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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Audience, Audience — Who Is the New NF Reader?

Jim Murphy added some new thoughts to the Speculative NF discussion this week in his I.N.K. blog http://inkrethink.blogspot.com/2011/04/battle-cry-freedom.html. He suggests that one reason I’ve been advocating for  this “new knowledge” is that I “wanted his books and those of other New Knowledge practicioners to be seen as equal to and as worthy of serious discussion and respect as any adult nonfiction book. That he wants to break the chains that enslave us as “children’s book” writers.* I can see why he might think that — and there is an adult reader side to what is going in NF now that I’ll talk about below — but I just don’t agree. In fact after reading what Jim wrote I asked myself — is all this a bid to so blur the lines between kids and adults that my/our books get adult attention? And the answer is no. Rather, I am speaking to us — to the community of people who create, share, evaluate, NF with and for younger readers. I do want to bring into our consideration some of the views and insights that have gained currency in the adult world — but that is to open up our thinking, not to smuggle our works into theirs.

Jim’s concern — expressed through the telling example of a Nat Geo (the magazine) cover story on a “discovery” that turned out to be a hoax. He is worried that if even that prestigious magazine backed by all sorts of experts can slip, how likely are we as authors-out-on-our-own to either inadvertently get something wrong or — here he uses the example of the Virginia 4th grade classroom series that misstated black enlistment in Confederate armies — in service to some agenda present information to kids as “fact” when it is the most poorly researched and ideologically-convenient mythology. I must admit I see the world differently. On the one hand I do believe we have the highest responsibility to be fair — read as widely as possible, check out the sources of our sources, consult experts when possible to have our views tested in the cut and thrust of academic debate — we are on our honor as authors writing for young readers to stand behind what we write. But I also am not terribly disturbed if something we write turns out to be shaded by a new discovery, overturned by a new interpretation, or even exposed as a mistake or myth by a later reader. We live in time of information glut, not information scarcity. Young people do in fact have easy access to views different from the ones expressed in our books. The great example is Pluto — as Betty Carter wrote in her HB review of the Magic School Bus 25th anniversary book — which proudly talked about the 9 planets — the book was great because of how it emphasized scientific method. The particular results of using that method can, will, and do change. So I am not concerned that, in seeking out new knowledge, we may make mistakes. So long as we are also introducing readers to how we got our information, and encouraging them to keep reading and searching.

On the matter of adult readers. I spoke to YA librarians in Long Island last week, and learned a lot from them. One mentioned that she takes a selection of new NF that she thinks is particularly engaging as a reading experience and puts it in the front of the library along with the new fiction — not by theme or Lets Read About X This Month content, but as a pure reading. Then another librarian says she does the same, but in the center of the library, mixed in with adult books. There certainly is an adult readership for the best YA NF (as we know there is for YA fiction). I would encourage librarians, bookstore owners, publishers to be aware of this “cross-up” readership. But I do not think the aim of reaching that readership changes in any way our primary obligation, which is to speak to younger readers.

So, yes, Jim I know there are adult readers out there who might like New Knowledge books. But that is not what is driving me. Rather it is the sense that we offer a great deal to young people (middle grade up through high school) by seeking new truth and thus modeling how to go about that, even if that means they may later learn that what we wrote was in some way limited or incorrect. So long as we have been responsible, the danger is not that we will be proven wrong, but that we will not have helped guide readers in how to swim in the seas of infomration glut.

