Thinking Further About Nonfiction

Jim Murphy has a post up over at I.N.K., “Battle Cry Freedom” in which he further considers aspects of the conversation Marc Aronson’s “New Knowledge” article provoked.  Jim is rightly concerned about problematic research and other questionable methods of creating nonfiction (say invented dialog) as well as the critics, reviewers, and gatekeepers who are unaware and thus support what Jim calls”rogue” books.  He wonders:

Which brings us to the most important element of the discussion: our readers — kids of varying ages and depths of learning and sophistication, who read (sometimes reluctantly, sometimes happily) and absorb the printed word as gospel. When a rogue book gets out (whether it’s a willful act to grab attention or build drama in a text or an honest attempt to re-interpret the historical record) who is going to pick up the pieces?

I wonder about this too.  Jim writes further:

Is it fair to expect librarians and teachers to constantly patrol and explain these problem texts to scores of young readers? And in case you think any errors might be minor in nature, please remember that recent Virginia textbook where the author informed young readers that thousands of slaves happily signed on to defend the south and its traditions during the Civil War. That text (and its historical implications) was floating around in schools for weeks and months before the error was caught and the books recalled. There’s no reason to assume something just as egregious couldn’t happen in trade books.

Whether they are as serious as this example, I’ve seen errors in lauded books of nonfiction that troubled me greatly and which were pretty much dismissed by those who already had decided these were terrific books. And even before Jim raised this issue I was wondering about it when doing my own debating with Marc.  Since I’m smack dab in the middle of the intended audience and see how they respond to books and ideas, I have similar reservations to those Jim has expressed.  Marc has responded here and he, Jim, and others have continued the conversation in the comments.

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3 Comments

Filed under History, Nonfiction

3 responses to “Thinking Further About Nonfiction

  1. Mark Flowers

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue of (in)accuracy in NF in two ways:

    1) in my role as a reviewer — it can be tricky to the extent that I might not be an expert in the subject, though I really should be to be reviewing the book. But at least in essence, the reviewer’s role is fairly straightforward – point out errors and patterns of errors as you see them.

    2) as a librarian – much more problematic. On the one hand, we see ourselves as “neutral” and just collecting information and different points of view. On the other hand, (in)accuracy is one of the clear criteria for choosing new books and discarding old books. But how do we define inaccuracy? Can I make the decision not to collect anything about Creationism, eg, because I know it to be “false”? What about an otherwise serviceable book that has just one or two errors? How important do they have to be?

  2. Reviewing nonfiction is hard as you point out, Mark, for so many reasons. Tough call especially as a librarian.

    What has made me especially wary has been my experience with a book that you and I both questioned at Heavy Medal last year, the multi-starred-reviewed Chaplin bio. Because I’m steeped in his life and work I saw problems (and could add in more today as I’ve revisited the book since then) as did you with your film background. I mean, I trusted that author completely and the only reason I caught the problems was because of expertise on that individual. Otherwise, I might not have liked the style or writing, but I certainly wouldn’t have been able to see the other problems and would have left things alone figuring it was a taste thing.

    Often my appreciation of much of nonfiction is a leap of faith — I have to trust that the author really, really, really did his or her research as there is no way I can check it all out at the level of an expert.

  3. Mark Flowers

    Yeah, I came across the Chaplin book at around the same time I read Freedman’s War to End All Wars, which I had similar problems with (having a fairly detailed knowledge of WWI). It has definitely shaken my faith in NF.

    I agree with you that “Often my appreciation of much of nonfiction is a leap of faith”–but I think there are some things we can do to protect ourselves. Certainly, we can’t expect to be subject experts in everything, but trying to read even just one other book on the topic, plus maybe the Wikipedia entry and a couple other things can go a long way towards letting us know whether the author knows what they’re talking about.

    And going back to out roles as reviewers or recommenders, I don’t think this is too out of line of what we already do. I just reviewed the new Michael Harmon novel for VOYA and made a point of reading 2 of his 3 previous novel in preparation. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have known that he was recycling plot points that he’d used before. I think fiction reviewers do this sort of thing all the time, so it shouldn’t be too much of a demand to ask NF reviewers to do the same thing.

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