In Which Siobhan Does Not Lose Her Temper Over Important Literary and Pedagogical Matters

Is non-fiction less “literary” than fiction?  Someone has suggested to me that it is, and I’m so mad about it I could spit.

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


28 thoughts on “In Which Siobhan Does Not Lose Her Temper Over Important Literary and Pedagogical Matters

  1. My dear Siobhan,

    You have just made my day…not because you are angry, but because you’ve pondered this and took time to write about it. I, like you, do not see any difference either. However, regardless of who is ‘right’ (if anyone is), this exercise made you think….question things which, to me, is the heart and soul of teaching and learning. A seed has been planted in my head too. This can only be for the good.

    I am anxious to see what comments you get and I will definitely read every single one of them!

    Have a great week, enjoy the sun and hope to see you soon!


    1. Gen X: I tend to stew about things, which can be destructive if I don’t consciously decide to examine what I’m stewing about. A blog is handy for this purpose!


  2. I’m pondering this. I think it’s because our culture values events over perception; objective over subjective. Like if I said to my husband, “I’m unhappy because I feel like you’re neglecting me,” it would seem reasonable for him to list things he’s done with or for me recently. The problem, however, isn’t whether or not he’s neglecting me, but how I feel.

    As a result, in most domains, nonfiction (“truth”) is valued more than fiction (“fake”), and it becomes very important to justify which category a work falls into. In English, however, because so much of what we treasure is imaginative literature, there’s a sort of reversal. That might also be tied to why the field has so many women in it – there’s a lot of depth, layering, subjective, “feeling-y” nuance to the study.

    I hope that comes out okay. It made sense in my head, but I’m less sure of how it looks to others ;D


    1. This is an interesting take, Clix. Do you think that’s why these women felt the need to, at least implicitly, divorce “literature” from non-fiction? They didn’t do so blatantly, but their approach suggests that their definition of “literary” is much narrower than mine.


      1. Not directly, but I think there’s a causal chain leading to it.

        I also think it’s human nature to classify things… to categorize and name. Identify. And what makes discussions like this so (unexpectedly?) passionate is that this is how we form our identities. I am in THIS category, not THAT category. You know? And therefore challenging the categories also challenges the identity of those who place themselves in one of them.

        I will say that I do NOT think you are setting your students up to fail. You’re not teaching them that fiction and nonfiction are interchangeable, and I should hope that they wouldn’t read a process essay and come out thinking it was a short story. 😉

        (Well, the ones who pay attention, anyway! *g*)


  3. Um. I find it incredible that any English teacher could categorically say non-fiction is not literature. True, there is a whole lot that’s not particularly literary, but there is a whole lot that is. I don’t like bringing sloppily-written essays (about literature or society or anything) into class to fulfill some “non-fiction” requirement, so I don’t do it, but I do think a lot of that goes on, and maybe that’s what your Teacher A was complaining about. A search through the New Yorker or Geist, to name a couple of examples from a vast field, will yield plenty of excellent non-fiction that’s worth studying as literature if anyone wants to.

    As for the other question here, about teaching the personal narrative course, why would you stop? There are gradations of method through all prose narratives, whether fiction or non-fiction, in terms of how much of character/setting/etc is “made up” and how much is drawn from life, and to what purpose in terms of the text (which may be the more relevant angle); the genre distinction between memoir and fiction is one of the exciting discussions, and difficult! Maybe a comparison component (between fiction and non-fiction, using super-short texts) would help foster the discussion.


    1. Susan:

      No one at this meeting was really categorical about it; it was more implicit in the attitudes and terminology – the assertion, for example, that personages in memoirs are not “characters.” And there were a couple of moments where people used phrases like “we could include both literature and non-fiction in this exercise.” I expect that if you brought up In Cold Blood or even “A Modest Proposal,” these teachers would concede that those were works of literature. Then again, I can’t be sure.