Comments

  1. Jim Murphy says:

    Hi Marc. I wondered as I wrote my I.N.K. blog that I might be seen as an old fogy standing in the way of progress. And in some ways, I guess I am. I do hope I was clear that I am all for original research that might lead to new discoveries and that this in turn might lead to a different interpretaton of the historical record. I’ve done it in the past, as have other people, though we never really advertised it as a major feature of our books. I looked on it as a part of my job and sometimes mentioned it in jacket copy or notes. And, yes, reputable, caring writers might make mistakes (I don’t know about you, but I’ve never read a perfect book; I always seem to find something to question, wonder about, or argue over in any book about history, including my own). So what’s my problem?
    Your Horn Book article is indeed a battle cry for New Knowledge, suggesting that these books are the real and only future of our field. You also acknowledge that mistakes happen and suggest that that’s just a natural part of this kind of challenging and complex intellectual search. It’s the coupling of this headlong charge forward with an acceptance of error that has me worried. As I hope I made clear, I’m not at all concerned about what you or the other respected writers you named might do. I’m worried about the many other writers out there who might not care as much (in the same way that the internet provides a wealth of information, it encourages an instant feeling of expertise and and sometimes reckless expression).
    I mentioned the National Geographic fossil blunder to point up that even expert, caring people make monumental mistakes (in this case caused, in part, by a desire by them to be the first to announce their discovery). The only reason their mistake didn’t have a worse effect was because other experts jumped all over them publicly, so their new information and interpretation never made it into the classrooms or popular literature.
    I mentioned the VA textbook because it demonstrates a complete breakdown of the filtering system for information — the writer accepted the information about Black volunteers in the Civil War, as did her editors and the publisher. And it made its way into classrooms and was in use (and accepted as fact) for weeks.
    And I mentioned Tanya Lee Stone’s article because she points out that in the rush to create sexy, dramatic narrative some trade book writers/editors/publishers are allowing made-up dialogue to appear in books labeled nonfiction. As I mentioned, Tanya did not “out” the particular books she objected to, but I surmised that one or more of these titles has been accepted by some reviewers and award committees as legit and worthy (which might lead to increased sales and the production of more such books). Those books are already in school and public libraries polluting thousands of kids’ views of history. Wouldn’t it follow that if made-up dialogue is acceptable than some pretty outrageous and deplorable historical speculation would, too?
    What’s the answer? Better gatekeeping by editors and publishers is one step. But I doubt if this will happen universally until reputations and bank accounts are severly and regularly bruised. Until then I can see some of them taking a “let’s see if this flies” attitude, leaving the hard work to others. Will we writers expose and criticize other writers? Some might, but I’m going to guess that most of us are too nice and will take a safer approach such as condemning a problem in a general sort of way or just hoping it goes away. That leaves the heavy lifting to reviewers and here you run into the dual problem of reviewers who are caring and thoughtful but aren’t experts in every field and review length which usually doesn’t allow for lengthy, complex discussions, something, by the way, a new intrepretation of history would need.
    All of these problems can be fixed or the systems modified to avoid a really horrible situation, but I can see this taking a good deal of time (years) to sort out. Right now (as this old fogy sees it) we need to move forward with caution so that our readers and their teachers and librarians (who might also lack expert knowledge) aren’t saddled with the chore of mopping up a potential mess.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    or how about this, Jim, what if we encouraged students and teachers to post critiques and questions about our NF books — we’ve all had the experience of a sharp-eyed young reader seeing errors and typos in our books, but what about taking the Wiki approach — we put out a book, then expect reaction, question, comment from the world. And if that exposes flaws, we stand exposed. My goal is engagement — getting young readers, and older readers, to care — to be invested enough in a book to take issue with it. Maybe that is just an article of faith, but I think once the community of readers cares about the material in a book we all win, whereas if the community of readers is passive — merely taking in what we say, we lose.

  3. Jim Murphy says:

    I have no problem with readers reacting to the information in my books and I always try to explain what I’ve done and encourage a dialogue. But that’s what any responsible writer will do. My worry is that the writer’s who push the envelope in order to be first with an observation or simply want to get attention, starred reviews and awards probably won’t engage readers in a real or full way. I think they’ll make a lame explanation and hope it all passes by without a lot of fallout for their writing careers. An interesting thing is that as far as I can tell none of the people directly involved at National Geographic has gone out of his way to explain what happened (Nat’l Geo hired an outside person to figure out what went wrong and do an article about it); the VA textbook writer has not explained what happened other than to admit she did research on the internet; and I don’t recall any of the children’s book writers Tanya referenced explaining why they think making up dialogue and calling it nonfiction (to be used in classrooms as fact) is acceptable. In other words, they all left their messes out there for others to deal with. We’re actually not very far apart on the issue of New Knowledge, Marc, though I admit I do worry it can lead to some troublesome situations.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    I agree we are not far apart and, if I am reading you correctly, the onus is also on us as writers to critique even, gasp, one another when something strikes us as wrong. Susan told my Rutgers students last night that she thinks writers need to go back to the primary source for every quotation, and travel to every place they intend to describe. I don’t agree — for one thing that would rule out writing about people whose language you don’t read, since a translation is a step removed and may not exist outside of an academic monograph — which means you are relying on another person. Indeed I think that, often enough, we need to go to the academics — to get a sense of how they have interpreted the past, not to the sources, which we are likely to misread if we don’t have a very rich sense of context. But there we are disagreeing about how far to go, not about someone who has not gone far enough.

