Back in fifth or sixth grade at Immaculate Conception School, Sister Mary Espantosa, ran us through the reading curriculum by telling us that books are generally divided into two classes: fiction and non-fiction. We’d wonder: Is that all? Either it’s fiction or it’s not?
Well, literature in the form of short stories, usually in prose, and consisting of “made-up” stuff, constitutes a mammoth genre. And what is the counterpart of fiction? It’s non-fiction. How many geniuses sat around a table coming up with a label that covers just about everything else?
There’s biography, historic literature, drama, essays, memoirs, science fiction, poetry and much more to the literary canon. And all we can come up with is made-up stuff or non-fiction?
Let’s say we’re discussing things we’ve been reading. Someone says, “I loved the role of Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.” Most will recognize the work by F. Scott Fitzgerald as fiction: it’s something Scotty made up, about some fast-living, free-flowing, fun-loving, fool-hardy, fancy-dressing, financially fit friends and philanderers in the early 1900s.
The discussion likely spurs more comment about what others have been reading. It’s true that many fictional pieces are based on facts; it’s likely that J.D. Salinger’s novel, Catcher in the Rye, came from actual experiences in the author’s youth. We learn about attitudes regarding sexual mores by reading Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a spoof of the former, which we could never get from a mere list of dates about the introduction of serial fiction in newspapers.
History is more that a list of dates; literature reflects the time, period, culture, family mores, life and death, gender roles and more. Let us not throw out the baby with the bath water in our rush to be the first in the world in educational testing.
Remember the Common Core purports to help high school graduates prepare for the work place or college and even read a manual as mundane as explaining how to set up a VCR.
But then there are people who reason, “If it’s not true, it’s a waste of time.”
In Santa Fe recently, I became engaged in a conversation with a gentleman about reading, the new Common Core curriculum and the difference between fiction and its unfortunately dubbed counterpart, non-fiction. It happened — of all places in — the blood bank, as we waited in vein.
My fellow donor, probably a retired teacher, like me, was insistent that too much time on the educational clock covers reading “made-up stuff that anyone can write.” I begged to differ. It soon became challenging to posit that there’s much merit to stuff that’s made up. My acquaintance was vocal and passionate about students’ literacy.
An editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican laments the “throwing out (of) the teaching of literature in favor of nonfiction.” (I am glad others feel as I do). The premise is that Common Core standards will ensure educational success for children who “were not reading enough rigorous texts.”
One proposal to the Common Core is that more emphasis in upper elementary reading ought to be on nonfiction, climbing to 70 percent by 12th grade. If implemented as planned, much poetry would be tossed, along with many essential novels. We need a common plane for discussion and references we can all understand, and not just Game of Thrones.
The Common Core, which by definition attempts to standardize the learning in schools, can be a useful tool. It would be beneficial if education developed a curriculum whereby students across the United States would study, for example, a few dozen classics, thus providing a common ground.
In addition to Mark Twain’s coming-of-age novels, add Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima and other regional quality literature.
“Are you thinking of ‘relevance’?” I asked. He was. As a reader I have become more voracious as I age. I like to delve into the social mores of the 1800s, in reading what Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, believed about manners of that era. We get our dose of heroics through works like El Cid.
And there’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which transports us into South America. What about old fairy tales like Cinderella, traces of which can be found in every culture around the world? These fictional portrayals of people and times past speak to the human condition and should not be jettisoned just because many U.S. students are not reading as well or as often as we’d like.
I don’t think my fellow blood donor appreciated how I ended the discussion, by citing one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, King Lear. I said, “When it comes to relevance, to reading about things within our narrow ken, then we ought not read King Lear unless we’re 80 years old, blind and have three daughters, two of whom are deceitful.”
As for me, I try to reach beyond the more familiar. Reading about Russia, in “Dr. Zhivago,” for example, multiplies my contacts with others “out there.” It’s true that close-to-home reading, such as the novels of Anaya — Bless Me, Ultima is a prime example — re-acquaints me with many things, events and people of my youth, but I still believe only good can come from dipping our toes into writings from here and other places.
This conversation, although spontaneous, enhanced my concern about the gradual loss of fiction as an aid to understanding our world and us. Our friends and neighbors often write wonderful stories and — fiction or non-fiction — these tales enrich us all.
We both left the blood bank in Santa Fe, a wee bit wiser and about 16 ounces lighter.