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The thing I least like to hear - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
The thing I least like to hear
"Wait," a teacher says, looking at her class after I've pointed out where the fiction is and where the nonfiction is. "Who can tell us the difference between fiction and non-fiction?"

Blank stares, maybe a raised hand, not answered. This frightens me a bit, how often we get that with kids in their late teens, but that's not what I'm thinking about just now.

No, what's getting to me is that the teacher then gets a big smile on her face and says, "The difference is that nonfiction is true, and fiction is just made-up stories."

I try not to get into a philsophical argument about the nature of Truth. Honestly, I do. It's not the time for it. But dammit, it's not easy. "Fiction is just made-up stories." So really, I spend my life reading and writing about something that doesn't matter, kid stuff, fluff. (That the latest class in which this happened to be reading of A Child Called It, which I don't trust any further than I could throw it as far as facts go, and even if it is factual is nothing more than near-pornographic emotional exhibitionism anyway, really made it difficult not to blow my stack. I succeeded in not bringing up the questions raised about its veracity, but it was a near thing.)

Here's the thing: Nonfiction is factual. Fiction--at least if it's worth spending any time on--is True. It tells truths about what it means to be human, to be in a community, to feel and experience life. It gets closer to this than nonfiction because you can't know other people (or even yourself, in a lot of cases) as well as you know characters. In order to write good fiction, you have to see the world around you, see people around you, understand humanity as clearly as you can. What are people like? What makes us tick? What is love? What is hate? What is anger?

Facts are wonderful things. I love them. I'm annoyed that the SAT is allowing factual errors in its essays, if it's going to require a stupid essay at all (a different subject, on which I could rant at some length). I love science. History intrigues me. Facts are wonderful. Theories are fascinating, and the scientific method is quite possibly humanity's greatest intellectual achievement.

I also like opinion essays. Opinions are lovely. I love them when they're serious, and I love them when they're snarky. I even like polemic, if it's well done. I like stand-up comedy. I like how-to books. There's just a lot of nonfiction that I like. I even like some biography, provided that the subject has been dead long enough to get a real sense of how he or she fit in history. (The point of doing a biography about Lindsey Lohan escapes me, though. I mean, aside from the money part--the intellectual point of it escapes me. I mean, what does her life mean yet? We don't know, because she's just starting out, really.) Though I haven't yet discovered one I enjoy, I'm willing to entertain the notion that a memoir could have value; I know I used to enjoy my great grandmother's stories about her childhood.

All of which is to say that I don't have anything against nonfiction. It's all good. But it's got no business being a bully about the notion of "Truth" or denigrating fiction as "just made-up stories." There's a reason that the oldest surviving texts out there are stories--their truths remain pertinent longer, sometimes forever. They become myth, stories that are the base of communities, stories that matter because they are our shared memory of what life means.

Just made-up stories, indeed.

43 comments or Leave a comment
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 8th, 2005 07:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Be my guest. :)
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: May 8th, 2005 07:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
Considering that non-fiction also includes poetry, and properly folktales and mythology as well, I always tell kids that fiction is generally used to mean stories where we know who the author of the story is, and non-fiction is everything else. And that even then, there are books which stand at the line between, like the Magic School Bus books, which use a story to inform us about a factual topic.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 8th, 2005 07:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Generally, I just avoid the subject, honestly, or treat them as more less genres of writing. There's a neat enough division until you get to the language and lit section, at least at YA level, but any time people start talking about one or the other, there seems to be a decided preference, so I generally split it as information and stories--both equally valuable,t hough used for different things--though naturally that's not the world's cleanest division, either. Historical fiction has plenty of facts woven in, usually; it's just not why it's there.

Of course, where I do have to put a value judgment down in the course of a talk is in trying to explain the difference between electronic resources and internet resources--I have to point out that I could come home and put up a page saying that hurricanes are caused by the Boston Red Sox losing baseball games, and there would be no one to stop me, while the electronic resources are editorially vetted. Of course, that doesn't prevent editorial slants and agendas...


