My nonfiction class is going swimmingly, and I am learning as much as the students. Yesterday we had two guests, the great reviewer and critic Dr. Betty Carter, and Kathleen Krull, whose “Lives of” books are all over library shelves. Kathleen said something very interesting about herself — which one of the students then amplified. She said she sees herself as a writer, not a historian. Her gift, and her goal, is to write about people young readers should get to know (in other words they may well not know) with a soupcon of humor, a dash of wit, a sprinkling of the oddball and the curious. Her work begins with secondary sources — she is not looking for a person in his or her own words, nor for primary sources to read and investigate in new ways. She wants to follow the trails of experts who have sifted through all that, and find nuggets for her readers. My student then added — we need to map different kinds of NF authors, and match them to readers’ tastes.
That is so obvious — clearly when a fiction reader comes to the library the librarian will ask what genre she likes, or which favorite books she read last, etc. But for NF we so often go by topic or assignment — dinos, Vikings, black inventors, woman who made a difference, pets, etc — as if there were not different approaches, or authors who specialized in different kinds of treatment. Some readers will want many short witty biographies, some will want a pathbreaking expose, some will want a history detective investigation with doors left open for the reader, some — I realized after Kathleen left — may want a polemic. We were looking at a somewhat random collection of books on the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. And I realized that the books are polite. We have so moved away from populist rage — or we leave that to Grapes of Wrath or Howard Zinn. But why wouldn’t we want some Left and Right NF writers making their cases to readers? Using the bully pulpits of books?
Though their was not planning to this, Betty made a similar point about the kinds of NF writers. She said there are “knowers” and there are “learners.” That is, what some NF writers have to offer is a sense of being in their safe hands — their witty, or calm, or lyrical prose guides us while we sit back and trust the ride. Others are eager to share their process of learning, their excitement at discovery, their bumps and bruises and aha moments. Those are two totally different NF styles. But, back to Kathleen and the student comment, we don’t have a general Q and A vocabulary for finding out which style a reader likes. We are back at frogs, stars, Rosa, UFOs, or global warming. It is time to expand our vocabulary for discussing NF — it is not just that we don’t have a scorecard, we haven’t even named the positions the players play.