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.