Jul 5, 2022

tour guides, persuaders, portraitists

This fall I’m teaching a craft of nonfiction class for the first time. It’s not a writing class, in the main, although students will do lots of response- and analysis-writing as part of it. Instead, the class will be an introduction to a broad array of techniques and positions that a nonfiction author takes up in telling true stories: books, essays, journalism, opinion, podcast, documentary, and more. My observation is that many infrequent student-readers imagine nonfiction to be primarily 1) personal essay and/or 2) opinion, and my goal is to add literacy and dimensionality to their view of craft: voice, reportage, argument, narrative, structural variation of a thousand kinds. We’ll traverse old works like St. Augustine, Montaigne, Douglass, Thoreau, and Wollstonecraft, and we’ll devote a lot of time to contemporary writing too.

I’ve got a working 3-unit structure right now, each 3-4 weeks, dividing our time among a group of writers I’m thinking of as:

1) tour guides. Our book for this unit will be Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, about the late Paul Farmer. Kidder’s voice here is one of interlocutor with the reader, in the way he himself appears as a character and sketches the whole ecosystem of medical care in contexts of poverty that make Farmer’s singular career. Also in this unit: explainers and teachers, critical reviews, editorial curation.

2) persuaders. This unit will be most familiar to students, I think — so maybe I should save it for the end of the semester? Our book will be Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Because, of course, Baldwin. Also in this unit: more epistolary forms in things like unusual advice columns, one of St Paul’s letters, plus op eds and essay-length argumentation.

3) portraitists. For this unit we’ll read Larissa MacFarquhar’s absolutely brilliant Strangers Drowning, not least because she is a master profiler whose writing (by design) never includes her own “I” as a character. The effect in this book reads like a series of novellas, taking us deep inside the heads and voices of her subjects and only breaking the spell to zoom out to layman’s philosophy and sociology at just the right moments. I want students to see the artfulness in rendering a set of images that mostly rest in their own complexity, without having to be instrumentalized as illustration, as so often happens to better and worse effect in literary nonfiction. MacFarquhar really is peerless in this form. We’ll also look at the short-form profile, memoir and personal essay, place-based writing and food writing, and maybe humor goes here too? Or maybe humor is, by definition, all three of these categories and therefore the highest form?

Yes yes I know — the best writing precisely defies these categories! We’ll devote some time throughout to talking about how all the strongest writer-thinkers switch among these modes. And for the last week, we’ll pick some more challenging works to see how the nonfiction form can get real liftoff from any one thing. Maybe we’ll tackle Orwell’s Animal Farm, to talk through political allegory as fiction-but-not? (I’m reading that book aloud to my 12 year old right now, and I’m just astonished once more at the freshness and plainness of the 1944 prose.) Or maybe excerpts from Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, a mixed fiction and nonfiction work?

In any case, this threesome is a good-enough taxonomy for now, I think. If you have favorites in these genres (especially short film or audio), please send them my way. And if you know of syllabi that have complementary kinds of organizing structures, I’d also love to see them.

In my next newsletter, I’ll talk about how I’m using the first weeks in all my teaching to set up an overall framing of class time: the strong norm-setting in Danielle Allen’s notion of “participatory readiness” and education. It’s a ritual I plan to use for the foreseeable future.

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