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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


The handy counter tells me this is the 650th blog I’ve posted here, and the timing is apt — today is Back to School, the beginning of fall — the publishing season, the work season, the school season. Our local pool is closed, I see the boys’ lunch boxes on the kitchen table, I begin teaching at Rutgers tomorrow, SLJ is having a Virtual Ebook Summit later this month (on the 29th) and several other projects I’m involved with should become real this week. Summer is about exploring, experimenting, stretching out, fall is about delivering, harvest, bringing to market what you’ve created in the long sunny days. I wish I’d had a bit more sun and relaxation, but now comes the thrill of showing your wares, giving what you’ve got. Fall is also the beginning of the move indoors — to museums, shows, to savor what others have prepared for us.

One show that we saw over the summer that I’d encourage all of you to see, if you can, is the exhibit about the John Lindsay years at the Museum of the City of New York: The show itself is terrific — uses space, objects, taped interviews very, very well. But it is also fundamentally about history — how do you make sense of a man who came into office as a Kennedyesque shining knight, and left defeated, in tears — in many ways a failure. And yet was it that he failed, or that the cross-currents of the time were more than anyone could have mastered? The exhibit is like reading War and Peace — does the man make the time, or do the times make the man? Personality and context — the warp and weft of all history, all biography.

Over the years I’ve been on endless panels about “authenticity” at ALA, IRA, NCTE. Why not have a panel on person and context — how much can/should our books be about individuals and how much about the binding forces of history? That’s a crucial question for anyone writing history, biography, social studies, even historical fiction — and it is never dicussed. As we march into fall, I throw out that jump ball as our first new question.


  1. elizabeth partridge says:

    I’ll jump.

    Anytime I do a biography, I’m weaving in history. For me, it’s a question of getting the historical context in without being boring or lecturing. What’s enough and not too much? How do I get readers emotionally involved? How do I make it vivid? People are easy — charming, hardworking, contradictory, divisive, always interesting. But the times are more of a challenge. I look at it as toggling between a person and the times, times and the person. It comes down to craft. Being willing to suck in a huge amount of information in the research stage, then spitting out bits of it where needed.

    Lately I’ve been working with: how do I separate the person from the myth of the person? How do I look at things as they were known at the time, not as they’ve come to be known?


  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Perfect — I like what you say, people are easy, the challenge is embedding them in their context.

    On the latest challenge — why limit that to two choices — person at the time vs. person as s/he has come to be known — third option is person re-viewed; that is, at the time there was partial information about a person, there was a person as perceived in that society; later comes the myth of the person; but then there is making sense of the person — an interpretation, an effort to apply what is now known to the evidence — which may yield neither the Person of His/Her Time nor the Myth of the Person — or some admixture of the two.

  3. Excellent discussion. In my latest biography on Cleopatra, I directly addressed the “myth-making” process and the difficulty of teasing out the truth from ancient propaganda. It took exploring WHY it was so important (i.e., what purpose it served) for her enemies to smear her name and reputation. It also took acknowledging that–unless archaeologists find her personal letters or journals–we will never know the full truth. There’s freedom in stating that outright!

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    when I wrote Witch-Hunt, on the Salem witch trials, I began thinking I could explain why the trials played out as they did, but ended up realizing that we simply do not have enough evidence to reach a final answer, and have to be content with fragmentary explanations and open-ended questions. I think that being honest with readers about the limitations of what is known, and perhaps knowable, is good. For one thing it invites them to think in new ways, to look for new avenues of thinking and research. And for another it is a kind of almost ecological respect — the past has left us a fragile patchwork of evidence. We need to respect that incompleteness and not impose ourselves on it. We can and should speculate — we should do our best to make sense of the past, but always in cognizance of our limitations, and inviting others to join in the game, to reach their own conclusions.