Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sunday Salon: Dismissing fiction

I have two older children so I probably should have just skipped curriculum night at the middle school altogether. But the poor third child gets short shrift in so many ways that I just couldn't bring myself to completely ditch the evening. But I should have. Because it made me angry.

The first stop of the evening was a presentation by the TD teacher. She explained, as I already knew from my older children passing through this middle school, that Language Arts classes are inclusive but that children who need differentiation do receive it within the classroom setting. Since this is not new to me, I was only paying minimal attention at this point. But I managed to hear her loud and clear when she said that the goal with exceptional readers is to move them from reading mainly fiction to reading non-fiction because it is "real" and "true." My hackles not only went up, they practically jumped off my body in an all out revolt. Did she really just say that non-fiction was more valuable than fiction? Why yes, it appeared that she did. Result on this mother? Immediate loss of respect for ignorant teacher.

Now, I could tear down non-fiction in making the argument that it is no better than fiction but I happen to like non-fiction. I typically read less of it than fiction but I have spent many enjoyable hours submerged in captivating non-fiction. Far more hours than said teacher, if I was to venture a guess. And with these many hours behind me, I would not say that non-fiction is more important than fiction; it is not even more important to building a reader. Both of these types of writing are valuable to readers. And frankly, I thought we'd come past this very eighteenth century argument about the frivolousness of novels.

So let me make a couple arguments for fiction rather than against non-fiction. First, fiction can be every bit as true and real as any non-fiction book. Fiction is not limited to actual events so it can capture a universality of human nature or behavior incredibly beautifully. If someone accuses you of being a Scrooge, you know exactly what they mean. Ebenezer Scrooge was only a character but he certainly represents a specific and very real type, whether as a whole or just as a portion of a personality. Waiting for Godot's Vladimir and Estragon are ridiculously absurd and slightly uncomfortable specifically because they tap into a real truth about human behavior and the human condition. They are, of course, no more real in the sense of existing physically, than Ebenezer Scrooge, but they hold a mirror up to us that reflects a truth as much as any non-fiction narrative.

Second, it is more than possible to learn as much from fiction as it is from non-fiction. In fact, fiction needs to be every bit as accurate as non-fiction in many ways. Good authors will have thoroughly researched all aspects of their plot, from character dialect to appropriate behavior to tiny details about place and more. If they don't, they will be certain to hear from a reader who knows better and who will call them on sloppiness. They tend to have a plethora of amazing facts woven into the framework of their stories which readers may not even recognize they are learning about as they read along. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is merely fiction but it is one of the best representations of the politics of Russia in that time period, the conditions of the serfs, and the prevailing feelings of the ruling class ever written. And even though this could come off as dull and dry as any textbook, Tolstoy's mastery of language and the complexity of his overarching plot make this truly engaging reading with a large dose of educational information to boot.

Third, in all of my reading, I'm pretty certain that reading fiction rather than non-fiction has increased my vocabulary spectacularly. Sure, non-fiction can use all of the same words that fiction does, but in my experience, those words tend to be stoppers in non-fiction (ie requiring an immediate trip to the dictionary) whereas in fiction, it is easy to pick up the meaning by osmosis and to have it become a part of your own vocabulary almost unconsciously. The only downfall to expanding your language base in this way, and it is true of either fiction or non-fiction, is the embarrassment you feel when you first use the word, the meaning of which you understand completely, and mispronounce it because you have heretofore only ever seen it in writing. Now I don't know if I've read the wrong non-fiction and more complex writings exist out there (aside from specialized or academic writings) but the vocabulary section of both the SAT and GRE were quite easy for me and that ease has to be chalked up almost entirely to reading fiction since I used to read non-fiction only under great duress. And my vocabulary continues to expand even though I read far more fiction than non-fiction.

Now, like I said, I'm not here to denigrate or dismiss non-fiction like the TD teacher did for fiction but I have to say that the examples she gave of magazines and newspapers to read for increased truth did not give me any warm fuzzies. I won't name names but she mentioned several where the quality of writing is often questionable. It is also not exactly objective. Is truth subjective? Maybe. But maybe not. What about the adage that history is written by the victors? There's obviously more than one side to any "real" and "true" story. How often have we heard about a family member disputing an author's memoir? Seems to be strangely often. Have we had award winning writers accused of plagiarism or inventing things? I certainly have. Most narrative non-fiction now carries a CYA disclaimer at the beginning stating that the book presents things as best as the author recalls or has found. If truth didn't have so many permutations, we wouldn't need scholars and authors to keep revisiting any subject. The first book written about any person, battle, situation, etc. would be definitive and we could brush our hands off and move onto the next subject. But, of course, this isn't true. And given that this was a school which assigned my daughter's class Three Cups of Tea as class reading one year, I am fairly certain they know all about the fluidity of truth and untruth as presented in writing and specifically in non-fiction. So to declare non-fiction better reading fodder because it is "real" and "true" simplifies things to an almost insulting level.  And yet the TD teacher still made her outrageous and completely wrong comment. Worse yet, at my second stop of the night, the Language Arts teacher reiterated it. And she reiterated it without recognizing the irony of assigning three novels and no non-fiction as grade level class reading.

