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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

STOP THE PRESSES!

Last night my brilliant wife solved one of the main problems that has bedeviled all of us: what to call the genre in which we work. I’ll tell you her solution in a moment, but first a story. Marina is, as some of you know, a novelist and professor of English and Creative Writing at a university. She reads novels faster than publishers can print them. She loves fiction. But last night she went to a school curriculum night — where K-5 teachers talk about how they plan to teach various subjects. Marina was struck by two things: when talking about fiction, the teachers were bright, engaged, creative, demanding (in the best sense of expecting a lot from young people). But when she asked about non-fiction, one of the wonderful young women sagged, looked down, and said, "facts are hard." 
    I exploded when I heard that, "facts aren’t non-fiction, facts are like learning vocabulary in French, French isn’t vacabulary, it is poetry, and eloquence, and reason, and theater, and philosophy." Somehow our entire school system is skewed towards imagination. Marina agreed, "yeh," she asked, "why do they call it non-fiction anyway." I told her the story Betty Carter told me — how Mr. Dewey wanted to fix a problem: novels were organized alphabetically by country. He thought this was needlessly complicated. So he removed all of the country designations, organized the novels A-Z by author, called that section fiction, leaving the rest of the library to be non-fiction.

And then Marina had a flash of brilliance: "why don’t you call it Knowledge."

Yes, we write books that describe, reveal, debate, narrate, share, Knowledge. They have imagination, we have knowledge. Our books give young people ideas, tools, information, ways of engaging with the real world, that is, they transmit knowledge.

So I propose that, henceforth, we change the name of our genre to Knowledge. What kind of books do you write, Knowledge books.

What do you think?

Comments

  1. Monica Edinger says:

    I don’t see the difference. Imagination is critical to thinking historically (others more learned that I have said this) and I would suspect is critical to other disciplines as well. And knowledge, as you are defining it, can apply to fiction reading as well. Currently I’m reading aloud the annotated Alice in Wonderland to my fourth graders (as I’ve been doing for a couple of decades now) and slip in all sorts of facts/knowledge as needed. (Yesterday, for example, I read to them “How doth the busy bee,” the poem Carroll was parodying with “How doth the little crocodile.”) Why the need to separate?

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Monica: While of course you use imagination in history and facts in fiction, the terminology we use now is totally slanted: fiction is itself, non-fiction is a secondary entity defined by what it is not. I say, let us define non-fiction by what it is: knowledge. That is like using African-American instead of black or Negro — you describe a heritage not a color. Calling our books Knowledge book is an assertion of what they are, instead of defining them by what they are not.

  3. david e says:

    Agreed, calling something by what it isn’t (unreality TV? non-sit-com?) doesn’t make much sense, but “knowledge books” sounds clunky to these ears. The problem I have with non-fiction is that it incorporates too much, it’s too inclusive a term. I once worked in a large corporate book chain and people would come in asking where the non-fiction books were. When I asked what subject they were looking for they’d say “You know, non-fiction.” I would point out the small section of the store and reply “You see that area there called fiction? Okay, everything that’s not in that section is the non-fiction section.”

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    Clunky? Maybe, but we need an assertion of what we are, what our books do — and they bring readers to knowledge, just as fiction brings readers to imaginary places. Of course there are sub-categories, but we need a general term, and, for now Knowledge — over Informational, or Non-Fiction, sounds just grand. “Knowledge” also hints that this is not just data, it is theory, investigation, epiphany, a search for truth, a set of tools to help give us mastery of ourselves and the world around us — and that is precisely what our books offer.

  5. Megan Lambert says:

    A few years ago apublic elementary school in a district that lost all of its librarians through budget cuts asked me to serve as a consultant in the revitalization and redesign of their library. The first thing I did was weed the woefully out of date, history-heavy non-fiction section and create broad lists of new non-fiction books recommended for acquisition. Then we moved these books to a wall at the front of the room, right where the children enter, and called this space “The Wall of Knowledge.” The impact on circulation and engagement with the materials was immediate.

    How we display books and how we categorize them matters because these are ways that we communicate how/if we value them–as reading material, sources of information, pleasure, inspriation, communication, and all that jazz. Maybe our language is still catching up with us as we talk about different forms of children’s literature (I don’t much like the terms “Young Adult Literature” or “Easy Raders” either) but I’ll take a (perhaps) clunky, yet engaging descriptor like “knowledge” over a dry, alienating one like “non-fiction” any day.

    Megan Lambert
    Instructor of Children’s Literature Programs
    The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
    http://www.picturebooakrt.org

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    I love that, Wall of Knowledge. I hear again and again how new “non-fiction” is often in out of the way spaces in libraries. But if libraries had a Wall of Knowledge, who could resist checking out what was on it?

  7. Nancy Feresten says:

    I love “knowledge.” It has depth and sounds important, where “non-fiction” is meaningless, and informational is too narrow. Do you think Book of Knowledge is now so old that the vibration won’t interfere?

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    Nancy:

    I thought of BoK, but I don’t think that will trip up too many people. I did a school visit today, and the librarian agreed to make the change, onward!

  9. Betsy Fraser says:

    I’ll have to wait and see what you think about how I organized my genres when my genreflecting guide (for YA nonfiction)comes out in June. Redefining nonfiction as “Knowledge” would automatically cut out the How-to chapter, poetry, Biography…

  10. VOT says:

    Betsy: I am eager to see, but, from a lay POV, cutting out genres such as poetry, folktales, and drama from non-fiction will surely add clarity, not confusion.

  11. MARCIA DRESSEL says:

    Clunky is changing nonfiction to Dewey – what I tried this year. Uncomfortable with gesturing to the half of my library containing the Dewey Decimal – organized books and saying that we call them nonficiton but they are not all non-fiction…..that was clunky. I LIKE “the knowledge section.” I used to teach students that these were information books – but that doesn’t fit the 398.2s – knowledge about cultures, through folk and fairy tales, fits.

  12. MARCIA DRESSEL says:

    Clunky is changing nonfiction to Dewey – what I tried this year. Uncomfortable with gesturing to the half of my library containing the Dewey Decimal – organized books and saying that we call them nonficiton but they are not all non-fiction…..that was clunky. I LIKE “the knowledge section.” I used to teach students that these were information books – but that doesn’t fit the 398.2s – knowledge about cultures, through folk and fairy tales, fits.

  13. Clare B. Dunkle says:

    I think the term “knowledge books” sounds much better than “nonfiction books,” and I agree that the way children’s librarians deal with these books should change. When I was a child, the first book I checked out on my own was a knowledge book, but my school librarians let me know in a thousand subtle ways that where I really belonged was in the enormous fiction section, not in the tiny nonfiction section. (That area was considered a resource for the teachers.) The librarians weren’t trying to be mean. I think they honestly meant to help me and assumed I had strayed into the nonfiction section by mistake. As a result of their kindness, I spent a lot of time as a child (and, later, as an adult) fruitlessly wandering among the fiction shelves before eventually discovering with surprise and some dismay that what I really prefer to read is nonfiction. (Why the dismay? Cultural programming, I suppose.)

    One of my favorite books as a child was Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels. If only there were some way to get at the idea of nonfiction books containing marvels: “marvel books.” They do, of course. I’ve never read one that didn’t.

  14. Marc Aronson says:

    Richard Halliburton was my favorite as a child too. It was an antique even then, but a treasure every time I opened it.