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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Speculation and Debate — Responses to My HB Article

Several people have taken issue with the “new knowledge” argument I made in the current Horn Book. In particular, the author I should have mentioned and didn’t, Jim Murphy critiques my piece here: http://inkrethink.blogspot.com/2011/03/line-of-difference.html Jim argues that I was unfair to Russell Freedman, and — citing several examples from his own work — to him. Then Laurie Thomapson http://lauriethompson.com/2011/03/10/drawing-lines-nonfiction/ suggests a different binary division — not speculative or straight, but “creative” or “straight.” Beating behind both pieces are an objection to what they see as my ranking — not just description — of the two kinds of NF. They see me as saying new/speculative NF is necessarily better than old/translation NF.

I suppose there is a degree of excited advocacy in my piece — but as I see it I am making space for a style of NF that is taking shape in our world but which — as Laurie’s post itself shows — is still misunderstood and viewed with suspicion. I am not so much suggesting we displace the old as make space for what Dr. Zarnowski calls the “literature of inquiry.” I wrote the article as a kind of manifesto, an announcement, of this NF-as-Inquiry, to counter — or flush out into the open — the very anxiety Laurie expresses. I do value more traditional NF — which I describe as generous — that is a term I have always associated with especially Russell’s work, because I felt he was giving young people something they could not otherwise have in a format that they could appreciate. But I can’t help the fact that in that interview with Roger he made his own definition of NF which excluded “speculation,” specifically about private sexual orientation, and more generally as the purview of NF for younger readers. And I both disagree with that particular claim and more generally read what he said as a kind of manifesto of its own — a description of the mission many authors of NF had for themselves. I am certain that many librarians, reviewers, teachers, parents share Russell’s assumptions about what NF for young readers can and cannot, should and should not, do. And so I had to engage with that reigning definition of NF in order to set forth what I see as an alternate, new one.  

Jim’s argument is different, and here is I think I could have done better. Jim was an editor before he became a writer and, correctly, notes that my piece got lumpy with — he again astutely recognizes — late editorial additions (one of which I don’t recall ever seeing in proofs — that nod to the Google Reader program which isn’t wrong but totally breaks up the flow of the argument). But then he maps out in some detail the original research he did in at least two of his books, The Boys War and The Great Fire, and thus that what I am calling the New NF might more be seen as an evolutionary extension of what he and some others have long been doing. Fair enough. Certainly when he has taken on subjects such as The Alamo and Benedict Arnold he has challenged and overturned myths, beliefs, history-people-thought-they-know. And while he does not draw attention to this, in all of his books — American Plague is just a sterling example — the illustration research which he does is a form of original thinking and investigation all its own. I don’t think reviewers appreciate how much finding just the right art — or, as in American Plague, newspaper clippings from the 1790s — transforms the reading experience of a book.

So I did fumble in not including Jim. A longer piece would have moved away from the binary language of Old and New into a more considered map of evolutionary change — I hope some alert expert writes that piece. Though I think I can be forgiven this because again I was using the article not to depreciate older NF as to make the case for the newer version. And there the argument shifts. Because even as Jim’s work has been praised and honored, that is most often in the older terms –for his storytelling, not for willingness to be a pioneer, going into uncharted historical lands. And that brings me back to Laurie’s piece. She is chary of “speculation” and instead likes “creative nonfiction” that has elements of “story.” Of course I would never say, as she seems to fear, that everyone ought to add a dose of speculation to their NF to be modern. But — just as I did say in the article — in every school in America 3rd graders, 4th, graders, 5th graders and on up are learning to write research papers. That is, from their point of view, they are learning how to discover new knowledge, how to ask questions, how to go from speculating, to testing ideas, to arriving at conclusions, to writing a persuasive paper. This is new — or newer. And it does reflect the ease with which anyone can find information. And that does mean that NF which itself models that process of pioneering — not necessarily in story telling but more in thinking — has a place.

My goal in the article was to create a credo, a claim, for new(er) speculative NF. I needed to make that clain, that assertion, so that we collectively can re-view what excellence in NF for young people means. And of course, along the way, refine my descriptive categories and give Rusell and Jim and others their proper place. From my POV the problem is not that we collectively are getting ready to dump “straight” NF but rather that many in children’s books are unhappy about “speculative” NF — and we need to get those concerns out in the open and discuss them. I seem to have started that ball rolling.

