Is nonfiction more important than fiction?

I often hear rumors that the Common Core State Standards require English classes to devote more and more attention to “informational text” as students advance through the grades–so that, by grade 12, 70 percent of their reading will be informational text and 30 percent literary.

This is not so; the percentages are for all the subjects combined, not for English class alone. Yes, English classes are supposed to include more “literary nonfiction” than they have in the past, but this is not supposed to eclipse the study of fiction, poetry, and drama.

This is what the Common Core State Standards for ELA say (on page 5):

Fulfilling the Standards for 6–12 ELA requires much greater attention to a specific category of informational text—literary nonfiction—than has been traditional. Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally. To measure students’ growth toward college and career readiness, assessments aligned with the standards should adhere to the distribution of texts across grades cited in the NAEP framework.

Ah, a sigh of relief. So I don’t have to stop teaching Aeschylus after all. (I am not currently teaching, let alone teaching Aeschylus, but if I were, I wouldn’t want to stop.)

Even so, I wonder whether such heavy emphasis on “informational text” is wise. By all means, students should read more primary and secondary sources in history class. They should learn to write research papers that integrate information from numerous sources. In science class, where possible, they should read articles on current research as well as select works on the history of science. But is there any reason why the percentage of informational texts should come to 70 percent?

Here’s why it should: colleges and employers supposedly require one to read large quantities of informational text and amass the information in a very short time. Students unpracticed in this will find themselves at a severe disadvantage.

Here’s another reason why: the reading of informational text is in many ways a distinct discipline. With practice, students come to recognize the structures of arguments. They can locate the ideas and supporting details quickly.

And an even better reason: through reading, you learn about the subject, be it history, science, economics, or music theory. It is very difficult to understand a subject well without reading about it. And textbooks rarely offer enough insights into the field on their own. One needs to read more.

Yet another reason: even literary study, at the college level and onward, involves some informational text. But the reverse is rarely true. Yes, one might read a Donne poem in a physics class, in passing. But in a literature class, students might be required to read a great deal of criticism. Thus, informational text pervades all disciplines, whereas literary text does not, at least not obviously.

But here are some reasons not to give such preference to informational text:

First, literary text is by no means easier. Often it is harder, as the meaning is not apparent on the surface. Students need to take time with it in order to go past their first impressions and understandings.

Second, employers may not require knowledge of fiction, poetry, and drama, but that does not make it unimportant. It stays in the mind, sometimes throughout a person’s life. I vividly remember poems and fiction I read in eighth grade and earlier. I often recite poems in my mind. Moreover, literary allusions are everywhere, even in informational text, and if one misses them, one misses a great deal of the meaning of what one reads and hears.

Third, the term “informational text” is a bit of a misnomer. Why would Martin Buber’s I and Thou be considered “informational”? Why would the Iliad not be considered informational? The implication, it seems, is that we gain knowledge from a certain kind of text and not from another. This is not so; there is much to be learned from literature, and much in nonfiction that raises questions and draws our attention to mysteries and ambiguities.

Fourth (related to the above), literature often cuts to the quick. It can tell us things about humans in ways that informational text cannot. (And of course the reverse is also true.) One learns things from Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night that could not be told through history, psychology, or sociology. In a wonderful new book, A Jane Austen Education, William Deresiewicz tells what he learned about life from Austen’s novels. (He’s giving a reading here in New Haven today.)

Fifth, literature is beautiful, perplexing, moving, haunting, funny, daring, strange. So is nonfiction, or so it can be, but literature helps alert us to this.

Perhaps, instead of setting forth a ratio, it would make sense to look at the curriculum and the readings in it.

I'd like to hear from readers. When you were in high school, what was the approximate ratio of literary to informational text in your studies? What do you think of the current emphasis on "informational text"?

