In the creative writing communities I’ve been a part of, there is debate over how much attention to pay to labels such as fiction and non-fiction or poetry and prose. Many advocate for sticking to the designations but others find it needlessly restrictive. Writers will critique the work of other writers not on what it does or what they learn from reading it but on whether it has the proper label affixed to it. This is a good piece of work, but is this really poetry? To which I want to respond: Does it matter? Is that the most worthwhile thing to talk about here? Why get hung up on labels? Literature is literature. Because of the This American Life-Mike Daisey scandal, a similar questioning of David Sedaris’ work is being mounted, but Sedaris is not a scientist or journalist. Does it change his contribution to the understanding of humanity that he’s embellished or made some stuff up, that his work might include fictional accounts? Not in my mind, it doesn’t.
There is a fantastic interview in The Paris Review with John McPhee about his formative experiences as a high school English student, the writing life, being a non-fiction writer, and teaching writing. Here is an excerpt that reflects some of the debates that occur around discussions of labels and fiction vs. non-fiction:
Interviewer: Was there any significant change in terms of interest, or in the way that people viewed nonfiction writing?
McPhee: The only significant change is that, in a general way, nonfiction writing began to be regarded as more than something for wrapping fish. It acquired various forms of respectability. When I was in college, no teacher taught anything that was like the stuff that I write. The subject was beneath the consideration of the academic apparatus.
Sometime during the eighties I was invited to do a reading at the University of Utah, and I accepted. And several weeks later, the person who approached me got back in touch and said he was really embarrassed and sorry. While he had wanted me to come to Utah and do a reading and talk to students, his colleagues did not. They didn’t approve of the genre I write in. I wrote back to him and said that I really appreciated his wanting me to be there. And certainly I didn’t feel anything toward him but gratitude, but as for his colleagues—when they come into the twentieth century I’ll be standing under a lamp looking at my watch.
Interviewer: What do you call the type of writing you do? Your course at Princeton has sometimes been called The Literature of Fact and sometimes Creative Nonfiction.
McPhee: I prefer to call it factual writing. Those other titles all have flaws. But so does fiction. Fiction is a weird name to use. It doesn’t mean anything—it just means “made” or “to make.” Facere is the root. There’s no real way to lay brackets around something and say, This is what it is. The novelists that write terrible, trashy, horrible stuff; the people that write things that change the world by their loftiness: fiction. Well, it’s a name, and it means “to make.” Since you can’t define it in a single word, why not use a word that’s as simple as that?
Whereas nonfiction—what the hell, that just says, this is nongrapefruit we’re having this morning. It doesn’t mean anything. You had nongrapefruit for breakfast; think how much you know about that breakfast. I don’t object to any of these things because it’s so hard to pick—it’s like naming your kid. You know, the child carries that label all through life.
Sound familiar? Non-fiction was, as science fiction is now (though in light of the recent New Yorker "Science Fiction Issue," perhaps this is changing), a literary stepchild and remnants of that past disdain, of non-fiction as not being “serious” enough, remain. There are works of non-fiction that are great works and there are works of fiction that are junk. As a writer and voracious consumer of non-fiction, I bristle when critics of the Common Core disparage non-fiction as merely “instructional manuals” or “informational materials” (though, yes, kids need to learn how to read those, too. I, for one, would like for my kid to know how to read a bus schedule and dishwasher detergent directions). Non-fiction informs but it also contributes to our understanding of the human condition as much a fiction does.
As I said in my last post, it doesn’t help when CCS architect David Coleman diminishes fiction and student writing about “feelings," and requiring a fixed ratio of fiction to non-fiction is just as pointless as debating the worth of Sedaris' work based on the ratio of non-fictional to fictional accounts therein. So, yes, let’s beware of the Common Core, but let’s not dismiss non-fiction along the way. Two thoughtless assertions don’t make a thoughtful one.