      And as for scrapping the PN course, you’re right, that’s not what I would do. However, if the Exit Exam is indeed expecting students to use different terminology to discuss personal narrative than they do for fiction, I am going to have to overhaul parts of the course. Discussion of the subtleties of these terminology would be interesting to me, but will be very difficult for some of my students to handle, when they’re having a hard enough time understanding what “characterization” or “imagery” mean as it is.


  4. I don’t think there is a difference. In fact, before I teach the concept of characterization, we always discuss the process of getting to know a person. I always write a variety of things on the board that indicate how we become experts on someone else. Then I point out that literature (both fiction and nonfiction) relays some of those same events to give you the opportunity to get to know a person.

    But I do think this is why some people are opposed to reading nonfiction. They miss the concept of the story–and it IS a story whether it’s true or not.


  5. You may be on to something. Especially if we can reconcile both perspectives. Sounds difficult, but doable. Like teachers A and B, you perceive a difference between the two types of writing. Unlike them, you find these differences less meaningful than similarities.

    In social sciences, there’s a similar thing going on when we talk about neoliberalism and neoconservatism (differences are arguably minute, but people spend careers arguing about them). In popular discourse about music, you find similar things with genre labels (is Country really different from Western? Is Pop/Rock that distinct from Indie Rock?) You could even make a case for the same issue being at stake in terms of “national cultures,” often overblown and frequently misleading.

    There might even be a general pattern, here. Something about level of analysis (macro/micro)?

    But what’s most interesting, to me, is the end of your post. About challenging our own approaches. Without jumping to conclusions as to the ultimate value of your personal narrative course or about the literary insight of teachers A and B, we could think about the diversity of viewpoints represented by Cegep teachers across the province. The richness of these perspectives can be valuable if we pay attention to it. And students would know what to expect when their work is marked by people holding different views from the ones in which they were trained.


    1. Enkerli: thanks for these thoughts. Indeed, I think a multiplicity of perspectives is enriching; I am simply troubled by the fact that I may be setting my students up to fail because of a dominant perspective that I am not aware of…But if I am aware of it, and can make them aware of it too, this could lead to some productive discussion.


  6. Being aware of the overall climate in which students will have to perform can be very effective in terms of getting them to think about literature in a broad perspective. In turn, students can join us in broadening the discussion about literature in general.


  7. This post was one of the most interesting, exciting reads I’ve had in a long time. As a ‘lay person’ with very little knowledge of what is true literature and what isn’t, my thoughts on it come down to “why not??” Some of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read are essays and biographies. To develop a real life character would be very difficult indeed. One would have to be very mindful of being true to the characteristics of the subject, and to create a worthwhile story one would have to keep in mind all the rules of making a literary masterpiece.
    I won’t say more as I’m not in any way connected with the teaching of literature, english or any other related subject – therefore – I have no qualifications to speak on the subject.
    I did a little research after reading your topic today and found this – it may or may not help, or it may be totally of the topic – what do I know??
    The Art of Literary Biography
    Edited by John Batchelor


    1. Trudy: I’m going to add that book to my Amazon wishlist, as it looks like an essential read for anyone who is interested in the subject. Thanks so much for your thoughts on this! Grappling with definitions is always so tricky, and, as the book you mention demonstrates, even so-called “experts” are often not able to pin them down…


  8. Much of this issue makes me think about a counterintuitive aspect of teaching, which comes up on occasion: teaching can be most difficult when it touches on a topic we know too thoroughly.
    Of course, it might just be my own experience, in which case it might say something strange about my teaching. But I’ve occasionally seen it with other teachers, back when I was a student.
    And it’s not that a course about our area of expertise can’t be satisfying, to us or to our students. But there’s sometimes a special challenge with teaching a topic about which you care too deeply.
    Conversely, it can be relatively easy to teach outside of our specific expertise, including when we’re learning at the same time as our students are. Given our training, we can quickly spot what’s important in the material. Based on our relative lack of knowledge, we can clearly identify the elements which may be more difficult for students to grasp. And we don’t get too bogged down in specialist debates.

