Variations on a Theme of Putting Nonfiction in its Place
(Presentation Text, CCCC, March 23, 2002)

 Robert Root
Central Michigan University

Note: This presentation has three movements, each inspired by a theme inherent in its epigraph, each with optional activities in the handouts now circulating which you can respond to and mail to me

Variation I.
“non fiction (non fik shun) n. not fiction”

           Most dictionaries offer very little help getting a handle on nonfiction, but in any concrete way the word itself is not very evocative or self-defining. Imagine having labeled television as “non-radio” or cinema as “non-publication” or a saint as “non-prophet.” Efforts to coin a catchy alternative in our own jargon-laden discipline have left us nonplussed. The term “literary journalism” is too limited, excluding too much nonfiction that is also literary but not journalistic; the term “creative nonfiction” is too oppositional, implying a need to distinguish it from “noncreative nonfiction.” That’s the problem with this “non” business—it reduces everything to dichotomies: fiction opposed to nonfiction, creative opposed to noncreative, and so on. In this post-age, where we distinguish ourselves from earlier ages chiefly by being beyond them—post-modern, post-structuralist, post-process—perhaps we should simply declare ourselves to be now post-nonfiction. We’re so beyond dictionary-definitions of nonfiction that to say “Nonfiction is not just ‘not fiction’ anymore” is to state the obvious. It may even be post-obvious. Taking our cue from critical theory, let’s simply revision the definition completely, make it non-derivative and pro-descriptive. Let’s use the word we already have as if it has always meant what we now use it to mean.

            In that spirit, as an attempt to put nonfiction in its place, I offer the following alternative definitions:

Nonfiction n.

1.      the written expression of, reflection upon, and/or interpretation of observed, perceived, or recollected experience;

2.      a genre of literature made up of such writing, which includes such subgenres as the personal essay, the memoir, narrative reportage, and expressive critical writing and whose borders with other reality-based genres and forms (such as journalism, criticism, history, etc.) are fluid and malleable;

3.      the expressive, transactional, and poetic prose texts generated by students in college composition courses; 

4.      (obsolete) not fiction

I give the first two definitions to nonfiction students as a way of narrowing the field; I’ve added the third and fourth definitions for this occasion.

            The first definition has two advantages: First—and most important—it tries to define nonfiction in terms of what it is rather than in terms of what it isn’t. Second, it potentially sets the norm from which definitions of other genres divaricate. In order to use it for their genres, fictionists and poets and dramatists will need to add some qualifiers. Those other genres usually deal with imaginary, invented, or fabricated events presented in a way to make them seem observed, perceived, or recollected or, conversely, they present observed, perceived, or recollected experience by the means of imaginary, invented, or fabricated scenes and characters. Perhaps nonfiction is the first or primary genre from which the other genres branch off according to their modes of representation. I suspect that language was developed to serve the needs of observed, perceived or recollected experience—call it the “nonfiction motive.” Fiction, poetry, and drama are patinas slathered on reality and need reality as their foundation; for nonfiction, reality is its essence, its outward show as well as its inner core.

            The second definition links to the first but tries not only to be suggestive about the varieties of literary nonfiction but also to be inclusive rather than exclusive. I think definitions ought to arise from what already exists—be drawn from the characteristics and qualities of things that are—rather than to describe an abstract ideal and impose unnecessary and unrealistic limitations on concrete possibilities. It’s the difference between letting an essay be whatever it wants or needs to be and making it be a five-paragraph theme.

            In the third definition I’m simply picking a fight. The terms come from the functions of discourse identified by James Britton and the London Schools Project. For me, terms like “personal” and “academic” aren’t very useful descriptors. Isn’t the opposite of personal “impersonal”? Shouldn’t the opposite of academic be “non-academic”? But then we’re back to defining things by what they’re not. Moreover, these terms generate a false dichotomy. The personal and the academic are not in opposition to begin with. My students only get in trouble with “academic” writing—or “non-academic” writing, for that matter—when they leave the “personal”—their commitment, their engagement—out of their works-in-progress. Expressive, transactional, poetic—these terms cover very nicely the range of writing students do in my composition course.

            In the fourth definition I’m merely stating the post-obvious.

