Last week, I attended a meeting with English teachers from several colleges. We were there to give feedback to the creators of some online essay-writing activities. We looked at some sample exercises, in which students were asked to read a short essay and identify a main idea from the essay. After some discussion, one of the other teachers – let’s call her Teacher A – spoke up. ”I just want to give the point of view of my department,” she said, “and we would never use an activity like this. I don’t teach essays in my courses, and I don’t know anyone who does. I teach poetry, fiction and drama. I would have no use for activities where students learn to analyze essays, and I’ve never really understood why the provincial Exit Exam requires them to do so.”
“I teach essays,” I assured the creators, “both personal narrative essays and argumentative essays. I teach a whole course on each. It would make sense to have separate activities, though, for argumentative essays and, say, narrative prose, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.”
A third teacher – let’s call her Teacher B – sucked her teeth and shook her head. ”Oh no,” she said, “you mustn’t teach students to analyze fiction and non-fiction in the same way.” She pointed to a list of literary elements – imagery, characterization, setting etc. – that made up part of one of the exercises. ”You couldn’t discuss these techniques in an analysis of a non-fiction work.”
“Well, certainly you could,” I said, “if you were analyzing a personal narrative. A personal narrative uses characterization the same way a short story does.”
“But no – in non-fiction, you can’t credit the author with inventing the character,” Teacher B replied.
It stared at her for a moment, flummoxed. ”But the author is communicating the character to the reader through the selective use of detail,” I said, “in the same way that the writer of fiction does.”
“Then call it description,” Teacher B retorted. ”It is not characterization. I know that markers of the Exit Exams are very hard on students who treat non-fiction as though it were fiction. I have one colleague who tries to insist that we fail students who do that.”
Now, I marked Exit Exams for many years and no such ideology ever revealed itself. If it had, I would have (after a stunned silence) fought it with all claws out. I did not yield to my impulse to say, “Such a person should not be grading Exit Exams, or teaching literature at all. Such a person has no understanding of the act of literary creation or the act of reading.” I did not use such terminology as “backward” and “pedagogically indefensible.” I sat back and held my tongue, even as several more comments were made about “literature” as distinct from “non-fiction.” I did not launch into a rant. If I had, it would have sounded like this:
“The idea that there is a clear line to be drawn between non-fiction and fiction is itself fictional. The techniques of narrative are the same whether the narrative is based on something ‘true’ or not. For example: a character in a memoir is no more a ‘person’ than a fictional character is. It is no more a ‘person’ than a portrait hanging on the wall is a person. A portrait is an artifact created by the artist out of paint. A character is an artifact created by the writer out of words. When analyzing literary technique, we are analyzing the artifact, not the author’s intentions or the ‘truth’ or ‘fiction’ of the story.”
Why am I so mad about this? Well, it’s partly because I am a writer of both fiction and non-fiction narratives, and the suggestion that they are technically different is, in my personal experience, balderdash. It’s partly because I feel that fossilized attitudes toward what constitutes “literature” are alienating students from their literature classes and from reading.
Mostly, though, it’s because I teach a course in personal narrative in which I teach students to analyze memoir in exactly the way they analyze fiction. I explicitly tell them that in memoirs they encounter characters, not people, and that authors very carefully craft those characters, as well as plots and settings, in the same way that fiction writers craft stories from their imaginations, and that even the distinction between “fact” and “imagination” is an area for much discussion. The idea that my students might then be penalized if they discuss a personal essayist’s use of “characterization” makes me want to picket the Ministry of Education and set up dogmatic training camps for literature teachers across the country.
However, the flip side is this: maybe I’m angry because I’m wrong. Here is my favourite principle of learning psychology: learning is often upsetting, because it challenges our preconceived notions of the world, and this is disorienting and scary. Maybe I’m angry because I just learned something. Maybe I need to scrap my whole Personal Narrative course because I’m teaching my students an approach that is invalid. Maybe my students need to clearly distinguish between fictional and non-fictional stories and use different terminology when analyzing them, and I have been messing them up.
And maybe you have some ideas about this. What is the difference between a personal essay and a short story, or a memoir and a novel, in terms of literary technique? If a student is analyzing non-fiction, is he or she required to approach the analysis differently than when analyzing fiction? Where does “creative non-fiction” fall? Am I crazy?
Image by Kriss Szkurlatowski