    Some of this relates to the whole debate about expertise and pedagogy, in post-secondary education. From the outside, it sounds like Cegeps are affected less directly by this, but it’s an unavoidable issue in universities (and colleges outside of the Cegep system). There’s a notion that not only is cross-fertilization between research and teaching a given but that expertise trumps pedagogy in any case. Heard several versions of this, most explicitly stated by Francophones, for some reason. And my experience tends to contradict it.
    Now, there can indeed be cross-fertilization between teaching and research, and that’s quite valuable. But it doesn’t mean that a skilled researcher is necessarily able to help students understand her or his research issues very thoroughly, nor does it mean that pedagogy has no role in “higher education.”

    Much of this may sound like a tangent but I sincerely think there’s a parallel to your situation. It’s possible that those teachers who fail to grasp the literary significance of non-fiction writing are skilled at teaching literature in a broad sense. It sounds like they’re naïve about non-fiction, not having given the topic much thought. Thing is, their naïveté may even be advantageous, in the current climate (especially if literature teachers are trying to distinguish themselves from others types of writing).
    At the same time, it’s possible that your reaction to insightless comments about nonfiction may come from your specialized interest. A frequent reaction by a specialist would be: “Isn’t this the most basic thing? How can they teach the topic if they don’t understand this?” Personally, I’ve had a similar reaction, though I still think it’s non-specialized. “How can they teach social science if they don’t realize that identity is both distinction and a sense of belonging?”

    A way to deal with this may be to treat colleagues’ comments as if they were coming from a very different field, like a psychologist commenting on literature or a chemist explaining sociolinguistics. Such comments can be very frustrating. But they don’t affect us so much. In fact, they may come from our students and we treat them as teachable moments. Doing the same thing with colleagues requires caution, but it can work.


  9. After reading all the comments, I think that the bottom line is this: teachers teach based on their pedagogical and content values – what a particular teacher values will be integrated into his/her course in one way or another. Having said that, the EEE is a MELS’ requirement, and the expectations are there so that no matter where the teacher is, all students follow the same path to the same end. Interpretation is part of literary analysis, but it is also found in teaching. Two teachers can read the same guidelines and interpret them differently, as Siobhan brought up in her initial post. We must accept this fact and learn from it. Teachers who evaluate the EEE are well placed to see how others see it, what the ‘MELS’ would like them to do…it’s here that a teacher who is focused on his/her students will put aside, for the EEE only, his or her pedagogical values if they HINDER the student’s success in a standardized exam. Teachers don’t write it, students do and in my humble opinion, educators are there to facilitate learning and to bring their students to be the best they can be. Literature and response are important elements of critical thinking, something I hear many complain is no longer existant….just keep pushing them, inspiring them and the rest will fall into place.


    1. “educators are there to facilitate learning and to bring their students to be the best they can be…” This summarizes the situation nicely, Gen X, and also summarizes my frustration – failing students because they are not expressing my own vision of literature is, to my mind, irresponsible. At the same time, we need to create standards, and it is unlikely we will ever get everyone to agree on what constitutes a “standard” and what constitutes plain old personal prejudice. It is an ongoing struggle!


  10. I teach English as a Second Language and have also been a corrector of the Quebec College English Exit Exam and have to agree with Siobhan. I came across videos by this English professor on youtube. He makes many good points and seems to consider both fiction and nonfiction as literature.


    1. I have just watched this video from beginning to end and have bookmarked it for use in my research and my classes. This guy is awesome, and I will write about him in a future post. Thanks for pointing me in this direction!


  11. I took an entire class on creative nonfiction (emphasis on creative) that covered aspects of the personal narrative. There is indeed characterization of real people in creative nonfiction or in almost any essay that includes a person. Think about people in real life that you may or may not have written about in an essay. They have specific traits and attitudes that we say are “characteristic” of them. Having also taught, I have seen nothing that states only fictitious characters are characterized, and in fact, have only seen the opposite.

