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Pedagogy 4.2 (2004) 289-295

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Variations on a Theme of Putting Nonfiction in Its Place

Editor's Note: Robert L. Root Jr. played an instrumental role in this From the Classroom section. His article, which follows, inspired the editorial staff to create a section on teaching creative nonfiction.

Variation 1. Non·fic·tion (non-'fik-shun) n : not fiction

Most dictionaries offer very little help in 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 nonradio or cinema as nonpublication or saint as nonprophet. 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—postmodern, poststructuralist, postprocess—perhaps we should simply declare ourselves to be now post-nonfiction. That nonfiction is not just "not fiction" anymore is obvious, and we should replace current dictionary definitions of nonfiction with some that allow this word to be used as if it has always meant what we now use it to mean. [End Page 289]

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

Non·fic·tion n 1. the written expression of, reflection on, 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. obs not fiction.

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. 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. 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 suggest the variety of literary nonfiction but also to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Definitions ought to arise from the characteristics and qualities of what already exists rather than constructing an abstract ideal and imposing unnecessary and unrealistic limitations on concrete possibilities. It's the difference between letting an essay be whatever it wants or needs to be and forcing it to be a five-paragraph theme.

In the third definition, my terms come from the functions of discourse identified by James Britton and the London Schools Project (Britton et al. 1975). Terms like personal and academic, so often invoked to distinguish between kinds of student writing, generate a false dichotomy. The personal and the academic are not in opposition to begin with; ideally they complement one another. Expressive, transactional, poetic—these terms cover very nicely the range of writing students do in my courses.

In the fourth definition I'm merely stating the postobvious.

I don't believe for a moment that these definitions are, well, definitive, and I'd be interested to know how others would change them or add to them, but for my students and for me, the...


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