The Writer's Page: What Is Narrative Nonfiction?

It’s been a topsy-turvy time in the education world recently: Common Core and high-stakes tests; then pushback; and now states are revising, revisiting, and renaming their standards. The recently passed ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) encourages this trend toward local choice. But if you look closely at the new standards across the board, one big change that the Common Core initiated remains: nonfiction, and a style of close, critical reading that works particularly well with nonfiction, has entered the realm of English Language Arts. When I speak with ELA teachers, who have generally been trained to focus on fiction, I see how this continues to make some of them uncomfortable. What, I am frequently asked, is “narrative” nonfiction? There is a hopeful yearning in that question: how close to fiction can books get and still pass muster as nonfiction? In contrast, what are “informational” books? How is a teacher, librarian, or parent — much less a child — to make sense of these categories? (Melissa Stewart recently explored the bias toward “narrative” over expository, or “informational,” books on ALA award committees in a guest post on SLJ’s Fuse #8 blog, dated 12/21/15.)

I’ll give you my sense, based on the books I have written with my wife, Marina Budhos. Marina is a novelist as well as a nonfiction writer, so how do we work out the meeting place between my historian’s devotion to one brand of nonfiction and her novelist’s attunement to another? Here’s a hint — when we moved into our house, we set up a library. I got the left wall and arranged my nonfiction books chronologically by the era they described; fiction was woven in based on when it was written. Marina got the right wall and arranged her novels, from all times and nations, alphabetically by author. To oversimplify: I read for information; she reads for narrative. Notice a theme emerging?

aronson_sugarhcThe first section of our 2010 book Sugar Changed the World is about the Age of Honey — the period in human history when cane sugar was, at least in Europe, rare, expensive, and seen as a spice or exotic delicacy. But after Columbus brought the first cutting of sugar cane to Hispaniola, we entered the Age of Sugar — when the labor of enslaved Africans made sugar so cheap it became a perceived necessity for all people, rich and poor, in Europe and the Americas. When we set out to write that section, my inclination was to begin it in the same way I had arranged my shelves — with a short chronological account of how sugar production spread from Hispaniola to Brazil, from Brazil through the Caribbean, then back to what became Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Marina disagreed. She thought readers needed to be immersed in the brutal process of planting, growing, harvesting, and milling cane. For me, the sequence of information was primary. For her, the reading experience came first. She was right. Her novelistic immersion humanized the story. Both versions were well researched, accurate, and in no sense fictional. But one laid out a path for readers based on chronology and events, while the other set out to create a vivid scene in readers’ minds. Here’s how that section begins: “Welcome to Hell. It is early morning on a Caribbean island, and African slaves — hundreds of them — are being sent out to the fields to pull and burn the high, dry grass.”

What propels readers forward in a nonfiction book? Is it understanding the engineering of history (or science, or math, etc.) — how cause-and-effect play out over time, with each person, date, and event as clear as elements in a schematic diagram? Or is it dramatic tension, action-packed scenes, sensorial language? Of course, these are not mutually exclusive: ideally, a book offers both clarity and narrative engagement. But it is not hard to see how one kind of writing can fit under the label of “informational” and another of “narrative.” Do you read to know, with good writing as an extra treat, or do you read to be swept along by an author’s skill, with content knowledge as icing on the cake? When do you want a travel guide filled with practical tips, and when do you want a travel memoir filled with evocative description? These questions are especially pressing in books for children and teenagers, since however compelling the stories in a nonfiction book, some part of the author’s purpose is to share knowledge; to teach.

Marina and I have had to work out this balance again in our forthcoming book The Eyes of the World: Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and the Invention of Photojournalism. The book is about a couple in love who were both photographers at a crucial moment in history, in journalism, and in photography: the mid-1930s. Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were reshaping Europe. War was imminent. Small, handheld 35mm cameras allowed photojournalists to capture live action as never before, just as the visually dynamic photo-filled weekly news magazine — such as Vu in France and Life in America — was being invented. When General Franco and his allies rose up in Spain to supplant an elected left-wing government, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro rushed to Spain to show the Civil War to the world. Our book is their story. Their lives were intense and dramatic; and, through an agreement with the Magnum Photo agency, we have unlimited access to their photos, even their contact sheets. But there is a challenge: our young readers may never have heard of the Spanish Civil War, nor do they likely feel any emotion about the dueling parties in Spain. And so we again faced choices — how could we best engage readers, and, once we hooked them, how could we fill them in on context without losing their attention?

