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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

By Chance

Cultural Amnesia is a fascinating, annoying, engaging, intimidating, collection of essays by the Australian polymath Clive James. If you love nonfiction, if you like reading essays that range widely and read like a conversation with the most brilliant raconteur-professor who simultaneously puts you at your ease and takes you around the world, through several languages and across hundreds of years of popular and classical music, poetry, art, philosophy, and history, this is a book for you. I don’t always agree with him; actually, I am quickly aware that I don’t know enough even to judge if he is right or wrong, but it is a fun read. And while James ranges from Duke Ellington and Tony Curtis to Dante and Borges, so far I see nothing about books for younger readers. But in an essay on Schubert he brings up a point that we should consider. 

James writes about Schubert’s tragically short life — he died at 31, four years younger than Mozart was at his death, and then thinks about what he might have composed had he lived even a few years longer. That leads him to think of the many Jewish artistic lives cut short by the Nazis. And that leads to a larger point that is missing from almost all of the books we write for younger readers: "the play of chance…the number of strokes of luck it takes to make something that will last." James is saying that it is a matter of pure luck that Mozart lived long enough to compose Don Giovanni and Magic Flute, while Schubert died after creating his Quintet in C Major. (you really do need to listen to this, it is magnificent)

Luck — pure dumb luck, that one genius contracted his fatal illness a few years earlier in his life than another, that one Jew made it out to America, to Palestine, and another was murdered, that one African-American was lynched and another survived makes so much difference in the artistic heritage of all humanity. We rarely talk about luck in our books — we tend to want there to be a cause, an arc, a moral to the life. If you, reader, are as creative, industrious, courageous, determined as the person you are reading about, you will have your own miracles and successes. That is a fine message, but it is bad history. As James shows, the most brilliant creator is still the unwitting pawn of luck — the breaks that do, or do not, come his way. Now some will argue that there is a fate beyond luck — but if you believe that, you have crossed into theology, you have left non fiction entirely behind. 

Can we be honest with our readers about the crucial role of blind luck, will that be too discouraging to them, will we create a generation of nihilists? No, but today fantasy in the narrative kids know — the heroic journey in which there are many obstacles but a foretold ending. I think it is healthy for nonfiction to offer a counter — a journey whose outcome is unknown, at every single step.


  1. Betty Carter says:

    Do you think the downplaying of luck, particularly in biography, is an unconscious wish for subjects of biographies to serve as role models? I know that we disdain didacticism in children’s literature, but we do tend to let it creep (and sometimes leap) into biographies. And the presence of luck might interfere with a narrative arc that reaffirms that search for strong role models.

  2. Chris Barton says:

    “Chance favors the prepared mind,” goes the saying, and biographies are largely about how those minds got prepared. But yes, Marc, it’s certainly worth pointing out how one particular prepared mind differed from all those other prepared minds of that time and place — and that’s often where luck comes into play.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    I think Betty is certainly right, it is hard to make someone a role model if they got their part by luck. And, yes, Chris I agree with the phrase. But James was making the opposite point: a fully prepared mind may be cut down by chance. Preparation may give you opportunity, but chance may determine whether you can seize it. Schubert was prepared to write more great works, but he died. We (I) want death to have a reason, but is that really true? And if not, is that something we are prepared to tell teenagers?

  4. Betty Carter says:

    Aren’t there some books, I’m thinking the Diary of Anne Frank for example, that have that concept implied? I realize that we could split hairs about chance and evil, but I think there are readers who finish the Diary and wonder, what if. . .

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    Betty: You prove my point. Anne Frank wrote a diary — so the hand of fate is clear. I am saying that when we write the books, we tend to layer in that role model, guiding hand, meaning to the life that you mentioned in your first post.