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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Bigger Plot Problem

We’ve Been Talking About Plot Within Nonfiction, But About the Stories We Live By?

When I was taking standardized tests in high school, nearly every one included a passage from Paul de Kruif’s classic Microbe Hunters, As you all recall, and the embedded review stresses, this was a book in which scientists are heroes, fighting the prejudices of their time to bring advances to civilization and knowledge. Books about, say, Gallileo, the Curies, George Washington Carver, and even Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, TR, FDR, Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow were all essentially the same narrative — a far sighted individual grasped a truth, battled the prejudices of his or her time, and, eventually led humanity towards a better, brighter, future. We as a society agreed on that master plot line as either true, or, certainly, the kind of truth it was important to bring to young readers. 

Because there was a generally agreed upon master plotline for biography, for science books, for history books, each individual author merely needed to know how to fit his or her subject into that jetstream. We have precisely the same situation today in epic film where, since Star Wars, we have been in the land of the Hero’s Journey. Because that master plot is so known and assumed, it is as available to be used for a father fish searching for his lost son as a chosen child training at a school for magicians. The shared master narrative makes it easier to craft individual movies.

But we no longer have a master narrative for nonfiction. When we write about scientiests, we are eager to humanize them — to see their quirks, faults, eccentricities, the oddball stuff that catches interest and brings them closer to us. They are less heroes than neighbors. Ever since the 60s, anyone who went to college had studied his or her Thomas Kuhn and knew that science changed in paradigm shift, not the unique single experiment. And, as we discussed in the Feet of Clay strand, we are not — as adults, as a society — sure what to say or not say about precisely the same gallery of people we once lionized. 

When people say they do not like nonfiction, I suspect it is because they don’t know what master narrative to look for in it. They would like books about heroes, but we don’t supply them. They are uncertain about books with nuanced pictures, because they don’t trust their own judgment, and are not sure whom to trust. So the genre seems murky, unpleasant, uncomfortable, unappealing — a descent into the gray. To us, of course, the quest for answers, the challenge of finding truths when contrary views compete for attention, is part of the thrill of nonfiction. But until we can convince adult fiction readers that the new hero is the author questing for truth, the reader building his or her own path to knowledge, outsiders will claim our books lack plot.