Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Rose By Any Other Name?

Before I became a kids’ book author, I wrote magazine articles including an interview with Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners. Among other things, I asked her if she had ever been stumped by a question of etiquette. Only one, she replied, finding a good way to refer to the person someone lives with but is not married to. Partner seems like a business relationship. Boyfriend is frankly weird after 30 years of cohabitation or if that “boy” is gray or bald. Lover much the same. POSSLQ or "Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters," a term coined in the late 1970s by the Census Bureau? Please.

As we all know, words matter. So what about the one that describes our genre of writing: nonfiction. I used to feel just fine about it, but now I have a slight twinge. After all, it does have a negative point of reference. The “I’m not fiction” instead of the “I am something” kind of writing. Hmmm.

When I started doing school visits years ago, I heard educators using the term informational writing. Frankly I hate that even more. It sounds like we write instructions for assembling bookshelves. Yes, nonfiction transmits information, but while doing so it can also convey the magic and wonder of the world in words funny or beautiful.

Creative nonfiction, which could accurately describe many of our books? Not horrible, despite the basic “un-fiction” problem mentioned earlier. At least it acknowledges that we use the same arsenal of literary tools as the fiction folks: story, setting, characters, conflict, dialogue (or quotations in our case). And most importantly, imagination. But I’ve learned that creative nonfiction does not refer to the Michael Pollans or Susan Orleans in the adult world and the Jennifer Armstrongs and Elizabeth Partridges in ours. Instead it most often means memoirs, which makes a lot of sense if you think about it.

So, what are we to do? Ask Miss Manners? Come up with a new word? Ms. made it into our language, although POSSLQ died a warranted death. Or, should we remember 7-Up’s old ad campaign where it celebrated itself as the Uncola—the break from the ordinary, the un and only—and wear the nonfiction name with pride.


Linda Salzman said...

Marc Aronson talked about this on his blog: http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/blog/1880000388/post/1950022595.html. His suggestion was "Knowledge." I think almost anything would be better than non fiction. It is really confusing for kids. "It's all true" works for me.

Unknown said...

I have a fragment of a memory of visiting a school that used the term “faction,” to emphasize the factual nature of nonfiction. Of course, faction already has a meaning:
A sub-group that forms a cohesive, often contentious minority within a larger group.

I can relate to that, and who says we can‘t add an additional meaning to a word?

Unknown said...

I like to say I do conceptual writing decorated with facts.

Unknown said...
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Barbara said...

I remember the story of the boy who came to the library looked at all the shelves of book spines and asked, "But where do you keep the good books?"
How about good books?

Anonymous said...

I like the faction suggestion, except that the cultural studies folks have already given it a meaning for stuff that is between fact and fiction. So fictionalized factual or fiction based on fact. Basically to grasp something about how even fictional stories tell us some truths about the world.

Which is a pretty deep idea when talking to kids but tells us something about the quasi-fictional nature of the distinction altogether.

I agree about "information" books. Not least because it is usually contrasted to "story" books, as if non-fiction doesn't have story. Though in a lot of school books, it doesn't. I am shocked at some of the school library journal reviews sometimes which seem to privilege the boring ones that are easy to mine for information for reports.

Good books seems like the best suggestion.

smaileh said...

When I do a tour of the library, I usually refer to nonfiction books as true books.

steve jenkins said...

One possibility is to avoid the general term - be it non-fiction or something else - and describe what we write more specifically, in the same way the work of fiction writers is often described in genre terms: mystery, historical fiction, fantasy, bodice-ripper, etc.
In this scheme of things, I write natural science books.

Linda Salzman said...

Now I must go on Amazon and search "bodice-ripper".

Anonymous said...

I'm sort of entranced by the "faction" idea, too bad it has already been adopted and given a different meaning. I often say to kids that the stuff I write is "all true." I love then they look at the photographs of kids in the Amazon, for instance, and ask, "Is that true too?" Think they would ask something like that if we didn't live in an age of digitally-altered everything?

Unknown said...

Wow, I didn't know that "faction" is defined as a combo of fiction and nonfiction... on one site they used The Magic School Bus series as an example. Ummmm... guess I'm a “faction” author-illustrator and didn't know it. Hope you guys won't kick me off I.N.K.!

Linda Zajac said...

I don't know what made me think of this old post lately, but I have. I too believe that nonfiction has a negative conotation (it's not something) and that's not good. I'd love to see it renamed and I think it would help the entire genre as far as sales and media. My suggestion is to call nonfiction smartbooks. If we're referring to nonfiction written as a story we can then shorten this to smart stories.
There's smartfood popcorn and smartwater and I believe the name is helpful in selling those products. Essentially that's what nonfiction is doing - making the reader smart.