Whadya (Need to) Know?

Perhaps nothing.

Betsy Bird asks, “How Much is an Author Obligated to Say?” after wondering in a review of a book involving Aspergers why the writer, in her author’s note, hadn’t mentioned her personal connection to the condition.  Kate Messener and quite a few others feel the answer is, “nothing” as everything we readers need to know should be in the story itself.

This then makes me wonder about my response to fictionalized books about real people and unfamiliar cultures.  Generally I do want to know more.  For example, I’ve just read Linda Sue Park’s forthcoming  A Long Walk To Water. This fine book is a fictionalized telling of Sudanese Salva Dut‘s true story and I did very much wanted to know what was real, what made-up, how she researched it, and so forth. And so as excellent as the text was I definitely appreciated the author’s note and probably would have been frustrated if it hadn’t been there.  In a couple of years I will have a book out that is both about a culture that is not my own  — Sierra Leone — and a real person in history — Sarah Margru Kinson who was a child on the Amistad.  Like Linda Sue Park I’ve fictionalized a true story. And so I plan on an author note because I do want readers to know what personal experiences cause me to write the book and what sort of research I did. I want them to know more.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Whadya (Need to) Know?

  1. Okay, Monica, I am going to play devil’s advocate here. I hope you don’t mind. :) Why does an author who includes a note want readers to know more? Why is that necessary? To fend off criticism?

    A work of fiction–for kids or adults–can stand on its own. Maybe the author’s note extends a friendly hand to the reader, offering a bit more. Could that be it?

    I don’t understand why a critic would need credentials from a fiction writer, though. Reading for review is something different….or is it? The New Critics would say that a novelist’s/poet’s biography does not matter. The text is all.

  2. I can’t speak for others, but for myself I feel that I do want people to know what led me to write about Sarah Margru Kinson. It still feels a tad presumptuous to try to speak for her so I guess, for myself, I want to explain why. And it doesn’t belong IN her story, but it is an aspect of the story that I feel is important — that she was Mende, from Sierra Leone, a country no one knew about till some years ago and then not for a good reason.

    More broadly, my students always want to know if something is real. I think there is a continuum from straight nonfiction to creative nonfiction to fictionalized real stories and then over to completely made-up stories. Why should something termed creative nonfiction need back matter whereas the fictionalized true story just over the fence not? They aren’t that far apart, after all.

  3. Yes, you’re right: children really do like to know if things are true.

    I feel that fiction gives the writer greater artistic license than creative nonfiction does. The form lends itself to more freedom, to use the facts as a starting point and go from there. Both are hard to do, though! And as a reader, I enjoy both. Actually as a snoopy reader, I love perusing author’s notes. How they fit into a review, though, is something else; they really don’t.

  4. Clare Dunkle did a great job of extending the work of “The House of Dead Maids” – in her note, she alludes to her website. The site itself has her reasons, background notes, etc.. So I can have it both ways: the book as a stand-alone and then the site should I want/ need more.

  5. Pingback: Telling the Reality Behind Fiction « educating alice

  6. As a child and as an adult, I love a good author’s note, especially when it’s fiction based in fact (such as as historical fiction or a fictionalized true story.)

    I want to know what’s true about the story and what’s fiction and that informs my further reading. If it turns out that what intrigued me most about the story is true, then I’ll do more research on the nonfiction side of things. If what intrigued me most was the author’s invention, then I’ll seek out the author’s other works of fiction.

  7. My students will ask me if they have to read the author note, but at the same time they always ask if things are real. So, Jennie, I’m glad to read that some kids do enjoy author notes!

    Laura, interesting to hear what Claire Dunkle did. Extending is a good way to describe this sort of thing.

    Susan, I did another post on this as I do suspect that some reviews might mention back matter for books like Dunkle’s. And I do think reviewers use author notes. I’m thinking of a new title Mamba Point set in 1980s Liberia. Reviewers have noted that it is based on the author’s own experience which he mentions in an author note. “…With lively, sometimes droll touches and a well-constructed 1980s setting, the engaging first-person narrative and array of diversely drawn characters further enliven the novel, which concludes with a personal author’s note that provides more story background.” (from the Booklist review.)

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