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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

“Tell the Truth But Tell It Slant”

Over at Read Roger, someone who chose to remain anonymous posted this about the “Speculation” debate — “The new NF seems to be all about embracing the slant and deliberately writing non-fiction from a specific viewpoint. Whether I agree with the author or not, I think it’s perilously close to propaganda and I don’t like it.”  I noticed this too late to add to the string there, so I’ll take it up here. Some of the new NF I highlighted in the article does indeed reflect a strong authorial POV, however that in no may implies it is “perilously close to propaganda,” but that is a concern worth addressing. Propaganda is writing in which the goal of influencing the reader is paramount — you select what you say and how you say it to manipulate, entrance, alarm, convince the audience. It is a form of advertising. Any book I write, edit, or praise lives and dies by the rule of “falsification.” That is, no matter what position I begin with, or what passion I experience in writing, or what goal I have in telling the story, my first obligation is to evidence. If I find evidence that contradicts the story I had planned to tell or the message I intended to get across, or my motivation in writing, I must still share it. So long as an author does his or her best to abide by that standard, that book fits my standards for NF. But then what of slant?

When we get to this point in the argument, some people think they are agreeing with me by saying either “all history is POV,” or “history is written by the winners.” I don’t exactly agree with either of those statements. The most basic understanding of historiography is that, yes, who we are, when we do our writing and research, does influence the questions we ask, the evidence we consider, the conclusions we come to, and how we write. But that does not mean all subjectivities are equal. As I said in the first paragraph, we are each limited, but we must all abide by rules of evidence. So not all POVs are equal or equally valid. Or, better, any POV may be a valid starting place, but your work will lead you to discard some and emphasize others. From, say, the early 1800s to the 1960s national “history” replaced theology as a form of explaining the past present and future. That is, instead of viewing the pageant of the past as evidence of God’s moral plan, historians wrote history to explain the rise and fall of empires and nations. And often those histories did set out to show why the English-speaking peoples, or the German, or the French, were in some way superior and deserved to rule and uplift others. But since the 1960s that enterprise has shattered. In fact anyone who has taken a college or graduate school history course since the 60s will know how much race, class, gender are central categories and how often history is written to feature the resistance of the “loser” not the supposed glory of the “winner.”

So what of “slant”? One point in my HB article that no one has taken up is my explanation of why we may be having new NF for kids: the flood of information. The argument used to be that NF for kids needed to be neutral b/c that might be the only book on a subject in the library, and thus the only source a young reader could easily find. That is simply no longer true. I say that writers can, if they choose, show their hands, reveal the dog they have in this fight, show their own personal passion to investigate and tell one historical story. That tells the reader why he or she might care — it is why the author cared. We can step away from the teacher’s podium and speak person to person. And we can have confidence that a young person can find other resources — indeed, it is our obligation to feature, in our backmatter, other books or sites that disagree with us and are worth investigating.

The title of this blog is of course taken from Emily Dickinson. She was talking about poetry, which is only NF in the strange world of Mr. Dewey. But there is a way her words apply to us — we must tell the truth, that is our obligation, our calling. But we can also make our personal POV part of that narration– we can add the texture, the tension, the passion that comes from speaking with our hearts as well as our minds. In a way, that is the opposite of propaganda — rather than selecting words to influence others, we reveal more of ourselves, thus letting the reader use that information in weighing our work.

Comments

  1. Linda Zajac says:

    I should think any reputable nonfiction writer and editor would examine and evaluate all the facts. Some subjects are still controversial despite overwhelming evidence. If a reader disagrees with that overwhelming evidence and is not open to new information then they might very well conclude the writing was propaganda.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    sure I agree, but the person who posted at Read Roger seemed to suspect that, in arguing for personal POV, I was giving authors some leeway to slant the story. I think that concern exists more broadly in kids books where NF is in this strange place where it is criticized for being dull, yet many want it to be neutral and “objective.” In other words we are borth urged to take the distant voice of the textbook and criticized for doing so.

  3. Robin says:

    I always teach my students that EVERYONE has an agenda – you just have to figure out what it is. And some are more ‘altruistic’ than others…

  4. Related to this discussion is Harper’s January 2011 issue, with a forum of creative directors from ad agencies: “A SUPER BOWL SPOT FOR UNCLE SAM: Can Madison Avenue make us love our government?” They discuss how they might create an ad that would raise public opinion of the federal government. One of them described of goal of propaganda as influencing people’s thinking, and advertising as influencing us to buy stuff, no matter what we think. At the end of the article we see the four spots they created. Cool stuff, with very different slants.

  5. Correction: The Harper’s article is in the February issue.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    or, as I wrote in the blog, we can talk about our agendas, and we can do our best to use the rules of evidence — so our stake in the story is visible, and we play fair. the question is as much about process as motivation. What do I do if I feel strongly that something is true, and find evidence that it may be false, or unprovable, or dubious? That is standard we can all apply — how do you deal with counterevidence? Ignore it? Bury it? Weasel around it? Or reconsider you assumptions?