I can't believe, in this era of information overload, that informational literacy isn't more stressed in school.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 8th, 2005 08:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
I should be more specific... I don't pretend there's no difference, I just think that the difference is covered--and only covered--by the terms fiction and nonfiction (arguments could be made about where to put plays, and poetry is a third category altogether). Those are the lowest common denominator definitions, the words that define the things they are. It's like saying, "Define 'red.'" You can come up with a lot of stuff about wavelengths, and a lot of shades of red, but red remains what it is.
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: May 8th, 2005 08:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, if I'm talking to a group of kids about Fiction and Non-Fiction, I'm probably standing in the library, about to give the ten-cent tour. So the definition that matters is the one which librarians/catalogers use to assign a call number or location to a book. Quite often I say "In THIS library, we put X here and Y there," and say that they might find that it's different in their school library. (Which it is, since they use Dewey in the BPS.)

Increasingly, btw, I want to be able to use the red tape which we use for picture and the double red for easy and apply them in the non-fiction section. Firstly for all the books which get LC numbers that fit over there and secondly because it would be nice for my English as a Second Language adults to be able to find easy reading material they can enjoy more than Frog and Toad.
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: May 8th, 2005 08:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
Unfortunately, the teachers aren't very information literate either. And even when they are, they can have their hands tied by principals who insist on sticking like glue to the curriculum. If your evaluation is going to downgrade you for including things like the multiplication tables, then you're going to be pretty intimidated about including other things.

Which reminds me, I need to write a nasty letter to superintendent Payzant about the math curriculum...
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: May 9th, 2005 05:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
If your evaluation is going to downgrade you for including things like the multiplication tables, then you're going to be pretty intimidated about including other things.

Lukw in my icon says it all. Where did this happen? And what were they proposing to replace them with?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 9th, 2005 06:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've seen some weird-ass math (including adding multi-digit numbers from left to right, with the teacher forbidding the parent to help by teaching right-to-left), and I'd guess this is just part of the movement against "rote memorization."

As to what it's replaced with... who knows? Calculators?
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: May 10th, 2005 02:36 am (UTC) (Link)
I spent some time talking to a second grade teacher the other day, and when I complained about the kind of homework kids were coming in with, she explained that it's the bright idea of some twit at Harvard, who thinks that the children don't understand about borrowing and carrying and all of the standard algorithms so they shouldn't be allowed to use them.

Even the kids think it's stupid. The only kids who are going to be able to pass math are the ones whose parents ignore the teachers and teach the kids their math facts at home.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 10th, 2005 02:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, the hate I have for the Harvard education department. I'm currently reading Left Back by Diane Ravitch, about failed school reforms over the last century.

I'd love to become a teacher, but I'd have to attend one of these teaching schools, and I'm not sure I could get through one without standing up and cursing out the entire professoriate, which would probably not win me any points in ye olde job recommendation race.

It's definitely spread national. My uncle the chemist thinks its a neat and fun different way to do math, but the little girl I was trying to help was frustrated beyond belief.

And when did kids stop knowing how to carry and borrow and such? I seem to recall understanding that in third grade when Mrs. Hubbard taught it, and I didn't even like Mrs. Hubbard. I was okay at math until high school, but never any great shakes at it, so it's not like I was some kind of numbers genius.
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: May 10th, 2005 03:08 am (UTC) (Link)
The problem is that it's a program which was most likely developed by math whizzes who understood that 7 + 5 = 12 almost instinctively. To them the fun part is figuring out why 7 + 5 = 12 and where that "1" came from and gee isn't it neat that you can do this problem by saying 7 is 5 and 2 and if you have another 5 that's 5 and 5 and 2 and that's the same as 10 and 2 and look that's 12 too and maybe I can do it another way...

But most kids are just wanting to get an answer that the teacher will accept, and make sure that the guy at McDonalds gave them back the right change so they can go buy a video game. And they don't understand the numbers instinctively, and unless they've memorized their addition tables and multiplication tables they'll never understand fractions at all, which means that algebra is going to be a dead loss. Second graders don't have the brain development for a lot of analysis etc. But they're damn good at memorizing things. Jingles from commercials, the name of every Yu-Gi-Oh card they own, no problem. So why not math facts?

