Sunday, June 3, 2012

In Defense of Non-fiction

The overarching Common Core vs. No Common Core and Core Knowledge vs. Balanced Literacy debates (see this New York Times article and this Learning Matters segment) have spawned another debate: fiction vs. non-fiction. I think this misses the point and causes their critics to unfairly tarnish “non-fiction” as a genre. My apprehensions about the Common Core Standards aside, just as I defended the lecture several posts ago, I feel compelled to defend non-fiction.

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.


  1. It is important to understand that the entire "fiction vs. non-fiction" debate is essentially off topic when it comes to understanding the Common Core standards. The standards themselves do not, and really cannot, determine the amount of time spent on different tasks or types of reading.

    In fact, the entire premise of standards-based and data-driven education is that the amount of student time spent on different tasks should be determined by their strengths and weaknesses on various assessments. Different students may need more or less time reading fiction or nonfiction texts to reach proficiency across all disciplinary literacy areas.

    Similarly, if one wants to add more non-fiction text, there are few, if any, existing standards documents which restrict this.

    This is a red herring, and one has to wonder if it is intentional disinformation.

  2. Really thoughtful comment, Tom. That's part of the point I was making in the previous post, that with such a rigid, top-down structure in place, the standards are bound to be mandated to be done in rigid ways, in ways they were not intended to be done, and the current climate does not allow for much teacher critique. And yes, the fiction vs. non-fiction meme is distracting.

  3. Rachel,

    This is an excellent and persuasive piece. I just want to point out a few things about the CCSS (in which I see much good):

    1. It was a bad mistake to call nonfiction "informational text" in the standards themselves. This distorts the picture. As you rightly point out, nonfiction is not only informational, but the denomination "informational text" sure does emphasize that aspect.

    2. The current emphasis on "literacy" distorts the picture a bit, I'm afraid. I disagree with Tom Hoffman's assertion that the proportions should depend Rather, I believe, instead, that the proportions should depend on the nature of the course. If you're taking a Shakespeare course, you'll read a lot of Shakespeare. If you're taking a course in British lyric poetry, you'll read a lot of British lyric poetry. If philosophy, then philosophy. A philosophy course shouldn't have to "work in" drama, any more than a lyric poetry course should have to "work in" analytical nonfiction. Certainly there's room for such things, but it need not be forced.

    3. Not all subjects have to have a lot of reading. It is refreshing to have courses that are less verbal than others--courses that teach a different sort of language. The idea that we must read, read, read across the subjects might not be entirely true.

    4. If there were more reading and writing for history class--if courses relied less on those huge, poorly written textbooks and included more primary and secondary sources--then students would learn more AND read more nonfiction than they are reading now. That in itself would make for more meaningful nonfiction reading.

    5. I recognize that the boundary between fiction and nonfiction is fuzzy; I am using the terms loosely.

    6. I am enumerating these points only to keep track of them myself and to make sure I don't go on too long! Eight points would be too many, I believe.

    7. I respect your courage in thinking for yourself and putting forth sometimes unpopular views. I love reading your blog.

  4. One of my sentences got chopped off (or I thought I finished it but didn't). Under point 2, the second sentence should have read: "I disagree with Tom Hoffman's assertion that the proportions should depend on the individual students' needs."

  5. Diana,

    So great to hear from you--your point #7 made my week. I am a big fan of your work.

    Yes, the proportions should depend on the nature of the course and I agree with you about reading and writing for history books. I try to use the textbooks only as reference books. I wrote about that in a post on textbooks in this post .

  6. Rachel,

    Thank you! And thank you for pointing me to your post on textbooks.

    I especially appreciate your point about the amount of education it takes to teach a subject well. Teachers faced with unfamiliar subjects end up depending on textbooks, study guides, and so forth. It's difficult, while in the midst of teaching, to rise above that level, though it does happen over time, if the teacher is given that time. By contrast, when a teacher is well prepared in a subject and has a good sense of how to teach it, she can do all sorts of interesting things and doesn't rely on limiting materials.

    You make an additional point: that one can be well versed in U.S. history and at a loss when it comes to world history (and vice versa--though world history seems just a bit too big, period). Someone with a Ph.D. in history could struggle with one of those courses.

    There are ways for teachers to gain the background they need to teach such courses masterfully and discerningly. Yet somehow PD rarely goes there....

  7. Sorry for the borderline spam but I cannot find a contact email for Rachel. However, this is important information for those of us in the DC area.

    There is a DC Council hearing this week on education and there is still time to sign up to testify about the issues most important to you and your community. Please see below for more info.

    Public Education in DC: Council 19 Priorities

    Date:July 13, 1:00 PM
    Address:Room 412, John A. Wilson Building
    1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
    Washington, DC 20004


    Council Chairman Phil Mendelson announces the scheduling of a Public Roundtable by the Committee of the Whole to discuss what priorities the Council should address during the remainder of Council Period 19. The Public Roundtable is scheduled for Friday July 13 at 1:00p.m., in Hearing Room 412 of the John A. Wilson Building.

    The purpose of the public oversight roundtable is to receive testimony regarding the important issues confronting public education in the District, and what the Council ought to address during the remainder of this year. In as much as Council leadership has changed, this hearing is a useful opportunity to reassess the priorities that need legislative or oversight attention.

    Those who wish to testify should register online or contact Ms. Erika Wadlington, Legislative Assistant, at (202) 724-8124, by fax at (202) 724-6664, or via e-mail at, and provide their name, address, telephone number, organizational affiliation and title (if any) by close of business Thursday, July 12, 2012. Persons wishing to testify are encouraged, but not required, to submit 15 copies of written testimony. If submitted by the close of business on Thursday, July 12, 2012 the testimony will be distributed to Councilmembers before the hearing. Witnesses should limit their testimony to five minutes; less time will be allowed if there are a large number of witnesses.

    If you are unable to testify at the roundtable, written statements are encouraged and will be made a part of the official record. Copies of written statements should be submitted either to Ms. Wadlington, or to Ms. Nyasha Smith, Secretary to the Council, Room 5 of the Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20004. The record will close at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, July 27, 2012.