Thursday, January 19, 2012

Blending Fact and Fiction: My Line in the Sand

I hope I’m not being too repetitive, but I’m nothing if not consistent. Since books keep appearing that blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction, and people keep asking whether or not that’s acceptable; I keep feeling compelled to pipe up with an answer.

If pushed to choose Yes or No, my answer is No. But a Yes or No answer simply won’t suffice in this ever-stretching conversation. So I continue to redefine what is acceptable to me as I think about it. I wrote about this issue for the Horn Book in an article called A Fine, Fine Line (a reference to Avenue Q, which I admit, probably means I need to find a 12-step program for Musical Theatre Lovers Anonymous), and in a New York Times review of a biography that muddied the waters to the extent of inventing a narrator who engaged in fictional dialogue with the real-life subject.

Here is my consistent line in the sand (not that anyone should care what I think!). If an author and/or publisher fictionalize parts of a book, but take the time and care to ensure that readers are made aware of which bits are fiction and which bits are true, I don’t worry as much for the reader. But if the team does not do this, I find it misleading and unfair in terms of our responsibility to our young readers. I have no beef with engaging books, dynamic packaging, and trying to keep things interesting for kids, especially while so much of their non-book media world is so dazzling and shiny and potentially distracting. But when the entertainment factor starts to get in the way of their knowledge base being filled with half-truths, I believe the line has been crossed.

Now, you may have noticed that I am not citing any specific books to scrutinize even though I referenced ongoing conversations about new titles in my second sentence. That is intentional, as I’m starting to think this is less about particular books and more about a growing lack of attention to what, in my humble opinion, has the potential to create a problem for young readers. It’s not a new problem; it is more of a revisited phenomenon that had fallen out of favor and is being embraced once again, as evidenced by a recently published book that has the words “fact and fiction” in the subtitle. So clearly, this blending is being done with some planning and thought. These decisions are intentional, and being made by plenty of smart people in our field, so I welcome any and all opinions—especially those that might shed some light on an aspect I perhaps have not yet considered.

8 comments:

Jim Murphy said...

A great and valuable post, Tanya. I agree with you wholeheartedly, though I might be a tad, how shall I say this, less giving. I see a growing trend where fictional details and spectulation are being added to create atmosphere, build drama, round out a character potrait, or to emphasize a theme and I think it's unfair to young readers (even if there's a mention in, say, a forward that such things happen in the text). Most of our readers will have very little background knowledge in the subject and will simply accept these made-up items as fact. I'm okay if a text reads "it's possible that so-and-so thought this," but anything else moves the text into the fiction category for me. As for not citing specific examples, I'm with you on this as well. It's really not our job to call out these books on this issue; it's the publisher's job to keep their authors honest and reviewers and award committees jobs to criticize or ignore them (and in time writers will take notice). We need to conserve as much energy as possible for doing research and writing accurate texts (which is a lot harder than inventing things when handy and ultimately more rewarding for us and readers).

Steve Sheinkin said...

When I do school visits, students always ask about this. I'll them I know a certain historical scene/conversation took place, but I can't quote it in a book because there are no reliable sources. And they'll say, "Why don't you just make it up, to make the book more exciting?" I try to explain the importance of non-fiction, true stories... but I'm not sure I get the point across. Seems to me that's a big part of our challenge - to convince kids true stories are just as cool/fun to read as any novel. Then there'll be no need to blur the lines!

KateCoombs said...

I find myself comparing the balance you address with my experience retelling one of the Brothers Grimm's folktales. I added an author's note clarifying the ways in which I'd changed the original story (which, come to think of it, was probably changed by the Grimms and by numerous storytellers before them). Anyway, as an educator, I'm happy to see that NF is more rigorous this day, and when fiction is mixed in, the author is usually good about letting readers know.

KateCoombs said...

Oops. I meant, "these days"!

Cheryl Harness said...

This discussion SO reminds me of Jas. Cameron's version of Titanic - with all of the genuine, powerful stories that could have been told about the real people on board, did we need the fictitious, anachronistic lovers to make the story more exciting? Why muddy the icy waters?

Peggy T said...

I agree with you completely, Tanya. The line seems to have blurred, but not for me, and thankfully not for you and many other great writers. And I agree with Jim that it should be the job of editors, agents and reviewers for keeping the line clear. It makes our job a lot harder when there are competing titles that add fictional narrators or invented dialogue, and I cringe when I see these titles in the nonfiction section. I wish librarians would take that into consideration when they are cataloging and shelving. If we all stand firm maybe this trend will be short lived.

kgb said...

As a children's librarian I find this fine line troubling. I have read several books that have come in cataloged as "non-fiction" only to find out that parts of it have been fictionalized. I figure if I have a hard time figuring this out with some background knowledge of the subject, kids will have no idea. In my perfect library I think I would put some of these titles in the fiction section.

Linda Zajac said...

I think the distinction here is between a book that is designed to entertain and a book that is designed to educate. The main purpose of nonfiction is to educate, so my question is how well does a nonfiction book with some fictionalized stuff do this? I'd love to see research on reading comprehension of the subject matter. If the fictionalized parts are clearly distinguished, I would guess a reader after reading a book like this could easily distinguish fact from fiction. However, how does the passage of time impact the reader's ability to distinguish fact from fiction? I'm thinking that memory fades and that line gets blurred at some point.