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.