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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


Just the Facts?

Reading over the posts about biography, role models, the whole "feet of clay" issue, I was struck by how many of the comments expressed a distaste for "speculation," or perhaps related, "psychobiography." When I was working on my doctoral dissertation a classics professor pointed out that the root of the word was the same as for "spectacles" — glasses — and "spectacle" — an eye-catching display — and thus "spectacular"  — all of the terms come from the Latin term "speculari," "to spy out, examine…reflect." I should think we would all want our nonfiction to "spy out, examine, reflect."

Clearly the word has also taken on the implication of, on the personal level, wild imaginings crossed with gossip, and in business, of betting as opposed to building. That is, as in the bubble that just burst, money created by complicated bets on other bets, rather than money created from actual business that sell goods and services. In both the personal and the business sense then, "speculation" implies being unwise, unsound, or as we used to say in the 60s, "ungrounded."

But the general distaste for "speculation" that I saw in the posts was not just an aversion to wild imaginings, excessive guesswork, a mirage or hallucination mistaken for an insight. Rather I saw in the posts a sense that we need to– as Roger urged — stick to the certifiably known. There was not just a criticism of misguided or poorly thought through speculation, but of the very act of leaving facts, the known, behind, and venturing into the territory of conjecture. Why? To me venturing a plausible theory, a reasonable psychological portrait, is half the fun of researching and writing history. Why shouldn’t our books be filled with speculation — so long as readers are clearly shown when we are venturing a guess, where we got our information, and are told of other views or where to find them?

I am talking for now about ideas and character, not emotions. In historical fiction we can say what a character feels even if there is no historical record of those emotions; in historical nonfiction we can picture his or her motivations, character, outlook even if we are forced to speculate. What do you think? Is the resistance to speculating similar to the role model pressure — a fear of corrupting or misguiding the young?

FYI: Last week the Jerusalem Post ran a Q and A with me about Israel, during the fighting in Gaza. The reader responses came from throughout the world and were fascinating —


  1. Jeannine Atkins says:

    I agree that speculation is great, but I’m most interested in providing details and making room for readers to come to their own conclusions. Even reading the same words, or seeing the same movie, we arrive at different assumptions, and then I want to go look at what was concretely shown and said. I just saw Milk and got a different impression of Harvey Milk than what I expected based on your January 14 summary. The character portrayed by Sean Penn is indeed mindful about the need to be a role model for openness to youth, but I didn’t hear that four of his lovers committed suicide. Maybe I missed something, but I heard him say something like three of my four long term partners attempted/or considered (I can’t remember) suicide. Of course I saw the one tragedy, but I wouldn’t base a character analysis on it, and I left the theater with a different sense of Harvey Milk than you seem to have, one much more defined by the relationship shown with Scott Smith, who Milk loved at the beginning of the film and who loved him at the end, and a man with a strong sense of hope.