“Three R’s of Narrative Nonfiction” over at the New York Times today, by a writer of adult narrative nonfiction, addresses the same issues we grapple with when considering narrative nonfiction for youth (and are especially considering it over at Heavy Medal). Be sure to read the comments.
Really, really, REALLY interesting piece on narrative nonfiction
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5 responses to “Really, really, REALLY interesting piece on narrative nonfiction”
Agreed that this is an excellent piece. Not sure I can endorse reading the comments though (except for the fascinating Hayden White) – too much arguing by people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
Bob Herbert used to write an op-ed column for the Times so I was interested in his strongly worded comment too.
Herbert’s comment starts reasonably enough – asking for more footnotes – but the rest of the comment is bizarre, since Gutkind explicitly shows how he creates “reconstructed” scenes. Not to be too snarky but that’s about the balance of quality I expect out of Times op-ed writers.
The article and comments are interesting and instructive. The arguments seem to be suggesting that since no one really can know precisely what happened in the past, not even those directly involved since their memories are either flawed or the individual has an agenda, it’s okay to speculate from the factual material available. If the writer doesn’t actually document his/her route to that speculation, it becomes a “trust me” bit of opinion. For me, the key difference is in the audience. A book written for an adult audience comes with the understanding that the reader is intrigued by the topic and might have some or even a good deal of knowledge about it already. If they come to the topic cold but are truly engaged by the book, they can read more abouit the topic to see if the author’s opinions, ideas, and assumptions ring true. Our books go out to readers who don’t have a very deep background in history, who need to be guided into and through whatever the subject happens to be in the actual text, plus they are owed reasoanbly thorough source material to help them (and their librarian and teacher guides) try to determine what the truth might actually be. Writers for children who speculate and don’t document are doing their audience a real disservice.
Jim, thanks so much for this. I’ve been paying attention to this in my roles as a reviewer and teacher and now as a writer myself. Years ago I began working on a book about a real person in history for whom there isn’t a lot of firsthand information. Because of this, after trying to make it nonfiction, I finally crossed the border to fiction, but just barely. Mainly, by fictionalizing it I was able to indeed speculate. Right now we are finalizing things like the back matter and, while I would love to document every instance of truth/speculation in the text, there is no space for that nor, given that it is fiction, necessary. (I may though do this here on the blog just for my own desires.)
What strikes me reading the various discussions about documentation and creative/narrative nonfiction is how thin that border between fiction and nonfiction is. And also, as you point out, the difference in experienced and inexperienced readers and what that means in terms of the text and documentation.