does his or her best to abide by that stan­dard, that book fits my stan­dards for NF.” 

Yes, I total­ly agree! He goes on to say:

“I say that writ­ers can, if they choose, show their hands, reveal the dog they have in this fight, show their own per­son­al pas­sion to inves­ti­gate and tell one his­tor­i­cal sto­ry. That tells the read­er why he or she might care — it is why the author cared.”

I love that—as a read­er, as a par­ent, and as an author! Then, how­ev­er, he adds this in a com­ment to his own post:

“I think that con­cern exists more broad­ly in kids books where NF is in this strange place where it is crit­i­cized for being dull, yet many want it to be neu­tral and “objec­tive.” In oth­er words we are both urged to take the dis­tant voice of the text­book and crit­i­cized for doing so.”

Um, I was with you all the way, Marc, right up until you equat­ed neu­tral and objec­tive with dull and dis­tant. I don’t believe they are, or ever will be, mutu­al­ly exclu­sive. Good writ­ing is good writ­ing, whether it is spec­u­la­tive or not. 🙂

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