Last week Monica and disagreed about some aspects of 4th grade interest in the books we now call nonfiction. As I thought about that I realized that there is something fundamentally wrong in how this whole debate was framed, and more generally, how we talk about NF. In fiction there are whole sections of libraries devoted to teasing out the characteristics and readerships for the various genres and subgenres of books: romance, fantasy — high and low, realistic fiction, magical realism, novels in verse — and I am only using categories often discussed in middle grade and YA, not even opening the door to adult. But in our neck of the woods we speak of NF — or, as I was objecting last week — informational books.
Why do we act as if there were one kind of NF, or information — again, as if there was this grand database in the sky, and all an author had to do was accurately cut and paste from it — instead of mapping out the terrain — the genres and subgenres of NF. The only 3 I can think of off hand (leaving out differences by age level and format, such as “picture book nonfiction”) are “creative nonfiction,” “hyrbid nonfiction,” “memoir.” So notice, it takes being more similar to fiction for nonfiction to being to have its subdivisions. Well, no, biography is one — but that is a division by subject, not approach.
What could divisions in NF be? Fact books — books of records, from sports, to Guiness, to arms and armaments, to nature; adventure stories; chronologies; omnisicent narrator NF; investigations — where the author is present; speculative NF (as I discussed in my HB article and subsequent exchange with Russell Freedman and Jim Murphy); NF of passion — where the author tells a NF story with a strong point of view — Howard Zinn is an example on the left, the Patriot’s History of America is the same on the right; single topic/product books — Cod, Salt, Sugar, etc. I am sure there are more — I realize there are a whole raft of Dewey numbers to split up NF by subject. But I am suggesting that different kinds of NF offer different reading experiences, have different aims, and may well appeal to different kinds of readers — and we have no map. We judge interpretive NF by the same standards as books of facts, which makes no sense. It is as if a book of poetry were judged with the same critical vocabulary as a lengthy novel.
So librarian friends — what categories would you suggest? What shall we call the different varieties of NF?