    I characterize friends and family every day to others when I talk about them. This doesn’t only happen in literature (fiction or non), but in day-to-day living and interactions. When I tell someone a story about my mom, they begin to have a picture of who she is in my head. (This, at times, has backfired, when someone took a few stories that I told that were true but not flattering in the least and characterized my mother as only those stories. Then they try the “your mom is awful” thing that makes me feel like crud and reminds me that my mom isn’t just those bad stories, but she is also good stories and characteristics that I haven’t talked about. It goes back to the “I can trash my mom but you can’t” phenomena that is so well known. 😉 ) I think the parenthetical is a good reminder that we need to be even more careful of how we use characterization for real people (in verbal stories or written personal essays), because it’s rare that real humans are one-sided: good or bad.


    1. Jessica: so true! And something I also talk about in the classroom – when we read a story, especially a first-person narrative (whether fiction or nonfiction), we are getting a particular, limited, and more-or-less reliable version of events and characters. Considering this in literature can help students consider it in their lives.


  12. You are quite correct that non-fiction can indeed be literature. It is a different style (like short stories are different from novels), but non-fiction can share plenty of similarities with literature. As you said, for the reader, any person they read about in fiction or non-fiction is like a character (for all purposes). You have to develop them and your ideas in similar ways to engage your audience.

    I would also say non-fiction essays are similar to short stories in their need for focused vision. Many good writers of fiction are good essayists, too. Barbara Kingsolver is one that I know well in that camp, as was Madeline L’Engle. David Quammen is also a fine essayist, combining ideas from life and literature with science. One of my favorite essays of his, “The Siphuncle” combines elements of biography, science, and Faulkner’s themes to create a masterpiece of an essay. There are characters and scenes created just like in any other literature.

    Even more “dry” versions of non-fiction, like biography, create characters. The best biographies are engaging about their subject, and lead their audience to a better understanding of that character. Even exhaustive, in depth biographies like Theodore Rex do not give every facet of who Theodore Roosevelt was (despite its length, I actually felt like I did not get a strong enough picture of who he was as a person, to be honest).

    Technical writing, however, is most definitely not literature. 😉 But I’m guessing most people would not make that argument.

    But for certain, don’t take the other comments personally. You dislike the other position because it holds back from a more open view of what literature is (something you like). All of that coming together makes you more passionate on the subject. The main thing there is just to remember not to let it get to you: everyone is going to have different opinions.

    I do not like that it might be affecting things at a national or provincial testing level (I’m from the U.S., so I’m not sure how testing works for you all exactly), but if you know they are testing in a certain way, you can note that for your kids while still teaching them the best way to look at it (that’s a good opportunity for learning right there). Sounds like that might not be super clear, though, so it might be better to leave it.


    1. “But for certain, don’t take the other comments personally…” I agree, Neal – it’s important not to let our personal feelings cloud our judgement of these things. At the same time, I think well-considered anger is appropriate if we feel students are being short-changed, and in this case, I think it’s possible they are. If teachers are failing students because they don’t like the terminology they use, or if teachers are telling students that literary forms they enjoy, like memoir, are not “literature,” thus alienating students from “literary” experience, that really burns me!


      1. Although, this anger needs not be personal.
        Diverse people (especially, diverse students) are involved.
        You may feel it personally, be affected deeply by it, engage your whole being in the situation. But it’s supraindividual.


  13. Enkerli: Yes – thus my qualification that anger be “well-considered” and not “cloud our judgement.” I don’t think it’s important whether the FEELING be personal or not – what matters is what we do about it and that we express it in a way that is constructive.


    1. Exactly. Especially if we can discuss these issues with some of our students. Maybe not in the heat of things (when the EEE is a direct preoccupation). But at a point in the semester when broad things can be discussed dispassionately.


  14. I like your philosophy, and I agree with you.

    It’s teachers like Teacher B who make students HATE reading!

    Best regards,
    Lynne Diligent, Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor


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