  5. Marc,

    It was a great pleasure to meet your Rutgers students via Skype last night.

    One of your students asked me about on-site research and whether I felt it necessary for writers to do, considering that some subjects might be dangerous. (I’m paraphrasing here.) I told him that I find it necessary to visit the places I’m writing about.

    Every place I describe? No.

    But every place that is the subject of my book.

    For me, it wouldn’t be possible to write about the KKK and not attend a present-day rally/congress/meeting. If I don’t t do that research out of fear or if I don’t think it’s necessary or important, then I would revisit my reasons for wanting to write about such a subject in the first place. Would such fear or reticence show up in subconscious or conscious ways in my work? Maybe. Maybe not.

    So for me, this sort of research is necessary and never fails to inform my work.

    (Emphasis on “I.”)

    I also said that I believe writers should track primary quotes and other data to the original source, and I stand by that.

    For one reason, I don’t think it’s wise to trust a secondary source. What if the quote or data is wrong? What if it was used out of context? Misattributed or — gasp! — invented?

    With so much primary material available on the internet these day, why would anyone stop two clicks away from an original document?

    (Of course, it’s not always wise to trust a primary source either. That’s why writers need to steep themselves in the research.)

    You mention translations. This is a tricky area. I believe writers should make every effort to check the original in the original language. Second best? Finding the best possible translation, utilizing experts in the field, and steeping himself or herself in a rich sense of context.

    Are these absolutes? No. Is there leeway? Of course.

    Susan

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    Susan:

    I admire you for journeying to Ireland and the Ozarks in search of authenticity, and I think your personal engagment shows in, for example, the illustrations you pick and how well suited they are to the text. So I am all for depth of commitment. If there is a difference in our approaches — not really a disagreement, but two alternate visions — it is that I trust the experts first. To me the necessary grounding is in the existing studies by academics. I read through those, following their footnotes. I want to feel I deeply understand what is known, how it is understood, and where there are conlicts. I deeply respect the level of knowledge needed to fully understand the past, and I feel my main need is to get oriented in that field of discussion. Then I see the primary sources through the instructed eyes — or the conflicting schools — of the experts. So in my mind the necessary commitment is to deep understanding — so that when I write about the past for younger readers it is from an informed base. Then primary sources add texture and flavor to an understanding I’ve developed by immersing myself in the literature. Of course reading through academic writing also exposes flaws, gaps, disagreements among experts, or places where the standard textbook story is wrong. But for me it is the journey into the existing literature that is the absolute necessity, and the trip to the place or the primary sources that can supply a nice extra.

  7. Oh, Marc, I agree. And I view the “experts” in a similar way.

    I don’t turn to primary sources — including travel — until I’m well prepared.

    But . . . Do you really think of primary sources as a “nice extra?

  8. Jim Murphy says:

    The primary sources are the foundation of the text; they not only inform us with details and facts (and, yes, they can be flawed, but that’s why depth of research counts), but often provide the voice of the time we’re investigating. And that research includes the input of not only academics on all sides of an issue, but other well-informed people (I’m thinking here of ordinary folk who have invested years researching such subjects as the Civil War, the Battle of the Alamo and other topics). It’s not so much that one area of research is more important than another; it’s gathering together all of the information possible and weighing what is more reliable, interesting, informative, telling, unusual, etc. What ends up on the page is the result of our own ways of interpreting all of this and why we all produce differnt sort of books.

  9. Marc Aronson says:

    I like how Jim puts it — the individual forms of “gathering together all of the informatoin possible” — that we all employ. Are “primary sources” a “nice extra”? It depends — when I wrote Race, for example, that is what they had to be, since I was dealing with thousands of years of history. Yet for If Stones, most of the work involved being at Stonehenge or speaking with the team of archaeologists. So the amount of primary sources I use depends on the nature of the theme, person, or subject I am writing about. I agree that primary sources “provide the voice of the time we’re investigating” — but the place — the amount of space given to those solos and duets depends on the scope of the book. I am interested in themes, which people illustrate. I have a sense you are more interested in people, whose voices may add up to themes.