“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” -Tim O’Brien, President’s Lecture, 1999
In March of this year, I presented at the North Carolina Association for the Gifted and Talented Conference in Winston-Salem, NC. The conference is one of the highlights of my year, and if I can make it to that point, I know I will receive the rejuvenation I need to finish out the school year. I co-presented with my dear friend, Cristi, on teaching Shakespeare. At the end of the session, I was asked by an attendee how I would respond to an administrator if told I could not teach fiction. I was speechless, but the attendee continued by stating that he was told by his administrator that students could get the skills necessary by reading nonfiction only. Additionally, he stated that the principal was adamant that students read nonfiction to participate in real reading. I noted the implication: the principal viewed fiction as fake reading, implying that the imaginative storylines and characters were of no value in our assessment-obsessed culture. I know how this implication came into existence because I’ve misdefined fiction before. During my first year of teaching, I came up with a mnemonic device for remembering the definition: “Fiction,” I would say, “is fake. Nonfiction is not fake.” It sounds ridiculous because these terms are multi-layered and complex, and they encompass more than fake and not fake. I eventually realized my own shortcomings, but there are still teachers and administrators who misunderstand the nature of fiction and nonfiction; they’re misrepresenting the study of literature and the humanities to the students in their classrooms. The resonating power of good books is mitigated by misinformed ideas about what fiction has to offer, and as a result, the students lose opportunities to explore fiction as a reflection of the world.
Further conversation with the attendee unearthed the sordid underbelly of this anti-fiction climate: common core standards and the fear of standardized assessment. The obsession with testing can overtake a school if the leadership, both teachers and administrators, do not understand the influential power of reading fiction. Informational texts comprise more than half of the 8th grade end-of-grade assessment, and by 12th grade, informational texts are expected to comprise 70% of students’ reading lives. (Reading framework for the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress). Those percentages are significant and overwhelming, and the burden of instruction falls on the language arts teachers. A 2012 article in The Washington Post entitled The Common Core’s 70 percent nonfiction standards and the end of reading? mourned the loss of fiction reading in our nation’s classrooms, stating that this was the best way to “make the kids who like reading hate reading.” With high percentages and the weight of standardized assessment, no wonder people see it as an invalid genre worthy of study. No wonder it appears fake.
Personally, I feel that fiction reflects more truth than nonfiction because experience emanates from narrative writing. When authors create setting, characters, and plot, they are building bridges between their imagination and reality. In Readicide, Kelly Gallagher (2009) alludes to Kenneth Burke, the philosopher who states that reading provides students with imaginative rehearsals for life (p. 66). In other words, reading gives us a chance to experience part of life before we encounter it personally. For instance, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird gives a reader a chance to see life through the eyes of a child, and although precocious, that child shows us how racism can destroy innocence. When reading Gary Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter, a student learns to understand brokenness and abuse. When reading Hamlet, young adults begin to understand existential angst, a concept they will encounter time and time again. I agree that nonfiction is an important part of an English class, but reading only nonfiction gives our students a limited view of the world.
I mentioned earlier my first year of teaching and the abysmal mnemonic device I created to help students differentiate fiction and nonfiction. In retrospect, I hindered their understanding by identifying the terms as opposites. For three more years, I continued to use this same device, becoming more confident in the definition I created. I understood the nuances of fiction, the biases of nonfiction; however, I was not conveying this to my students, and my failure was illuminated as I read Michael Clay Thompson’s Classics in the Classroom. “Some of history’s greatest and most evil fictions have appeared in nonfiction works (Hitler’s Mein Kempf is an example), some of humanity’s truths have appeared in works of fiction, such as Oedipus Rex, Moby Dick, or Les Miserables” (pp. 33-34) writes Thompson (1995) of these vast domains we try to simplify by using specious definitions. I wasn’t only simplifying; I was destroying the beauty of truth that fiction possesses. I was teaching my students that there are no lessons, no connections to be made with the books they read. I didn’t mean to misrepresent the word, but my definition told a different story, and without any intention, I was contributing to the belief that fiction was not a real reading experience. We must carefully avoid such mistakes.
I return to Tim O’Brien’s philosophy about fiction often. Through a narrative, authors can convey truths by speaking about the struggles of being human. I believe in the power of good books. I believe that these imaginative rehearsals are what guide students through the toughest times in life. By nature, people love stories, and if you have a great story to tell, people will listen. These stories include characters whose emotions reflect reality; they are the touchstones by which readers measure their actions and the actions of other people. We are already connected to the characters in books before we pick them up because these stories are about people who are dealing with problems just like we are. These books have the power to answer our questions, to assuage our fears, to offer us insight, to show us friendship, to repair the fragmented and broken pieces of ourselves. Our children are seeking answers; I want them to find quality answers to those questions. What better way but through fiction?
Students need authenticity, and reading good books gives them the exposure to universal truths, to authentic interactions and feelings of people. I want the children in my classes to think in terms of literature, and as they grow into adults, I want that literature to develop and enhance their sense of humanity. I want them to develop empathy and love with their whole heart. Isn’t that what really matters? In The Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller (2009) stated that “reading is a university course in life…Through reading, we can witness all that is noble, beautiful, or horrifying about other human beings” (p. 151). Her words echo my feelings about the humanities, and after each novel, I now ask students what their books have taught them about the world and the people in it. These books illuminate our world and expose truth, but students will only discover the beauty that books hold if they are allowed to read fiction.
Fiction is not fake.
Gallagher, K. (2009). Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse.
Miller, D. (2009). The book whisperer: Awakening the inner reader in every child. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
National Assessment Governing Board, W. D. (2008). Reading Framework for the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. National Assessment Governing Board.
O’Brien, T. (1999). Writing vietnam . Retrieved from http://cds.library.brown.edu/projects/WritingVietnam/obrien.html
Thompson, M.C. (1995). Classics in the classroom (2nd ed.). Unionville, NY: Royal Fireworks Press.