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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Opinion versus Judgment

A family story — with a point.

My second grader came home the other day with a great in-class assignment. He’d been given a paragraph about Daniel Boone, then asked to write one of his own, using selected words. The challenge was for him to read carefully enough to get the dates and facts right, and then to write clear, informative, sentences. Sasha did all that, then added a thought of his own. After mentioning that Boone’s family were blacksmiths and farmers, he said, "but the interesting question is why, if his family had those jobs, did he decide to become a pioneer?" His teacher was thrilled, Marina and I were over the moon — this was precisely the kind of questioning and thinking that is the beginning of being a real historian, a real thinker. And yet, I hate to say it, is the kind of thinking that is often criticized in nonfiction for readers Sasha’s age all the way up through high school.

All too often reviewers criticize nonfiction when it engages in what they call "opinion," or "speculation" — as if the goal of nonfiction is to present certifiable facts — with as many flourishes of concrete details as possible (the scratchy sound of starched fabric, the scraping of a pestle against a mortar, the glint of sunlight through a small, high window). Sure, there is a danger of an author writing down whatever he or she happened to think about a topic — using non fiction as a platform for a soap box speech on something close to the author’s heart. Although, as Diane pointed out, there are those in kids books who like having a moral they approve of woven in to their non fiction, even if the events themselves are not real. 

I believe that an author knowing a subject well enough that he or she can go beyond the (easily available on the internet so why waste paper printing them) facts of a person’s life, and giving you a plausible portrait of his or her motivations, character, drives, conflicts, inner life is precisely what a biographer must do. That is the step Sasha was taking by asking that question. Nonfiction is being forever attacked as dull, boring, all facts. Then critics ask for story. Story is fine. But why shouldn’t biography do what fiction does — explore character, interior emotion, psychology, the ways an individual is formed out of the nexus of conscious and unconscious family dynamics? That is what we reward novelists for telling us — why shouldn’t the skilled biographer who has done his research do the same? But once we do begin to think about why, say, Daniel Boone did something we necessarily are venturing beyond the known into the plausible. We are not recording facts, we are making an argument, creating an interpretation, arriving at a judgment.

The big issue looming here is: what is a mere opinion, some random thing an author happens to think. And what is a judgment — a view he or she arrives at? I think it is good to have judgments in books — that is what makes them personal and gives them life. So what do you all think — how do we draw a line between mere opinion, and judgment that merits consideration and debate?

How can we move past noticing that an author has made a judgment to considering whether that judgement is valid?

Comments

  1. Monica Edinger says:

    So let me understand. Sasha had a paragraph about Daniel Boone that did not offer an opinion or judgment (or, for that matter, an author)? And then he used the information in it to create an opinion of his own? Here’s MY question: would he have done this if the paragraph had been strongly opinionated about something (say about Boone and Native Americans), a judgment? Would he still have independently done the same thing?

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Yes, the para was bland and he then asked a question of his own. You ask a good question. I suspect that a para that modeled asking questions or venturing views might encourage him to do the same. Could it intimidate him into silence? Perhaps, though I don’t see why it should.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    Monica: to kick the question back to you, why would you assume that an author modeling the act of venturing an interpretation would work differently from an author modeling anything else — writing well, doing good research, employing telling details? Why in this one case would the model have the reverse effect? And I have a good counter example — for hundreds of years in Yeshivas boys have read interpretations — which has encouraged them to interpret texts, it has not silenced them.

  4. Monica Edinger says:

    I have no idea how the boys in Yeshivas are taught, but I do a lot of work on learning to read. There are different reasons for reading — sometimes we just want information in which case something bland like the Daniel Boone piece might be appropriate. Other times we want to read an opinion. I used to use the Times in my teaching. We considered very differently articles in the first section from editorials and op-ed pieces. Some people may prefer their news without opinion and some may prefer the opinion. And in the classroom, it is always the teacher not the writer who knows her students and what they need to best understand. And what they need to understand could be Daniel Boone or an opinion about Daniel Boone — two very different things.

  5. Betty Carter says:

    But I think it’s always the reader who approaches any work with his/her own reasons for reading — just to get the facts or perhaps just for passing the time or perhaps just for reading an opinion — and we’ll find that purpose ourselves no matter what the text. So, it seems to me that rather than try to select texts that to us represent different kinds of reading, that having youngsters read the same pieces of text — from Internet info on Daniel Boone to a nuanced biography — and ask themselves how they read it would be an instructive approach. What cues can they use to figure out their stance? And, no matter what their purpose, shouldn’t they have some measure of questioning going on? I read People Magazine like an addict on Fridays; this is diversion (despite what some of my friends may think), but it’s always read with the same amount of skepticism as I look at the editorial page. And with the same kind of questioning although the questions may be more vapid coming from People than from OpEd pieces.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    Monica: you know students, but it seems to me you are in a logical trap. Last week you and Betsy said all NF was biased — that every piece of NF reflected a set of judgmments on the part of the author. If that is so, a bland piece that hides its POV is no less judgmental than a piece that makes a case. A dictionary has a POV (which words are in, which out, which favored), as do voiceless texts. For example, I think you would find a bland paragraph about the deaths of Native Americans to be biased, because it had no moral power. You would find the blandness a form of avoidance, or callousness. If that is so, then you are demanding a voice — to be objective. But then you have to allow for other voices.

  7. Monica Edinger says:

    What I do as a teacher is model for students and guide them in particular methods of reading for historical reasons to give them tools with which to do that. Of course there are many other reasons to read and that may and does happen all the time. My job as a teacher is to give them tools for particular ways. As for bias, I don’t see the problem, Marc. It has to do with what I do as a teacher. If I’m focusing on a given day on opinion that is what I’ll focus my students’ attention (while pointing out the information therein). If it is information, then that is what I’ll focus on. These are kids just beginning to go beyond the basics of reading as you may recall. And much of what I’m doing is teaching kids to read, in a variety of ways, highlighting and featuring certain ones on any given day. I’m teaching reading to newly independent readers and make decisions based on my expertise in that area along with caring about much else. I don’t see that emphasizing one over the other is a logic problem.

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    Monica: Your concern is teaching, mine is writing. I am saying that, since any tone in a book, from bland dictionary to empassioned plea, represents a judgment on the part of the author, why not encourage authors to be more open about their judgments? How you as a teacher use texts that are more, or less, explicit about their POVs is up to you. As an author, I believe an explicit, considered judgment is both more honest than a studied blandness, and provides a model for how a student can frame his or her own arguments.