For me, it was probably about 80/20, since I was reading French, Latin, Greek, and Russian literature in the original, in addition to the literature I read in English class. I don't think I suffered for it. We read a fair amount of nonfiction in history class; it was there that I became acquainted with the work of Richard Hofstadter, whom I read with admiration. I also enjoyed the work of Daniel Boorstin and C. Vann Woodward. Each of us had to write a paper on a court case; I chose the "Sick Chicken Case," which not only had an amusing name but was very interesting. I wrote a research paper on anti-intellectualism in nineteenth-century American schools (drawing on Hofstadter, obviously, but also referring to a number of primary sources that I found in the Boston Public Library).

Comments

  1. Supersub says:

    I wonder how much of the anti-fiction sentiment is due to the overuse of contemporary and indulgent teen fiction in school.

  2. Much of the preschool-ES fiction is drivel, at best. My son and daughter-in-law refuse to check out a significant portion of the library offerings, and they live in one of those leafy suburbs populated by highly-educated people. They read to their preschoolers daily, but make sure they read only good, well-written books and they read a lot of classics (Beatrix Potter, Aesop’s Fables, classic poetry etc) and a lot of science (caterpillars to butterflies etc.).

  3. MagisterGreen says:

    What Supersub said. If the kids weren’t forced to read mindless and worthless garbage, then I wonder if the stress would fall so strongly on “informational texts” and their ilk. Good reading is good reading, be it fiction or non, and worthwhile texts should be what students are expected to read.

  4. Is nonfiction more important than fiction?

    Depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

    “Here’s why it should: colleges and employers supposedly require one to read large quantities of informational text and amass the information in a very short time. Students unpracticed in this will find themselves at a severe disadvantage.”

    Most college students and most employees are not required to do this. The ones that can definitely have an advantage and probably end up being the people in charge at work, in government, and comment on education blogs such as this one. What employers want is people who can read simple text and understand it. Can you follow these written instructions?

    I know lots of successful people who have no literary life whatsoever; they are capable of reading and assimilating information. I personally think this would be an impoverished existence but they don’t seem to mind.

  5. Yes, SuperSub et al. make good points. If you look up Winnie-the-Pooh on Scholastic’s “Book Wizard,” you’ll see that it is assigned a grade level of 4.6. If Winnie-the-Pooh is supposed to be at the fourth grade level, one wonders what students are learning before then. Not that Winnie-the-Pooh should be “beneath” a fourth grader–I enjoy it today–but to give it a fourth-grade level is to imply that younger children aren’t ready for its vocabulary and sentence structures. That is a shame.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I think I was required to read far too much fiction (proportionately, anyway) in high school; most of the nonfiction I “read” was textbooks. In fact, other than one class when I was a senior and we were reading essays, I can’t think of a SINGLE instance of reading non-textbook non-fiction in my high school, and only one instance from junior high (Anne Frank).

    There’s a big difference, though, between narrative nonfiction and argumentative nonfiction. Autobiographies and such (I’m thinking of things like Anne Frank, The Gulag Archipelago, Founding Brothers, and even Nickel and Dimed, really) have much more in common with fictional literature in terms of how they are read than they have with, say, Plato’s Phaedo, Descartes’ Meditations (both of which are narrative in structure), The Federalist Papers, Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, or Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods.

    As an aside, much poetry is actually nonfiction — stylized, certainly, but about real things and real experiences. I think people often forget that. I don’t think La Vita Nuova, for instance, can really be considered “fiction”. It’s autobiography, yes. It’s embellished almost without a doubt. But it’s narrative, too, rather than argument. I sometimes think that one of the problems with my own poetry is that it’s focused too much on argument and point, and not enough on layered narrative.

    I, too, dislike the term “informational text”. If nothing else, I learn what Jane Austen wanted her characters to do next from reading a chapter of Emma. That’s information. I’ve often privately cut the written world up into five categories: Narrative, Argument, Advertisement, Reference, and Instructional (How-To). Advertisement probably doesn’t deserve it’s own category, but I can’t bear to see junk mail put in the same category as Paine’s Common Sense. Those are just my categories, though — I imagine that literary theory has a much better taxonomy.

