In Defense of… Fiction?

I am a middle-aged English teacher, and I read more nonfiction than fiction.

I didn’t think I would succumb to this affliction. I used to read stories exclusively, sagas of other realms and times I could never inhabit. I immersed in the beings of characters, and just as Holden Caufield so famously fantasizes, I wanted to call up F. Scott Fitzgerald and hang out. I tried to have lunch with Russell Banks, writing him from my college dorm room when he still lived in Concord, but Affliction was being made into a movie so he likely had better offers.

Twenty years later, I have begun administering self-treatment. I let my New Yorker subscription run out because I would read John Seabrook’s 10,000 word feature, “Crunch: Building a Better Apple” (don’t judge me, it’s fascinating) but skip the short story in the back. So I signed up for Glimmer Train and The Paris Review instead, and gorged on short stories and poetry, and it worked for a while, but the last four books I’ve read? The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Cold Blood, Devil in the White City, and Wired for War. Making matters worse, I no longer teach literature survey courses as in my first decade of teaching. I squeeze in a handful of novels in some composition classes, and the occasional elective offers fresh titles, but I am primarily a pusher of nonfiction these days and I’m finding it an easy sell. Much of our reading for composition, while dense, is short, current, and renowned, and once the students learn to unpack an essay’s meaning and craft, they clearly feel empowered. The content is more than real for my students, it is urgent; a wailing rally cry around the issues in education, or war, gender, race… Admittedly, I enjoy facilitating their introduction to nonfiction, but am I prematurely rushing them into middle age? Should I teach novels in what is supposed to be a course in rhetoric and nonfiction?

I understand the common reasons readers, say 40 and beyond, often migrate to nonfiction; we increasingly read onscreen, we read to inform our occupation, our economic standing, or our political affiliation. While women have carved out spaces for book clubs featuring novels, men have not matched their efforts. Calling all men in our department: Can we have a novel club? I hear some monthly organizations can cure you of poor habits. For our ground-breaking, ice-breaking novel, I want to laugh aloud, no chuckle or smirk will do, or that chiefly adult laugh whereby a rush of air passes through our teeth in ironic reproach, but the kind of hoot during which I might pee a little bit.

I think some good can come from this struggle. If anything, I am starting to realize the idiom, all writing is argument, can have practical applications to my teaching. As nonfiction can display remarkable attention to figurative implications and boundless imagination, fiction can serve as an informative and critical text. I am not speaking of the ancillary resources we attach to our fiction units: interviews, reviews, critical analysis in a foreword or author’s note, all of which are effective and enriching. More specifically, I am referring to using the novel itself as an argument. My colleague, Mr. Provost, asks his students to evaluate Nick Carraway’s claims about the protagonist: “Gatsby turned out alright in the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.” While not all novels have this brand of lofty exposition, a grand opening much like a prologue, all of the authors and characters we love in our canon works make bold claims that are either warranted in the body or not:

  • “If you do something too good, then, after a while, if you don’t watch it, you start showing off. And then you’re not as good any more.”                                                                                          -Holden Caufield
  • “Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins.”                                                                                                            -William Golding
  • “The one thing that doesn’t abide by a majority rule is a person’s conscience.”                                                                                                  -Atticus Finch
  • “There’s special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”                          -Hamlet

Front-loading these claims in teaching a novel could be a way for fiction purists to serve a new master, RTI, while saving at least one former literature teacher from abandoning the stories he once loved. Looking through my own favorites, I am only beginning to learn how we can teach fiction as an informational text or an essay. We can empower students with the language and pose questions: Where do you find Holden Caufield’s reasoning non sequitur? Does he oversimplify? Generalize? Does he resort to attacking a person, not the issue, ad hominem? Our students can synthesize these answers in “extent to which” prompts like those coming from RTI, or any other phrasing allowing them to qualify their stance on claims.

I offer these examples humbly as an alternative approach to teaching a novel if our fiction titles are threatened by standardized testing or by our increasing tendency toward information over imagination as we age. We can assess students in reading dense, informative fiction beyond their bounds. I didn’t finish Animal Farm in Mrs. Corrigan’s 9th Grade English and ponder its allegorical representation of the Russian Revolution as a model for economic reform. I thought, “Those pigs are mean.” And Mrs. Corrigan, bless her heart, let me write about those mean pigs. I wasn’t ready to deconstruct a novel as an argument, but I’ll bet a lot of our 9th graders are ready if we care to try.

In August of 1963, Madeleine L’Engle won the Newbury Medal for A Wrinkle in Time, the first book I ever finished, then immediately started reading again. In her acceptance speech, she laments an establishment attacking the wonder of a child who reads stories. She writes, “These are the forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us all, muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin.” I find her quote reassuring, and terrifying. It tells me this struggle between imagination and information, between choice and standard, is old, that this too shall pass, while paradoxically arguing that perhaps it never passed, that history doesn’t repeat itself because there is no need to look back at struggles all around us now and forever.

I share L’Engle’s quote because my son Jackson and I are currently reading A Wrinkle in Time before bed. So it seems all is not lost for me. I still indulge in a chapter’s worth of tales concerning Percy Jackson, Narnia, or a galaxy far, far away. In L’Engle’s novel, Jackson loves Charles Wallace, the five-year-old sage who dispels terrific one-liners and inexplicable foresight. In one of the opening scenes, Charles knows his mother and older sister will have a fitful night, so he is already downstairs making sandwiches and warming milk. He stirs the milk on the stove and cuts the liverwurst sandwiches with a large butcher’s knife, all the while in footy pajamas. I read in my teacher’s voice at night, Mr. Hale, a voice Jackson finds funny but rarely interrupts. However, at the image of a boy creeping downstairs to utilize fire and a blade in his pajamas, Jackson laughs.

“He’s got to be standing in a chair dad, that he dragged around the kitchen, still holding his knife. Can’t you just seem him?”

And mercifully, I can. I can see him still.

~Ryan Hale

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