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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

My Conviction Is Your Editorializing

Warning: You May Perceive This Post as Special Pleading — Or You Might Just Find It Interesting

I’ve been pleased at the early reviews and reader comments on Tanya Stone’s Almost Astronauts, a book I edited. But one comment over at Good Reads faulted the book for "editorializing" too often, especially about the contstraints women faced in the early 60s. Tanya has written about how she came to include her own beliefs, her own passions, in the book And I must admit I encouraged her to show her cards, to reveal her passion — why she cared about these women and their story.  But if we leave this particular book and its strengths and weaknesses out of it — lets look at that term "editorializing" — what exactly does it mean in terms of nonfiction for younger readers?

Clearly the word is meant as a criticism — the author has stopped being a researcher, a historian, and turned into an advocate, a partisan. Or, to put it in more familiar kids books terms, has made storytelling secondary to preaching — to advocating for one position. The implication is that that the author may have slanted the story, or, even if s/he has been totally fair, that the author’s judgmental presence takes away from the story s/he is telling. Right? 

And yet, those of us who admired We Are the Ship did so for its clear voice, its unahamedly personal point of view and stake in the story it was telling. Debbie Taylor, who disagreed with me about CSK over at Read Roger last week, has argued that there is a didactic tradition in African-American books for young readers, an "uplift the race" strand which should not be seen as aesthetically inferior to "pure" storytelling. Well if that is so, why can’t anyone who has a strong passion, who feels there is a wrong to be righted — and who is scrupulously fair in his/her research — also incorporate that passion into his/her nonfiction? If there is a crime, discrimination, oppression, isn’t outrage a normal human response? 

Just as I defended "speculation" the other day, I think that passion is, in fact, necessary to the nonfiction we write for today’s readers. There is a website already on just about any topic we want to write about — and it has color pictures, it may have sound or video clips. Who needs us? Who needs books? Kids need us if we, we as adults, we as human beings with our own voices and passions, are visible. Of course we must be fair — we must admit flaws in our arguments, and direct readers to books and sites that disagree with us. But we should not hide, we should not be bland. Bland is our enemy. And the alternative to bland is not just storytelling — as if we were writing documentaries. The alternative to bland is caring — having a dog in the fight. 

What do you think?


  1. Roger Sutton says:

    I only think it’s a problem when a book makes me think “yes, but enough about you.” I find myself saying that a lot when reading adult nonfiction, especially journalism, where the author thinks we’re more interested in his “journey” than in what he’s actually purporting to be writing about. But enough about me.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Sure, the author should not get in the way of what s/he is telling — but for the author to show that s/he cares, has a view, has a stake in the matter, is something else. One is solipsism, the other is conviction.

  3. I praised the first Newbery winner, Hendrik Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, for its frequent “author appearances”–Van Loon mentions his personal feelings about a figure or a period of history, or his writing process, or what his friends think about his choices in material, throughout the book. I guess I sort of assume (as an adult) that all or most nonfiction is slanted based on the author’s biases, and I like that The Story of Mankind makes that clear even to the young reader.

    On the other hand, when I read American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever (an adult nonfiction about Emerson/Thoreau/Hawthorne etc), I rolled my eyes when she inserted herself into the narrative; I felt like it was her way of trying to be part of the story, and I was not interested or impressed.

    Perhaps the difference is that Van Loon seemed to be entering the book in order to make his points and his choices clear, while with Cheever it seemed more like… vanity.

    But, of course, I haven’t read Stone’s book yet, so I don’t know how I’ll respond to the “editorializing” in question. I had an early fascination with a YA career-romance called Aerospace Nurse (set among Air Force nurses in the sixties), so it sounds like something I’ll want to read. I’ll be putting a review on Goodreads…

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    Of course not all “editorializing” is good — I think Van Loon works, in part, because of his tone, because there is wit and a non-self-regarding attitude. A healthy dose of skepticism about one’s own grand self is also nice to see.

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    Of course not all “editorializing” is good — I think Van Loon works, in part, because of his tone, because there is wit and a non-self-regarding attitude. A healthy dose of skepticism about one’s own grand self is also nice to see.