    Were I teaching English, and had I full control of the syllabus, I would probably set the mix at about 70-30 in favor of narrative, with the balance primarily Argument.

  7. Cranberry says:

    If you Google “high school summer reading lists,” you can read a variety of publicly posted lists. Many of the expectations are not set at a high level, even for rising high school juniors. Newton collected summer reading lists from across the state: http://www.newton.k12.ma.us/nshs/Library/SummerReadingListsResource.htm.

    One high school asked every student to read “The five people you meet in Heaven.” If that’s the summer reading, what do they ask the students to read during the school year? (By the way, would “The five people you meet in heaven” count as fiction or nonfiction?)

    I fear SuperSub is right. What argument can be made for indulgent teen fiction in the classroom?

  8. We read mostly fiction in our English class. Our STEM classes expected us to read a fair number of scientific articles or history of science essays (we were a magnet school.) On the other hand, I don’t think I had to read anything other than the textbook in History class for all of high school. (Jr. High we read nonfiction in history, but that was a Humanities magnet so they had higher expectations.)

    On the other hand, I read a fair bit of nonfiction outside of school, thanks to the Library.

    The non magnet kids read very little in ANY class other than English. On the other hand, reading massive amounts of fiction in and out of school does improve your reading speed so that when you hit college, you can handle a massive amount of non-fiction. (I had one class that was overcrowded, and the prof. didn’t want to kick anyone out— so she just kept increasing the reading. At one point she hit 600 pages a week, just for her class, and still hadn’t lost any students. But she was a really interesting prof, and, honestly, the reading she assigned was all interesting too so it didn’t work to weed anyone out!)

    I remember seeing something way back when that the best predictor of college success was pages read per week in high school— The Romance and Scifi/Fantasy junkies did the best at transitioning to college reading loads……

  9. “I wonder how much of the anti-fiction sentiment is due to the overuse of contemporary and indulgent teen fiction in school.”

    I’m a junior high school librarian and comments like these make me sad. They’re both uninformed and inaccurate. Contemporary young adult literature is a wonderful way to teach students the necessary skills. Modern texts by authors like Laurie Halse Anderson, Lois Lowry and Water Dean Myers engage students in ways no classical text ever could. An engaged student is more likely to learn and understand the material, and Heaven forbid, maybe even enjoy it! There’s certainly more value in developing life long readers than developing a thorough understanding of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

    In my opinion, the text exemplars found in Appendix B of the Common Core Standards, specifically the grades 6-8 band, are horribly outdated (the average age of the books on the list is 1958, and the most contemporary book is still 20 years old). For example, what thirteen year old boy is going to connect with Little Women? Just because something is older doesn’t mean the writing is superior.

    I think non-fiction is great – especially high interest non-fiction, but I don’t think ELA is the proper place to teach primary source documents like the “Gettysburg Address” (as recommended by the text exemplars for the Common Core). ELA classrooms simply don’t have enough time to provide the proper context to ground primary source documents; instead, these should be taught as part of the Social Studies curriculum during the relevant unit of study.

  10. Mark Roulo says:

    But here are some reasons not to give such preference to informational text:

    First, literary text is by no means easier.

    Literary text is very much easier than many informational texts in at least one objective metric: difficulty of vocabulary.

    As an example, typical articles in Smithsonian Magazine have harder vocabulary than pretty much any fiction I have been able to find (current winner for fiction is the Fagles translation of The Iliad). Scientific American articles are right up there, too.

    Magazines like these also have long/complicated sentences, so the grammatical difficulty is often comparable to tougher fiction.

    What non-fiction doesn’t have is difficulty due to things like (a) literary allusions, (b) symbolism, (c) unstated motive inference, …

    You really want kids to read both.

    Whether English/literature class is the right place to read difficult non-fiction is a separate question, but a high school education that focuses on literature and ignores serious non-fiction texts is deficient.