Comments

  1. Jim Murphy says:

    Marc — Thank you for your long and very thoughtful response. I hope my blog was clear in saying that I have great admiration for your books and for those of all of the other authors mentioned in your New Knowledge article (in fact, the only title I haven’t purchased yet is your If Stones Could Speak, though it is on the list). I simply wanted to point out that many of the elements mentioned as defining the new nonfiction, including original research and speculation on the historical record, have been around for a while, though many/most of us haven’t always elaborated on them in our books. I am hoping to share more of this process with readers in future projects, though naturally how this will happen and how much will be shared depends on the subject matter, research process, age of readers, etc. Am I wary about speculating about the historical record in a way that departs from what has already been accepted by historians? Well, my answer is yes, though that doesn’t mean I haven’t done it or that I am against it in children’s books. I plan to write another I.N.K. blog on this very topic when my turn comes up again (I had to cut it from my original post because of length issues, not to mention that it needed a good deal more work). Anyway, I hope you’ll have a chance to read it when it’s up.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Jim:

    Yes please let us know here when it is up. In a way what you have said here is my point — of course you and others have done original research and have gone beyond what I’d called “settled knowledge.” But in our field, that kind of pioneering has been, and still is, viewed with some suspicion. I am foregrounding those ventures into the unfamiliar and unknown, and I hope you do call attention to those explorations in your books. Young people need to see how you have charted that new territory, and our community needs to develop an appreciation for that open ended (“speculative”) approach to NF for young readers. To put it a different way, thinking is fun and NF of the sort you describe shows that to kids and invites them into the game.

  3. Hi Marc,

    Thanks so much for reading for my post and for expanding and clarifying your argument here. You completely addressed my concerns simply by changing your terminology. I’m all for speculative nonfiction, with the only caveat being that it is revealed as such. I can now agree that a categorization in that direction is useful for several reasons: to help authors clarify their own goals, to help readers (and teachers) identify the thought-provoking material they are seeking, and, yes, to allow those who are skeptical to avoid it if they choose. In the end, authors of speculative nonfiction will have to earn the right to speculate by revealing their sources and thought processes just as “straight” nonfiction authors do today. You and the other authors mentioned in your article (as well as Jim) are certainly doing this, and I think that is why your books are winning awards–and readers.

    Thanks again for openly addressing my concerns, and for your ongoing dedication to promoting great nonfiction for kids!

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    Laurie:

    I almost agree. I certainly concur that if you are going to venture out into the thin air of speculation you need to cite your sources, engage possible other views, and reveal your reasons. You need to play fair with the reader. But I don’t agree that skeptics should merely be able to choose to avoid this brand of writing. They too need to define their criteria of judgment — the fact they that feel doubtful does not mean their emotion is justified. They have no more right to be complacent in caution than we have to be pleased with ourselves for taking risks.

  5. Marc, your last comment makes me think about the discussion on Monday’s post and the role of the author’s note. We don’t want authors to be complacent about what they don’t include, if they exclude information for specific reasons or “fail to speculate.” But how do we create author’s notes that make sense for the audience of the book and also speak to the larger adult community that writes and creates? My thread through all of this is balancing the the expectations I have as a reader who will select nonfiction books that young people will read (so much of which is tied up within the back matter of a text and the author’s note) and the expectation that the author should still be talking to the child reader in the back matter, not just the adult audience.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    In my last few books I’ve taken to adding a note on the research process, and I take it from Jim’s comment that he is going to start doing that. Tone is an issue. I generally write it for the teacher, but aiming for a voice that she could use as a handout with kids. Basic publishing wisdom is that few kids read front or backmatter, which is both good and bad. It allows you to assume you are speaking more directly to an adult, but it does mean few kids with get the benefit of that information. I’d aim for a midground, but then in school visits whether in person or by Skype I (we) can make that same process more accessible to kids.

  7. Marc,
    I didn’t say, or mean to imply, that the skeptics who would choose to avoid a speculative nonfiction work on principle were right to be so closed-minded, just that it gives them the option. And I think well-crafted spec nonfic will do just fine without those naysayers, because it’s so fun and engaging to be swept up in the process of discovery.

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    sure — but I want to challenge their complacency, I want them to have to defend their views as we do ours.

  9. Ah, okay, now I get it. Yes, I’d like to see if there are any good arguments for that case. I’m betting they’re too complacent to make them, though. ;)