Lingering on Terminology
“Nonfiction” may or may not be the best way of describing individual texts that you introduce into your GEL classroom. As an umbrella category, it does a certain kind of work, but some instructors may want to introduce the category of “life-writing” as a way of stepping beyond a purely negative definition of the genre. The latter term has recently gained in academic currency, with an accompaniment of digital resources. It can be useful to simply introduce more precise language and encourage your students to follow suit. More often than not, you will be assigning and discussing essays. Some students will insist on calling these “stories” no matter what you say. While it can be fatiguing and borderline distracting, you should remind them of the difference, just like you would if they were calling essays “plays.” Sharing a dictionary definition of the word “essay” and emphasizing its connections with attempting, trying, and testing can create a framework for considering how essays might be different from “stories that also happen to be true.”
Be aware that, while these can be productive discussions, they can also be uphill battles. Most of your students will associate essays exclusively with term papers or the required personal statements they have produced for college applications. The history of brief, provisional reflections on anything under the sun (joy or self-respect, onions or thumbs, friendship or blindness, the death of a moth etc.) is likely to be new to them. If it is less than familiar to you, brief canonical reflections on the form might be useful. Consult Theodor Adorno’s “The Essay as Form” or Susan Sontag’s introduction to The Best American Essays of 1992. For more recent starting points, look at Hilton Als’ introduction Best American Essays of 2018 or Brian Dillon’s “What Does the Essay Do?”
Particular complexities around this genre’s claims on the truth can be productively engaged during discussions. Sometimes this is a matter of labels and context. A comparatively straightforward example would be teaching Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer” and remembering to mention that it appeared in a collection of short stories. In other instances, the stakes can be higher and more fraught. Talking about form and genre is not a way of avoiding troubling content, but it can create different openings for conversation that might not be as accessible otherwise. For example, if you are teaching Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia,” you might ask how the fictions of racial inferiority within it inform our understanding of not only Jefferson’s racism, but complicate the question of what genre it belongs to.
Students will have opinions and insights about the blurred and shifting spaces between fact and fabrication because they have also been struggling to make sense of the recent present. Finding readings that speak to these complexities because they exist between genres can be one route to go. Pairing works by the same authors writing in multiple genres is another. If you take the latter route, expect to spend extra time emphasizing distinctions. Some students will read “Notes of a Native Son” and go on to presume that Baldwin is the unnamed narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” unless you make a point of highlighting why this is not the case. Going the former route might mean teaching a text like “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and allowing its richness to be highlighted by the variety of generic lenses (prose poem, dramatic monologue, flash fiction, essay, instruction manual) that the reader might use to understand it. Pushing students to consider the different possibilities these genres make available to a writer’s vision is a way of encouraging them to think about form and consequences more broadly.