anderson_symphony for the city of the deadWe struggled with the opening. Initially, we tried beginning the book with Paris in the spring, where the penniless Capa and Taro first met. But the image of Paris in bloom didn’t carry enough emotional weight to launch the book. Eventually, we decided on a different approach, one I’d been considering for a while. Capa’s most famous photos were taken when he volunteered to land with the first wave of troops at Omaha Beach on D-Day in June 1944. The photos are riveting, and the story is both vivid and evergreen. We could give readers action, courage, danger, war, and photography, and then loop back to show how Capa got there — as M. T. Anderson does with the plane flight at the start of Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, and Candace Fleming does with Tsar Nicholas II’s lavish 1903 ball in The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia, and Jim Murphy does with the operation in the preface to Breakthrough!: How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever. All of these are narrative choices: begin not at the beginning, but where you can best engage a reader.

GIs battling Nazis does not require much explanation. But why Spanish generals rising up against a coalition of anarchists, socialists, and pro- and anti-Soviet Communists should have felt as important to a generation of young people as Katniss’s fight against President Snow does now is a trickier matter. Where and how could we weave context into the narrative? At first, we had a chapter that spelled out the background of conflict in Spain and in Europe. This had the advantage of clarity and chronology. But it took eyes away from Capa and Taro’s story. One test reader told us she loved the book — once she got past that chapter. But too many young readers would never get that far.

Through trial, error, and revision we found a narrative answer: as Capa and Taro attend demonstrations, we explain the forces at play and give a sense of why young people cared so much; as the two land in Spain and meet male and female fighters, we show who these young people were and what they were fighting for. We want the reader to come to information as experience — as part of a story — not as a dry and discrete block of text. We decided to put pace first and then try to craft all explanation so that it flowed within the narrative. Then we compiled a triple timeline of events in Spain, in our protagonists’ lives, and around the world, as well as a scorecard of all of the opposing political and military forces, for the back matter. Like children who separate different kinds of food on their plates, we decided to let engaging narrative rule the main text and clear data govern the back matter.

murphy_breakthrough“Narrative” nonfiction never violates research — never invents dialogue, never pretends to know what it does not — but places the reading experience first. As Lee Gutkind, the guru of “creative nonfiction,” puts it, “Creative doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the writer has a license to lie.” As I have argued before in The Horn Book (“New Knowledge,” March/April 2011 issue), nonfiction writers do have a license to speculate. Neither Capa nor Taro kept diaries or left extensive letters. How can we know about their working and personal relationships? One clue is in their photos. As they walked the streets of bombed-out Madrid seeing buildings shorn of walls, they took photos of the same scenes from different angles, and then homed in on the same object. We try to imagine how they experienced those moments. While ever faithful to what is known, or knowable, we try to render their story as a novelist might — from within the experiences of our protagonists. While always attentive to chronology, we try to pace the book with the same beats of rising tension, climax, and denouement everyone learns in English class. And then we give pure information its own day in the sun.

To return to the dilemmas of those educators now required by state standards to teach more nonfiction: “narrative” nonfiction may well be easier for ELA teachers to use, because it is built around many of the same principles as fiction. But with one absolute difference: you cannot make anything up. And when you don’t know, or opinions differ, you have to say so. The reading experience is paramount, but that does not allow an author to be any less faithful to his or her sources. In turn, “informational” texts may well be lively and engaging page-turners, but their primary obligation is to present people, events, and ideas in a clear, accessible fashion.

Is it really important to have these two distinct terms? I’m not sure. The case for the craft of nonfiction writing has long been made in this magazine by Milton Meltzer, James Cross Giblin, Elizabeth Partridge, Jonathan Hunt, and others. But perhaps by defining these two styles we can simultaneously reassure fiction readers that they will find familiar considerations such as voice, plot, characterization, and structure in nonfiction while affirming that fact-lovers are indeed readers. If terminology can do that, it’s worthwhile.

From the March/April 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Marc Aronson

Nonfiction author Marc Aronson is an associate professor of professional practice in the Rutgers University library and information science department. His forthcoming book is Four Streets and a Square: A History of Manhattan and the New York Idea (Candlewick, fall 2021).

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