            I don’t believe for a moment that this definition is, well, definitive, and I’d be interested in knowing how others would change it or add to it, but for my students and for me, it works well. It doesn’t leave out the writing we’re already composing and reading; it doesn’t make us worry about what we’re not; it lets us focus on what we are; it defines what we do.

Variation II.
“Well, they said you was high class, but that was just a line.”

One way to wrestle with the issue of putting nonfiction in its place is to examine a map of English as a discipline and try to situate nonfiction in that uneven and often uninviting terrain. English departments are, by their nature, conservative and hierarchical. Even when faculty members known to be radical or avant garde or pre-post-contemporary-hip-and-groovy propose revisioning course content, their proposals tend to confirm rather than to contest the status quo; they call for additions or substitutions to the existing paradigm rather than for renovating or restructuring it. The typical English department is divided into such units as, in order of rank or class or prestige, literature, creative writing, linguistics, composition, and English education, with literature as the principal strand of English and the other strands, if they exist at all or are not separate departments entirely, being allotted only a few random and tangential courses. Literature courses proliferate to achieve “coverage”; creative writing courses usually limit their coverage to two genres. (Hierarchy)

            What is the place of nonfiction in such a hierarchy? Rather than simply accept that hierarchy, we might try to interact with it. Imagine the boxes in this chart as folders on your desktop. Now imagine a separate folder titled “Nonfiction”, unconnected to any of them. Let’s further imagine that your “Nonfiction” folder contains such large files as these: Walden; A Room of One’s Own; Notes of a Native Son; Homage to Catalonia; Slouching Towards Bethlehem; Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Imagine as well that the folder contains smaller files: “Walking,” “Death of a Moth,” “Stranger in the Village,” “Shooting an Elephant,” “Once More to the Lake,” “Mother Tongue,” “At the Buffalo Bill Museum,” “In Search of Marvin Gardens.” The Nonfiction folder has many more files, large and small, too many to list. Feel free to write a list of titles and authors that you would expect to find in the folder.

            But if you have a hierarchical, departmental cast of mind, you probably don’t want that Nonfiction folder off on its own, particularly at the center of the window, where it looks like everything else revolves around it. And you know it would be dishonest to simply drag it to the trash folder off-window. Tidy up your desktop. You can copy the entire Nonfiction folder into one of the other folders or you can open it and distribute specific files into specific folders. Even if you’re only drawing lines from the Nonfiction folder to the other folders where you think nonfiction as text or as process, as genre or as craft, as pedagogy or as theory, might go, even if you’re only scribbling references to specific works or approaches under the appropriate folders, you have an opportunity to put nonfiction in its place. Merely mulling it over might give you a better sense of the place of nonfiction.

            All this assumes that we want to maintain the current hierarchical structure. Suppose, instead, we reorganize English departments along the lines Robert Scholes has suggested, where we drop the canon of texts and coverage and adopt four strands of courses centered on a canon of methods. In theory courses students would explore the rationale behind textual methods; in history courses they would learn how to situate a text in its context; in production courses they would learn how to compose texts; and in consumption courses they would learn how to read texts. How appropriate would any of those works I mentioned earlier be for any of the courses in these strands?

            Or take Britton’s three functions of discourse: the poetic, where the writer focuses on the aesthetic, artistic, or literary properties of the text; the expressive, where the writer is primarily concerned with giving voice to an individual perception; and the transactional, where the writer attempts to interact with a reader for some purpose. In practice it’s not a question of exclusivity but rather one of emphasis, since aesthetic, expressive, and transactional elements are part of all discourse. Question: if these are the functions of discourse, which of the three could be said to be the functions of nonfiction? Would you be more comfortable having these three strands hierarchically linked beneath a box marked nonfiction or would you want nonfiction linked beneath one or more of these strands?

            Here’s where I would copy the contents of my nonfiction folder—I’d distribute the contents and the folder itself all throughout the hierarchy. Nonfiction produces significant literature in every region and period; it is a lively and vital form of creative writing; a rich source of language study; an essential element of English education. Above all, because I believe that, unlike the other literary genres, nonfiction isn’t only for English majors and because I also believe that composition isn’t worth teaching if it is only what gets written in composition classes, I think that nonfiction is what composition is when it’s at home and especially when it wants to get dressed up and go out into the world. Maybe the diagram that shows nonfiction as the center of the discipline—not only the vehicle for discussion matter but also a major component of the subject matter itself—presents a surprisingly accurate picture of where it ought to be.

