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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Time

In my YA Literature class we have been discussing “realism” — what is it, what is it in YA, how has the term been changing? My students wrote the most terrific papers, which fit perfectly with our discussion last night on Twilight; Going Bovine; Nowhere, and The Arrival (Twilight a carryover from a prior week — we do read a lot, but not four books a week). Wonderfully enough opinions were sharply divided — a couple of readers could not wait to talk about Nowhere, they hated it so much, while others liked it. And then came Twilight. I must admit I like it because it is so funny, so self-satirically bad, that it is almost sweet — like a self-published novel that has no chance but shows the sincere effort of the author. But of course my view is an extreme minority in America and the world. So the question is why is the series so popular?

We booted around many ideas — from the obvious appeal of the handsome bad boy and the passive, shy girl, the romance novel mixed with central casting YA experiences, to the lived experience of several of my students who, after the last Harry, were desperate for something and these books were simply the next phenomenon, the next “everybody is reading it” that you had to read. But what struck me was something about time. We’d spoek a few weeks ago about space — the “room of our own” that teeenagers live in — physical privacy linked to a digital wallpaper of “friends.” The writing in Twilight is so flat it makes absolutely no demands on you. It is daytime TV, soap opera — everything is exactly what you know it will be, it advertises its predictability. And yet that flatness — in effect cheese doodles in words — is married to a smart high concept. Twilight is book-as-lunchable. It is totally easy, yet fits a need. You can literally read it in “no time flat.”

That is one reason why it is appealing to have long books. The thickness of the books give the reader the sense that this is a “real read.” But the pages fly by, they cost nothing in mental or emotional effort. You snack on them between chores. So the books perfectly suit both teenage and adult lives where there is so little time to read. Reading is wedged in amidst everything else. And so a long book, better yet a series, that can be consumed in those bits of free time, delivering predictable pleasures with a titilating, smart, theme — is perfect. Twilight suits the time, or kind of time slivers, we have for reading. Which brings up the qustion of nonfiction, which generally cannot slow in that same way. Yes there are books which break NF into tiny bits (as I’ve done in For Boys Only). That is mind popcorn, and great to offer it to kids. But you cannot treat everything that way. So what is NF for a time challenged era?