    NOTE: Vocabulary difficulty metrics are using Dr. Hayes’ LEX(5). Sentence lengths are measured using the same tool.

  11. I remember some rich vocabulary and syntax in The Mayor of Casterbridge, to give just one example. Here’s the second paragraph of the novel:

    “The man was of fine figure, swarthy, and stern in aspect; and he showed in profile a facial angle so slightly inclined as to be almost perpendicular. He wore a short jacket of brown corduroy, newer than the remainder of his suit, which was a fustian waistcoat with white horn buttons, breeches of the same, tanned leggings, and a straw hat overlaid with black glazed canvas. At his back he carried by a looped strap a rush basket, from which protruded at one end the crutch of a hay-knife, a wimble for hay-bonds being also visible in the aperture. His measured, springless walk was the walk of the skilled countryman as distinct from the desultory shamble of the general labourer; while in the turn and plant of each foot there was, further, a dogged and cynical indifference personal to himself, showing its presence even in the regularly interchanging fustian folds, now in the left leg, now in the right, as he paced along. “

  12. Mark Roulo says:

    If I have time in the next week, I’ll try shoving The Mayor of Casterbridge through the LEX software.

    I’ll be surprised if it measures harder than The Smithsonian articles, though.

  13. Cranberry says:

    The Smithsonian articles I find online are not very complex. Perhaps the articles’ prose has been “dumbed down” over the years? Scientific American might be more difficult to read, because the vocabulary contains more single-use words, referring to scientific items or processes. The sentence and paragraph structure strike me as much simpler than Victorian novelists.

    Complex, literary fiction should supply students with a larger vocabulary of words likely to recur in elevated prose.

    “Nonfiction” is such a general term. I think literary prose can prepare students to tackle this sort of nonfiction:

    “MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN OF THE CONVENTION: If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South….”

  14. I seem to recall quite a bit of fiction and very little non-fiction (not counting textbooks, which are presumably – though not always- nonfiction). Still, I have to wonder how wide the gulf is between fiction and non-fiction these days. Buck’s The Good Earth is fiction, but I really could see that being passed off as a memoir today.

  15. tim-10-ber says:

    I am totally confused by Diane’s argument and reality…yes, employers in certain lines of business require their employees to read, comprehend, digest and analyze large documents with tons of detail in them. We also expect them to be able to write well, form an opinion about what they read/analyzed, defend it and articulate it in written and verbal form. I do not remember reading non-fiction in high school (I loved biographies and read them my 1 – 8 years constantly plus we read Anne Frank sometime in there). In college there was no reading of non-fiction and the rest of my reading was of textbooks.

    More than anything employers want employees that can read, comprehend, analyze, form an opinion, be able to defend it and be able to communicate it well in written and verbal form. At least that is what we want in my line of work…

    I do not believe reading non-fiction helps this in anyway…developing a curiosity, love of reading and digging to find the answers…we need this. I honestly don’t think schools prepare graduates to stick with it, take the deeper dive, think for themselves, form/defend and opinion and present it well in both written and verbal form. But this is what it takes for me to consider hiring someone for my line of work.

  16. Mark Roulo says:

    The Smithsonian articles I find online are not very complex. Perhaps the articles’ prose has been “dumbed down” over the years?

    You are underestimating how difficult the vocabulary is, probably because you are a good reader. The vocabulary is tougher (on average) than Wall Street Journal editorials … which are tougher than most [maybe all?] fiction.

  17. SuperSub says:

    Lindsay –
    While I openly admit being unfamiliar with the authors you mentioned, I have looked over plenty of my students’ assigned or chosen readings for their 7th and 8th grade English classes, and much of it is drivel. Characters are one-sided, the language is elementary, and the themes are simplistic.

  18. My personal rule is that I don’t teach anything they can read on their own. My job is to help them read something just beyond their reach. They can read YA until their eyes bleed — and I hope they do — but on their own time.

    Many older texts are, in fact, more complex in diction and especially syntax.

