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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


Yesterday Mockingjay, the third book in the trilogy that began with The Hunger Games, was released in stores. Earlier this summer the CCBC listserv turned to the many dystopian YA novels that have proven to be so popular with readers, but thus also with publishers, thus authors — the more there is a clear trend in reader appeal the more quickly you will see shelves full of books in that genre. The topic of dystopian fiction itself proved popular, and the discussion turned to the question of why — why is the dystopian future coming up so often these days — rather than the utopian, or a future merely different in some interesting way. As it happens just yesterday the Times ran an article on how the constant buzz and stimulation of games, apps, emails, tweets robs us of the mental “down time” we need to actually be creative and productive, Between articles such as that and book like The Shallows, I feel a shift. Instead of being born along by the latest technological gadget, there is a weariness and waryness — a sense that more tech may just be more tech — not something we need, or that helps us. That shift from the euphoria of the latest release to a kind of stubbed-toe “you fooled me one” resistance is obviously also related to the weak economy and the Gulf oil disaster. The future simply looks less optimistic — no matter how many 3-D cool devices we create.

But I called this post “tone” because in all this dystopian delicious gloom I’m noticing something elese: while fiction turns dark, nonfiction implicitly goes in the other direction. Sure we have Susan’s KKK book (which I have not read yet) and Jim’s McCarthy of last year. But it seems to me that in books like Betsy’s on Selma, and Philip’s on Claudette Colvin, and even Susan and Jim’s, there is an invitation to agency. We are telling young people about battles we fought, or knew about as kids, not to tell them that the future is likely to be grim, but to show that them change is possible — it happened, young people were central to it. In nonfiction we are writing about the 60s, when, as the song went, “we can change the world, rearrange the world” was a mantra, even as novelists are projecting a world of contracting horizons.

Some of this contrast may have to do with NF itself, which more generally speculates about the past than the future — although I have always wanted to do NF about the future — real interviews with real experts about what the future may hold. Or is it that fiction allows you to explore the emotions and experiences of “what might be” — an extension of “what is” — while NF allows you to understand “what is” in order to build a different “what might be”? What do you all think?


  1. Marc, I posted on a similar topic last week on my own blog, more or less continuing our discussion of the week before.

    I am still waiting for the definitive thesis on the difference between speculative fiction of the 50s and 60s, which I read and adored, and that of today. Are we exaggerating the differences? Are we painting the past with a rosy brush and over-emphasizing today’s dystopias? 1984 was published in 1949. And while Heinlein wrote plenty of books about colonizing other stars, Bradbury wrote heartbreaking futuristic tales.

    I’m not sure I’m making a point–just engaging in the topic. I also sense a weariness with online life.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I don’t know either the appropriate novels of the past nor the wave of the present well enough to make close comparisons. Certainly adult books such as Nevil Shute’s On the Beach or Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz were written in the shadow of the bomb, and for all of their brilliant energy, Philip K. Dick’s books are all a future seen — as one title of his puts it, Through A Scanner Darkly. My interest is less in comparing fiction then and now — interesting as that might be — than in looking at fiction and NF for teenagers today. Now maybe that is because we are more careful about tone in NF — the YA Inconvenient Truth rode on its author’s fame, not sure if an ecological jeremiad written by anyone else would have been so highly praised.