Why do so few people read a book after high school or once they are finished with college? I'd venture the guess that some of it's because we force so much of this "prescriptive" reading based on arbitrary and often wrong notions of the value of certain works over others. In other words, you must read this because it's good for you. Obviously this is true for both non-fiction and fiction and school is in fact about learning to read critically and geared to learning from your books, but does that mean that one type of narrative is more advanced than another?  Is non-fiction really "better" than fiction and must be touted as such? Can we not let children read for enjoyment and be pleased that they are finding an escape in a book, regardless of the type?  Must we push a certain type of book, implying a value judgment, simply because children are advanced readers?  The argument doesn't hold up to examination anyway.  If we focus a little more on individual enjoyment, which can be found in either fiction or non-fiction, rather than on saying that something like non-fiction, because it is "true" (and I use this term advisedly), is more intellectually edifying than fiction and therefore denigrating an entire wonderful swath of books, we might just find more people willing to read once they are no longer obligated to do so.  And it would leave me far less angry.

I really should have skipped the evening.


  1. Seriously? Wow. I've never thought of myself as the homeschool type, but the more I hear about other people's kids and the public schools they have to attend, the more I question that. Thanks for this wonderful tribute to the value of fiction.

  2. Good post...and I am amazed that you showed such restraint and didn't call her out right there. But that would have probably had unfortunate consequences.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts....and here's MY WEEKLY SUNDAY/MONDAY UPDATES

  3. This reminds me of my sophomore year of high school, when my then English teacher let us give an oral report on a book of our choice. When I gave my report on The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder he rolled his eyes and sighed. I could never figure out why that was. Years later I discovered that the book was a National Book Award winner. At the time I thought maybe he considered it to be trashy or not serious enough. I still have no idea why he was so judgmental about my choice. And this was an excellent teacher who taught me a lot about Shakespeare and poetry in general, but who obviously had some issues.

    I think that nonfiction has value (I happen to love reading nonfiction), but I can't recall reading any nonfiction in my English classes. In fact I remember reading historical fiction (Killer Angels) as companion literature in our history class because our history teacher wanted us to have a deeper connection to the information of the time period. To this day I still learn about history better when pairing it with a fiction choice.

    You are making me feel fortunate with the local teachers that we have. My middle-schooler's lit teacher is having the class read The Giver by Lois Lowry and last year's spring group choice was Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I know that their social studies teacher also brings fiction into at least one study section each year.

  4. My ex-husband was also on a no-fiction reading kick for a while. A big effect was to drastically limit the reading of the younger boy, which was really not an optimal result. And seriously, how anyone could think that fiction has nothing to teach an Asperger spectrum child? I think a HUGE reason my kid is so high functioning is all the extra practice in dealing with people and emotions and reactions from his reading addiction. It's so much easier to explain baffling social exchanges to him by drawing from books we've shared, where he's seen both sides of issues.

    Yes, nonfiction is great, but that's because it's great, not because it's not fictional. And bad nonfiction is worse than good fiction. And any teacher that thinks reading TIME or PSYCHOLOGY TODAY is going to stretch kids' minds and vocabularies more than novels (heck, or more than watching the DAILY SHOW) is delusional.

  5. GREAT post! Couple of things to add to your argument . . .

    Novels can sometimes give you a better sense of living through history than any history book can ever do. Think of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird or Huck Finn or even a more recent release of The Help. These capture living in those times much better than just sharing the facts like many non-fiction books do.

    Novels can also teach a sense of empathy that non-fiction books typically cannot capture. With novels, you have to step into character's shoes and live their life as the author writes it. What a transferable skill to the real work can be more needed than this?!?

    I am a fan of both fiction and non-fiction. In my opinion, comparing the two are like comparing apples to oranges. There is no need to compare and reading both can and are valuable!

  6. What I've learned from reading:
    Fiction is often the closest you can get to truth.
    (I also like non-fiction).

  7. Wonderful post! I question the wisdom of that teacher's approach, and her ability to eliminate so many useful teaching moments by discarding fiction reading in her program. As someone who has been on both sides of the fence--a public school reading instructor & homeschool instructor I totally agree with your anger. Reading fiction definitely can teach us so much, including, but not limited to, new vocabulary and new worlds to explore. Hope things work out well for your child.

  8. If you're in a state that has adopted the Common Core educational standards (which is most states), the curriculum will be putting more emphasis on nonfiction than it used to. And I don't think that's inherently bad, but it does bother me that it seems to be at the expense of fiction. Reading is so much more than a way to gather facts. For example, I really think I've gained more understanding of human nature from good fiction than from any reading of psychology--it's truly the only way to get inside someone else's head, and it's frequently given me better insight into my own. Great discussion...and good luck with this school year!


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