  19. tim-10-ber,

    I am questioning the emphasis on nonfiction, not defending it. I was simply presenting the arguments I’ve often heard in favor of nonfiction.

    Yes, students should be able to comprehend, analyze, etc.–but comprehend, analyze what? That makes a big difference, but I doubt it should be a question of nonfiction vs. fiction. The categories are somewhat deceptive to begin with.

    As many have pointed out, there’s much drivel being taught in place of literature (or else students are left to choose their own books). But there’ll be plenty of nonfiction drivel too. Just give the publishers time.

  20. It seems to me that the categories of fiction and non-fiction are rather arbitrary (this comes up all the time in higher ed creative writing classes). I think it would be more useful to make distinctions between literary prose and poetry as I think some of the commenters said above and informational (for lack of a better term–I’m not implying that one doesn’t gather information from literature) prose.

    Literary prose and poetry can be fiction or non-fiction, while an informational text would be a textbook or a set of directions or a manual. And here is where I think we do need to teach students (briefly& concisely–I am in no way advocating for making reading strategies the center of any approach to literacy) how to approach different types of text, meaning with informational texts, it’s usually not important to read word for word, but to to skim the text and then go back for certain information. With literary prose or test on the other hand, the approach should be more thorough the first reading. I don’t remember being taught how to approach what I’m terming informational texts in high school or even in lower grades and I wish I had been. It was really liberating once I figured this out for myself and I find that my students seem relieved when I tell them that it’s okay to not read a textbook word for word.

    Of course there are terrifically written informational texts found in books and periodicals alike, in which case students get the best of both worlds–fine prose and information.

    I think it would be a shame to reduce the amount literary texts students read as I agree that there is so much to be learned from them. Also, reading good writing begets good writing.

    I also want to heartily agree with commenter Lindsay’s thoughts about contemporary young adult literature.

  21. Cranberry says:

    At lexile.com, you can look up the Lexile measures for many books. The contemporary young adult literature mentioned, in general, does not score nearly as highly as the books on the traditional canon. Little Women? 1210L or 1230L. Adventures of Tom Sawyer? 950L. Origin of the Species? 1430L. Mayor of Casterbridge? 1090L. Life on the Mississippi? 1090L. Coming into the Country? 1060L. The Federalist Papers? 1450L.

    Fever, 1793? 580L. The Giver? 760L.

    Perhaps teens find the modern fiction more engaging because it’s not as complex. It doesn’t demand as much attention to keep track of its diction and syntax. How does a student bridge the gap between The Giver and The Origin of the Species?

    We don’t expect an 8th grader to tackle the Origin of the Species. There should be a plan to increase his reading level over time, though.

  22. I worry that trying to logically defend fiction against nonfiction is a false battle that is inherently unwinnable; logic is nonfiction’s home turf! In the end, it boils down to society’s shared desire to appreciate beauty, connections among people past and present, sentiments, feelings, fellowship, and similar intangibles. By agreeing that these things should be understood by all members of society, we have agreed that they have a place in the standard curriculum, via the study of fiction and other arts.

  23. There’s a great deal of logic in poetry. Many sonnets consist of a logical argument of some kind. But as Michael has pointed out, much poetry is essentially nonfiction, or partly nonfiction.

    There is logic and skewed logic in fiction as well. Gogol’s stories are filled with skewed logic. Or take Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Granted, such works play with logic, but you could also say that they depend on logic.

    And then you have Plato’s Republic, which would be considered nonfiction but which plays with logic a great deal. So, playfulness is not the domain of fiction alone, just as logic does not belong to nonfiction alone.

    True, literature cannot be defended through logic alone, but logic (or at least argument) can do some of the work. You raise a good point, though: how does one defend the less tangible aspects of literature? How does one defend the things that by their nature can’t be proven?

    I worry about the proposed proportions because the emphasis should not be on proportions. It should be on selecting valuable works for students to read and teaching them well. People may disagree about the selections, but they should not shy away from making them.