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    thanks, nice suggestion

  8. Linda Zajac says:

    It depends on the quality and quantity of that counterevidence and also how reputable the scientist/historian is. If the evidence is plausible, subtle changes in words can mean a world of difference “is” versus “may” or “might,” for example. The editor has the last word though.

  9. Marc Aronson says:

    Linda:

    You bring up an important distinction that may not be clear to everyone who comes to this site. Not all books are the same. In some — what are usually called “trade books” — the editor does not have the last word. A book that has my name on it, in which I control the copyright, I have the last word. The book is my expression, shared with the world by the publisher. Should the publisher feel that my view is unacceptable, its only option is to cancel the contract, it cannot print that represents its judgement if that conflicts with mine. So, for example, one Amazon comment on Sugar criticized us for including politically sensitive issues — such as the parallel beteween the abuse of indtured sugar workers in the 19th century and undocumented immigrants today — because she felt that would make it difficult for schools (fearing parental reaction) to use the book. Our editor never raised that point, but even she had done so, she did not have veto power. It was up to us to decide whether we wanted to draw that parallel even at the risk of potential lost sales. Other NF books, though, are different. While they may have a named author, the “ownership” of the book ultimately rests with the publisher. The publisher may set limits on, say, lexile cout, or which subjects to include or exclude, or even word choice — such as your example of “is” versus “might have been.” Publisher driven books may have a great deal to offer — they may be very well suited to a teacher’s needs, well-illustrated, available in classroom sets, reliable. But they are not driven by the individual vision of the author. Those books aim at something more similar to an outstanding novel: they are a contribution not just to a classroom’s needs, but to literature for young readers. Only their goal is not just compelling writing, but a pathway into discovery. I do think we need to train teachers and librarians to understand the difference between the two sorts of NF, and to use the two different sorts of books in different ways.

  10. Linda Zajac says:

    Marc,

    Thank you for taking the time to write a lengthy explanation. My understanding of a “trade” book did not have anything to do with who owns the copyright, but rather who the book was marketed to. The document, “From Keyboard to Printed Page” on the SCBWI site defines trade as marketed to bookstores, libraries and schools. I searched the Purple Crayon article about publisher types for the word “copyright” and found it mentioned only once at the bottom of the page (copyright 1996 Underdown…)
    http://www.underdown.org/the_biz.htm
    So, this information is new to me. My experience in the magazine market has always been more like a team approach with the editor having the final say. I now wonder if the copyright is owned by the author when the author has a PhD and is considered an expert on the topic.

    How can teachers, librarians and magazine article writers distinguish between a book where the author has the final say versus a book where the publisher has the final say?

  11. Marc Aronson says:

    whether or not copyright is owned by the author is strictly a matter of negotiation with the publisher — not an academic qualification. The first simple option is to look on the copyright page of the book and see who is listed. But, more generally, think of fiction: any novel published by a major publisher is “author driven” — the writer controls what goes into the book. That may not be so in some very defined series, say some leveled reader, but as a rule of thumb any book by an author you know published by a major publisher whose books are sold in bookstores has control of the book. The same is true of NF — if it is published by a house which aims to sell individual copies via bookstores — rather than series via catalogs and sales reps to schools or libraries — it most likely to be a book in which the author had significant control over the words in the book. The design and how much art, or whether the art is b/w or color, is still usually decided by the publisher, though the author is generally responsible for finding the art and securing permission to reproduce it. Hope this helps.

  12. Linda Zajac says:

    Marc,

    Thanks for explaining, but it sounds like the distinction between trade and WFH. It seems most trade books stand alone and WFH appears in series. I think it is less important who has the final word versus the mere fact that the book has some new insights.

    I’m currently reading a book about writing fictional stories. I found this relevant line about how a writer sees things. “The writer needs….the ability to see more than the facts: to look beyond them; to hypothesize about them; to draw conclusions from them.” ~ Swain. Thus, it seems that meaningful insights are components of a good story written by a good writer whether that writer is writing fiction or nonfiction.

    Yes, it does help. Thanks again.

  13. Marc Aronson says:

    Nice quotation, may want to borrow it. Series NF aims to do something different from trade NF. Series NF meets school and library needs, it is often taylored to Lexile requirements and state standards. The books can offer a great deal of information in ways designed to make sure kids can make use of it. Sometimes series can be quite innovative in conception: the mix of subjects they address. But they are not generally the expression of an individual author’s viewpoint. We do need to be careful in defining what is a series. When I edited the Land and People books we often fought this battle, since each book stood alone. I suspect the same is true for the Scientist in the Field people — they want to be sure each book is seen as a personal statement by an individual author and expert. But in general the work for hire series are defined by whoever sets the rules for the series, rather than by the authors.

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