17 December 2009

Writing Advice That Assembled Be Must

Over at Fomagrams, Dave Elzey shared some thoughts on the end of the linear narrative in fiction, and particularly how that might mean something different for boys:

male readers prefer non-fiction to fiction and respond well to non-linear narratives. All those boys who struggle reading novels for school but could spend hours with The Guinness Book of World Records do so because they like the puzzle of putting a narrative together in their heads. It’s why boys take things apart to figure out how they work. It’s how their brains understand the world.
I agree that a lot of boys read nonfiction avidly as a way to understand the world—or, rather, to master one exciting, possibly scary, and well defined part of it: dinosaurs, sports, automotive vehicles, collectible Japanese cartoon monsters, Marvel superheroes, what have you.

I’m not sure I agree that such Guinness Book readers are assembling narratives. Rather, mastering a pool of impressive facts and immersing oneself in a cause-and-effect, conflict-and-resolution story are different ways to mentally organize life into understandable, ordered form. (That said, conquering a realm of knowledge is a heroic narrative that a reader of the male persuasion can tell about himself.)

Dave goes on to further discussion on the limits of linear narratives and the potential for non-linear ones, stories that require readers to do more work putting events together:
Linear narratives are a way to tell stories but we tend to think they are the only way. It fits our natural sense of order, our understanding of time being forward-moving, our progression shuffling from point A to B. But movies have shown us there are ways to tell a story that bend time with flashbacks and fast-forwards that are accepted without jarring our sense of order.
There are older examples of such stories, starting with Tristram Shandy and including such Modernist experiments as Hopscotch and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The approach may have come to young people’s literature relatively recently with the sorts of books discussed in Eliza T. Dresang’s Radical Change.

Or, as Dave hints, that non-linear approach might have been available for kids all along, just not treated as part of traditionally plotted fiction. The Encyclopedia Brown books, for example, have a gaping hole at the end of each story that readers must fill in through their mastery of facts and observation; few adult mysteries make their readers turn to the back to assemble the complete narrative. Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? creates a world through snippets of story and lots of information, not a linear narrative.

But are boys more attracted to those books than girls? The most prominent recent example of the to-be-assembled form is the Cathy’s Book series, by Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman. Those books have a teenaged girl at their center and, I thought, a predominantly female readership. Of course, by that age, the book industry may have given up on winning over more male readers.

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