I understood borrowing and carrying. My mom was never taught about ones places and tens places etc., but she can subtract huge numbers nearly as fast as a calculator. Automatic math facts leave you enough brain time to work on the interesting stuff later.

And you've banged the nail on the head about why I'm not a teacher too.
arclevel From: arclevel Date: May 8th, 2005 11:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
I can't believe, in this era of information overload, that informational literacy isn't more stressed in school.

It's not on a standardized test, therefore it isn't worth learning. Moreover, you *couldn't* put it on a standardized test. You could have a question to rank the reliability of information from various sources, but that doesn't mean the students will actually know how to *use* that information, which is what matters.

I stand by my opinion that standardized tests (the government-sponsored type used to rank school performance, not the SAT/MCAT type) are among the biggest obstacles to education in this country.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 9th, 2005 01:06 am (UTC) (Link)
I'd have to disagree with that, since the reason they've generally been instituted is that parents got sick of their kids learning nothing at all, and teaching to the test was better than not teaching to anything. Of course, it would be better if such a stick hadn't needed to be waved at the schools. Standardized tests should mark the minimum that students know to be considered educated... which they do. That they aren't given on the first day and forgotten about while teachers go deeper into the subject saddens me.
arclevel From: arclevel Date: May 9th, 2005 02:49 am (UTC) (Link)


That would be a good way to do it. I don't have strong objections to testing in and of itself, but the way they're used by both the administrations (and thus, the teachers) and the government is counterproductive, IMHO. I don't know that there's a realistic way to change that; shooting for the "standard" is deeply ingrained in the psyches in this country, even when that standard is supposed to represent a minimum rather than an ideal.
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: May 10th, 2005 03:11 am (UTC) (Link)


Well, when the MCAS came in, I saw a huge bump in the percentage of kids reading at grade level, so I'm not completely against the tests. But I think that any test you can fill in bubbles for ought to be graded and handed back to you the next day. And if there are short answers and essays, they ought to be graded by the teachers who will have those kids the next year and handed back within two weeks max.
From: anatomiste Date: May 8th, 2005 07:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
This one is definitely going in my memories. At the moment it looks like I may wind up teaching high school English, and I've been thinking a lot about how to present concepts like this to unenthusiastic 15-year-olds.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 8th, 2005 07:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't know if it will help present it. I think it's just a question of not denigrating one or the other, and when you're teaching a novel, asking a lot of questions about what the novel says. Teaching styles are so individual, though--I'm a question-asker myself during the times I get a chance to teach (which I wish were more frequent; I find I enjoy it). "What do you think this is about? Why do you suppose this statue might have been banned in Boston in the late 1800s? Can anyone think of a reason why I might tell you not to use a webpage for this information?" Another person might find it more natural to give a talk first, then ask the class for questions. Someone else might like playacting, or having group discussions.
story645 From: story645 Date: May 8th, 2005 07:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
How much would it kill you to know that the AP's also allow factually incorrect information. Seriously, I could put that the American Revolution started in 1995 and the graders can't take points off.

I totally love your definition of fiction vs. non-fiction. Honestly though, semi ashamed to admit it, but had I been asked the question, I might have gone with something like the teacher's answer, only modified. I mean, it's kind of hard to define.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 8th, 2005 08:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's impossible to define. Basically, it's like pornography--I can't tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it. ;)

On the AP????? The AP? That's... that's an actual knowledge test, not an aptitude test! It's...

