Granola is Not NonGrapefruit
(Especially not my granola.)
The other night my husband handed me a book we were both reading for our book group (TINKERS by Paul Harding; it’s amazing. Read it.). I looked at Jon’s bookmark and found this incisive and inflammatory quote from John McPhee:
“Nonfiction—what the hell, that just says, this is nongrapefruit we’re having this morning. It doesn’t mean anything. You had nongrapefruit for breakfast; think how much you know about that breakfast.”
This is from his Paris Review Interview Spring 2010 that I wrote about last month.
Think how much you know about that breakfast. I love it. And I also love the implicit question: what should we call this type of writing? Considering how much time we put into working on it, thinking about it, crafting it, caring about it, it’s just insulting that it should be NOT something. I posted the question on Facebook (Friend me; I have a literary salon going—I make a comment, leave to write or research for a day and come back to long conversations going on without me).
So I got a lot of comments; most people sharing my annoyance (One of my other heroes, Jane Yolen, said: “I have been complaining about this for over thirty years.”) and suggestions:
VERITAS (Richard Rhodes years ago tried to make a case for VERITY);
FACTION (But Jane says that’s already a term and means information that twists the truth, more fiction than fact, so that won’t work);
NARRATIVE NONFICTION (Thanks, Anita Silvey, and thanks, too for your great new website);
A lot of us call it narrative nonfiction, but it still has that NON problem;
TRUE DAT (!);
LITERATURE (thanks, Ed Sullivan)
Over on Twitter people also got into it:
“True Stories! Then: We call fiction non-true stories.” (This by a nonfiction writer, of course.)
Carol Rasco said she always found it confusing as a child—why was it NON something. Hard to think of something as a negative.
And Deborah Kops pointed out that a new term for all kinds of nonfiction seems to be Biography.
The point I want to make is not only that it would be nice to have a better word for what we are doing, but also that we think so much about what we are doing. To that end I want to tell you about an interesting event I went to the other night at the Columbia Journalism school: “The Science of Storytelling” Dean Nicholas Lemann in conversation with Pulitzer Prize winner Prof. Jonathan Weiner: "A discussion of the practices and pitfalls, techniques and triumphs of long-form science writing."
It happened to feature my husband, but that’s not why I’m writing about it. I’m writing about it because both Jon and Nick Lemann and the folks in the Q & A afterward said terrific things about this kind of writing. I took notes and so I’m going to share the highlights with you. But you should listen to the audio when you get a chance. (The first line of the audio might confuse you. Hint: it was freezing in the room. I, being 52, was happy about that. But apparently others were cold.)
Nick started the session by saying that nonfiction writers seem to fall into two camps: You come up with the story first and then as you are researching and writing find the larger theme; or You start with the theme and then find the story. (See Barb Kerley’s post of last week). He asked Jon which camp he fell into or did he fall somewhere in between. Jon falls in between, and it also changes from book to book, but he usually is already interested in a theme—he follows so many of them—and then looks for a constellation of components: character; drama; scene. He doesn’t want just talking heads. He wants to write what you can call a nonfiction novel about science.
Nick, who writes about mainly politics, talked about how when you talk to politicians it is hard to get beyond their canned quotes, beyond the message they want to put forth. It’s the same for those of us who write nonfiction for kids: we don’t want to just spew out the same old stories, the same facts that are in textbooks. We want to get beyond the canned stuff and write groundbreaking and original books. If you look at the nonfiction that has been published for kids in the past few years you will see exactly what I mean.
Nick asked Jon if he uses a formula for structure. I, in the back row (where he wanted me) almost got hysterical (which may be why he wanted me there come to think of it. Huh.). I happen to know that Jon struggled for a long time with the structure for his last book and I’m sure if there had been a formula he could have bought he would have. (Ladies and Gentlemen, get it here, get it now, a formula for your structure. Buy six, get one free!)
But he says that his structure is almost never this happened and then that happened. He wants to weave a narrative, and have a structure that fits with the theme of the book. Sometimes, as is this book, his structure is a little surprising. I think we in kidlit and especially in picture books can play around with surprising structure--as long as we don't get too complicated.
Back to the professors: there are things Jon likes to do, and often does: he starts with a scene, then backs away and gives some history, a context, and then gets back to the scene, but we’re just in chapter one here! He says above all he strives to marry storytelling and explanation and that it is always a struggle to balance the story with the right level of explanation. (Sound familiar, I.N.K. writers and readers?)
Nick pointed out that forms exist for a reason and that sometimes you can take a form and make it seem new, and so form is more your friend than your enemy. That is true, too. I think we come at it from both directions. Innovation and experience and back again.
Jon talked about how he likes to find one (or sometimes two) interesting characters and then base a book on that person. In the Q & A someone asked why do you have to do that? Why can’t the straight science speak for itself? And there are people who are trying that—both for adults and for children. I could tell you more about this event, but I think you will have a good time listening to the conversation yourself. Here's the link again. And in the meantime, let’s come up with a better name for this thing that we do and read and love. Here are some more, just in:
Just-So Stories (smiling here)
Information (with fiction being Imagination)
A couple of years ago in a post Marc (Nonfiction Guru) Aronson suggested Knowledge.
I still don't have a favorite. At the moment I finish this piece I'm leaning toward Truedat. Or Granola.