Variation III.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”

Lately I’ve been reading This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich. It’s nonfiction but hard to pigeonhole otherwise. Andrea Barrett, in a blurb on the dust jacket, says that it is “by turns travelogue, history, biography, memoir, and lyrical celebration.” My favorite book in recent years has been Honey From Stone by Chet Raymo, a professor of physics. It is usually catalogued under astronomy but includes geology, history, religion, geography, travel narrative and memoir and is organized around the seven canonical hours. Both books are as rich, complex, and multifaceted as Walden. To write them their authors have had to master expressive, transactional, and poetic functions of discourse; you have to if you are to be reflective, informative, and lyrical in a single book.

            But these titles may strike you as too literary. Some professors would discourage students from writing anything that anyone other than professors would want to read. So let me steer us toward titles more up our academic alley, books on learning and teaching like Scholes’ Rise and Fall of English, Elder’s Reading the Mountains of Home, Heath’s Ways With Words, Neilsen’s Literacy and Living, Tompkins’ A Life in School, Rose’s Lives on the Boundaries, Perl and Wilson’s Through Teachers’ Eyes. I offer you a quiz on the ways the Library of Congress has labeled these books, all books that we might read as “professional” books on literacy, education, and academics, but you should know that I find the labeling reductive. The contents, however, are expansive. They contain instances of memoir, ethnography, reflective observation, autobiography, and narrative reportage. They are all examples of nonfiction that defines itself in the movement outward from the author’s knowledge, experience, and engagement, and I can find similar examples all across the disciplines.

Where in the college curriculum does anybody get the skills to write such accessible yet complex and multifaceted books? Where do you think would be the proper place to open the doors to that kind of possibility and invite students in? Isn’t this what composition is best prepared to initiate, what writing across the curriculum is best poised to develop?

My students often tell me how working in nonfiction leads them to discoveries about the meaning of their own experiences, discoveries that enhance their understanding of their own lives. They echo what working writers say all the time—that the writing is for themselves, to discover what they didn’t know they knew, to find a way to understand the things that matter to them. As Wallace Stegner put it, “We do not write what we know; we write what we want to find out.” Or as one of my students recently described jolts of multiple epiphanies provoked by her revising, “And then I go ‘Oh!’ And then I go ‘Wow!’” If this is what nonfiction does, why would we want to locate it in the margins of education, fenced off in a narrow paddock of a single discipline, occupying the basement of the creative writing annex to the posh English multiplex?

            I think those of us who write and teach nonfiction have had our own epiphany, perhaps late in the game but compelling all the same. Like Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentleman, who discovers to his amazement that he has been a lifelong speaker of prose, we’ve finally realized that we have been living nonfiction lives, in our homes, in our streets, in our workplaces. Maybe that’s a realization that always comes to people of a certain age. I think it might be good and well and proper, as Annie Dillard might put it, not to make our students wait as late in life to have that epiphany as we did. Perhaps we could help them more by letting them in that secret now, and perhaps their composition classes are the places we should bring them the news, by letting them begin to live their nonfiction lives. As Nancy Sommers once wrote, “I want my students to know what writers know— . . . I want my students to know how to bring their life and their writing together” (“Between the Drafts” 30). Me too. I don’t mean that they should simply write personal narratives but rather that they should be able to use their writing to open the door into everything they want to know. Mary Oliver asks at the end of her poem “The Summer Day”, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” It’s a haunting question. I think one viable answer is: I will try to understand it. If nonfiction truly is the written expression of, reflection upon, and/or interpretation of observed, perceived or recollected experience, that’s what it is designed to help writers to do.

            So in the end, the issue of putting nonfiction in its place may not involve making room for it in the English department. As a skill and a resource, I think it’s already there, as composition. The place of nonfiction is in the student and the issue is recognizing the need to put it there.

Works Cited

Britton, James et al. The Development of Writing Abilities (11-18). London: Macmillan, 1975.

Oliver, Mary. “The Summer Day,” House of Light. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990: 60.

Scholes, Robert. The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Sommers, Nancy. “Between the Drafts,” College Composition and Communication 43 (Feb 1992): 23-31.

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