Sunday, December 16, 2012

Fiction vs. nonfiction: a false dichotomy

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

So declared Holden Caulfield, one of the most memorable in a long cast of characters that has taken up residence in my own personality, consciously or not.

When I was young I was an insatiable reader of novels, short stories, poetry – anything except nonfiction. Many a tortured soul lingers in the catacombs of my neural networks, like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment). A fair number are villains, just plain creepy, or both. In my mind, Dicken’s immortal Uriah Heep rises to the top of these unforgettable characters like foetid cream, a testament not only to that incomparable author’s ability to sculpt believability from his imagination and love of language, but also to the fact that the most compelling characters aren’t always the protagonists.

They don’t have to be human, either. In what was my favorite book during my middle school years – I reread it 18 times – Cruella de Vil, that eponymously evil antagonist, played one hundred and second fiddle to 101 delightful Dalmatians. And of course, we mustn’t forget that ever-humble hobbit, Frodo, reluctant hero of Middle Earth.

Tragedy also looms large in my remembrances: Are George and Lennie mice or men? Heroism and transformation in the face of tragedy has special power: think Scarlett O’Hara. Or my favorite character of all, Yossarian, the haunted, tragicomic survivor of Catch 22.

The one thing all these characters have in common, aside from lingering in my otherwise spotty memory, is that they are fictional. The stuff of literature.

My riff on memorable fictive characters was inspired by Alan Borsuk’s editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel entitled “Shift to nonfiction in schools becoming reality.” Borsuk’s regular beat is education. In today’s article he observes, “A broad shift is under way from fiction to nonfiction, propelled by the Common Core English and language arts standards that are being implemented in 46 states and the District of Columbia. It almost certainly will mean fewer classics, more historical documents, fewer personal essays, more analytical writing.”

Yet another assault on creativity and imagination. As an artist and art educator I long ago got used to having to defend the value of my discipline. Art, music, dance – all the creative and expressive arts – are defensible on many grounds but I never thought it would come to this. Not literature. It’s axiomatic that every student takes English every year, while “the Arts” suffer second-class status as elective, or worse, are dispensable. But now literature, too?

The importance of English has always been unassailable, or so I believed.

“Why?” asks Borsuk rhetorically. “In general, advocates say, nonfiction gives students better preparation for college and careers by developing such things as analytical skills.”


I learned how to write an expository essay in freshman English under the profound tutelage of Mrs. Wiggenhorn, one of few high school teachers whose name remains in my mental catacombs along with a library full of imaginary ones. She delivered without sacrificing Romeo and Juliet, as the new Common Core Standards do.

Today I read and write far more nonfiction than fiction. I have no ambition to be a novelist despite my admiration for those who do. But I wonder how I would feel about writing today if I’d been forced in high school to read “FedViews,” written by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, or “Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences” instead of Hamlet or The Little Prince. (I didn’t make those nonfiction titles up; they are on the official Common Core Standards list.)

Great literature, like great art, is more than an educational tool. Reading fiction does far more than provide lessons in vocabulary, grammar, style, and content. To paraphrase author Lloyd Alexander, fiction is not an escape from reality but a way of understanding it. Fictional characters and stories are memorable because they insinuate themselves into our psyches. They express emotions, debate moral dilemmas, suffer consequences. They live in us. They help us figure out how to be human.

Borsuk assures us that there is still room in the English curriculum for fiction; however, the balance will be shifted. As much as 70% of all reading in the 12th grade is destined to be nonfiction.

James Piatt, principal of Brown Deer High School, is quoted as saying "I believe it's a strong disservice to kids to spend too much time on fiction when they don't have good nonfiction skills." Borsuk continues, “Nonfiction prepares kids better for the real world, he said.”


I believe in a more nuanced reality, one expressed well by author Yann Martel, who famously imagined a riveting and philosophical narrative of a boy trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger in Life of Pi. He wrote, “Fiction and nonfiction are not so easily divided. Fiction may not be real, but it's true; it goes beyond the garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truths. As for nonfiction, for history, it may be real, but its truth is slippery, hard to access, with no fixed meaning bolted to it. If history doesn't become story, it dies to everyone except the historian.”

The value of fiction is not confined to writers themselves, however. The arts have been recognized for their unquantifiable but demonstrable role in increasing the bottom line in the corporate world, too. Annette Byrd of GlaxoSmithKline says “We need people who think with the creative side of their brains—people who have played in a band, who have painted…it enhances symbiotic thinking capabilities, not always thinking in the same paradigm, learning how to kick-start a new idea, or how to get a job done better, less expensively.”

My world would be so much poorer without all those characters in my head. I know it would. I possess analytical skills but they have not helped me weather the news these past few days. It is a comfort, however, to have Atticus Finch ruminating up there – and Scout, too.

And even Boo Radley. Maybe especially Boo Radley.

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