:faints dead away:
purple_ladybug1 From: purple_ladybug1 Date: May 8th, 2005 08:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm not sure if that's correct. In APUSH last year, my teacher occasionally e-mailed class papers to an AP reader she knew. My brother wrote a great paper on three ammendments, but incorrectly identified the third one. The AP reader e-mailed my teacher back saying that the supporting evidence on the other two ammendments was enough to grade a 6, but he had to take off points for the incorrect third amendment.
story645 From: story645 Date: May 8th, 2005 08:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
But I think that's cause he needed to write about three amendments and misidentified the third, so the teacher couldn't add points for that one. I mean, looking at all the PA bio books, it's the same thing, they can't take off points for wrong information, the person still loses points for writing the wrong answer in place of the right one, but had he written both , he wouldn't have lost any points. Does that make sense?
bluemeanies4 From: bluemeanies4 Date: May 8th, 2005 09:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
I guess it would make sense if someone was writing the American revolution paper in 1995, but then also went on to name the right leader in the British foreign office and a whole lot of other small things right, because typos do happen, especially on timed essays. If the wrong date was repeated, though, then it would be a problem, but one major mistake once it makes sense to go light on.
purple_ladybug1 From: purple_ladybug1 Date: May 12th, 2005 03:35 am (UTC) (Link)
It makes sense meaning I know what you're saying, but it's ludicrous that the grading should be that way. *shakes head sadly*
maglors_finch From: maglors_finch Date: May 8th, 2005 07:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
Reading this entry, I thought of a well-known Dutch verse line (well-known in the Netherlands, that is. Translated, it runs: "Poets lie truth." I still think thats the best and most concise way to put it.

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 8th, 2005 07:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't remember if it was Card or King who said, "[Fiction writers] tell the truth about humanity by making up lies about people who never existed." Or, one that's definitely King, "Fiction is the truth inside the lie."
absurdwords From: absurdwords Date: May 8th, 2005 08:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
Another appropriate one 'Ik dicht om te doorgronden wat de wereld vergat,'by Hugo Claus. Translation: 'I write poetry in order to fathom out what the world forgot.'
maglors_finch From: maglors_finch Date: May 9th, 2005 08:21 am (UTC) (Link)
That's a nice one, too, and one I didn't know!
The one I mentioned was by Bertus Aafjes, by the way.

rabidfangurl From: rabidfangurl Date: May 8th, 2005 08:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
I am allowed to be frightened of the fact that *teenagers* don't know the difference between the two, right? I mean, I knew that in like third grade.

::fears for the youth of the world, despite not being old enough to drink yet::
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 8th, 2005 08:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
I am allowed to be frightened of the fact that *teenagers* don't know the difference between the two, right?

You have my permission. I love my teens very dearly and wouldn't work anywhere else because of that, but I'm frequently frightened to find out the things they've never been taught.
sue_parsons From: sue_parsons Date: May 8th, 2005 08:07 pm (UTC) (Link)

Wonderful definitions

You have to assume that the teacher who said the offending statement has never been a writer. And that fact that she hasn't I find sort of frightening, because she is teaching it.
strangemuses From: strangemuses Date: May 8th, 2005 08:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
I assumed that she meant the comment as a bit of a joke.

As it is, I have a quibble with your definition that fiction is true. Fiction is fundamentally lies. It may be a lie that reveals a truth, or it may be a lie that obfuscates a truth. Fiction very often is not intended to reveal any sort of truth. The author's intent is purely to entertain by distracting the reader out of their "real/true" world into a faux-world for a short time.
parallactic From: parallactic Date: May 8th, 2005 08:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
This frightens me a bit, how often we get that with kids in their late teens, but that's not what I'm thinking about just now.

I'm speechless, since I remember trips to the library when I was in kindergarten, and having the Dewey Decimal system explained to me when I was in fourth grade. I moved around a lot when I was young, and assumed elementary school usage of the library was universal.

I like your rant, but to me, fiction and non-fiction get at different truths. I don't think non-fiction is just facts, since they also encompass poetry, and some of the popular versions of technical knowledge, for example astronomy or psychology, include entertaining discovery stories. That's not to say that a fiction author doesn't do research,and can be quite accurate, but the emphasis is more on telling an entertaining story, and less on trying to present empirical-type knowledge.
sophonax From: sophonax Date: May 8th, 2005 11:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
even if it is factual is nothing more than near-pornographic emotional exhibitionism anyway

Yech, no kidding. This is being taught in academic settings?

