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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