Monday, July 12, 2010

A Rose By Another 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.


Unknown said...

I've often thought of calling our work "conceptual writing" because we write about ideas and concepts and decorate them with information. Our books have a thesis or a conceptual framework and facts are used to make the ideas concrete. By linking information to concepts, we help build a matrix that serves learners well in the future. Now they have a basis for their own creativity.

Jennifer Armstrong said...

How about DD? As in Dewey Decimal? Most of the options have a subtle bias one way or the other, containing subjective descriptors such as "narrative" or "creative" or "true," since those words (I hope) also describe aspects of fiction. I do not object to naming myself a DeweyDecimalian any more than I object to naming myself an American or a New Yorker.