As a major fan of creative nonfiction and memoir, both of which often have to stretch the facts to arrive at truth, I don't really advocate bright-line tests for dividing fiction from nonfiction. The relevant question to ask isn't "Is this real?" but "What can I get out of this?" Sometimes you can get stuff out of a work that's factually useful--that's nonfiction. When what you get isn't facts but a new way of looking at relationships, a better understanding of why a person might behave the way you see a person in a book behaving--then it's pretty likely that you have fiction. If you see both? That's one awesome work of art, then. :)
the_gentleman From: the_gentleman Date: May 9th, 2005 12:32 am (UTC) (Link)
Can I just say... Yes, it would be worrying of they didn't know the difference, but I suspect that with a lot of these questions, they're simply trying not to be seen as nerdy, or that they're avoiding putting their ideas out in case they've got the wrong end of the stick. I know I sometimes sit in a seminar knowing the answer, but won't say it because it seems so obvious that it must be wrong.

As for fiction... Yes. Only stories can be perfect. Myths and legends are truer than "facts"- facts change, look at any history of science book, but myths last.
arclevel From: arclevel Date: May 9th, 2005 02:58 am (UTC) (Link)
In my high school classes, in particular, nearly all of us did that. Unless the teacher had a really open, discussion-friendly atmosphere (which was about two of them), no one ever volunteered answers in class, no matter how well we knew them. That's one of the reasons Hermione's never rung true to me, or at least not as the standard "very smart kid" that it seemed like most people read her as for the first few books.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: May 9th, 2005 05:07 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh... I certainly did that. I strained toward the ceiling wondering why the teacher wouldn't call on somebody who knew instead of wasting time looking for someone else. I considered this practice to be at least partly to blame for how I had one teacher, from sixth grade through twelfth, who gave out a syllabus and actually covered everything on it. (Naively, I assumed that the teachers expected everybody to get everything the first time. I'm not sure what they were actually expecting that led to the overambitious plans.)

I did it when I really was confident of the answer, though. If the teacher uses you as a springboard for a discussion of how wrong or simplistic your answer was, or something, I imagine that would cut back on volunteers really fast.
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: May 10th, 2005 02:39 am (UTC) (Link)
Ah, but I was a nerd, and my hand went up for most of the questions. And I wasn't the only one volunteering answers either. Of course, my fellow students encouraged that sort of behavior, because if the teachers didn't get volunteers they picked on people randomly and that was worse...
purple_ladybug1 From: purple_ladybug1 Date: May 12th, 2005 03:40 am (UTC) (Link)
In classes I'm very confident in, like history and English, I always raise my hand or just go ahead and give the answer, although I'll occasionally wait to see if another student wants to answer. The other students at the top of our class behave similarly. If we know the answer, we go ahead and respond. If we're hesitant in the least, we tend to keep our hands down.
arclevel From: arclevel Date: May 9th, 2005 03:03 am (UTC) (Link)
As I mentioned above, I'm not surprised that no one answered the question, but I'm worried that the teacher felt the need to ask it, and that, having asked it, she gave it such a flippant answer. That's the sort of definition you'd give to second graders, not high schoolers. For second grade, I don't think it would really be a bad definition if it weren't for the "just made-up stories" -- you're right that it passes an entirely unfair judgement on one of the two. It's also odd because high school English classes generally focus on literature, the majority of which is fiction, but which frequently lives in the non-fiction part of the library.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 9th, 2005 03:41 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm a librarian and I get the same problem. I mostly give the library tour to elementary and preschoolers, though, not teens. I get around the problem by not asking the question, just giving the answer. I tell them these books are what we call fiction and that fiction is a fancy word for stories. Nonfiction is a fancy word that means "not fiction" or "not stories."
greyathena From: greyathena Date: May 9th, 2005 12:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
Not sure whether it would be your style of memoir, but have you tried The Road from Coorain, True North, or A Woman's Education by Jill Ker Conway? Their emphasis is more on how her life (as she sees it) fits into academic history than anything else, but I thought they were good. It is my college she was writing about by the third one, however, so perhaps I'm biased. :)
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