Archives For fiction

The end of each year is always marked by a roundup or ranking of the year’s most memorable stories. 2013 was no exception. For example, CNN.com ran a poll on the top 10 news stories of 2013 which were then ranked by CNN.com readers:

  1. NEW POPE
  2. BOSTON MARATHON ATTACKS
  3. MANDELA DIES
  4. EDWARD SNOWDEN LEAKS NSA
  5. FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN
  6. OBAMACARE ROLLOUT DEBACLE
  7. PHILIPPINES TYPHOON
  8. SYRIA CIVIL WAR
  9. CLEVELAND KIDNAPPINGS
  10. SAME-SEX MARRIAGE

All of these stories showed up on other news websites, perhaps ranked differently, but there was remarkable consistency nationally and internationally on how we will remember the year 2013. Pope Francis, the Boston Marathon, and the conflict in Syria dominated the top of most lists.

Screen Shot 2013-12-29 at 2.46.50 PMMany of these stories will soon be, or are already, the subject of non-fiction books, and some of these stories could be retold with such excellence as to be considered for the Samuel Johnson Prize. This prize is an award given annually for the best writing in current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts. This prize, named for the 18th Century English author Samuel Johnson is associated with the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) and awards author(s) of any nationality “whose work is published in the UK in English.” The most striking quality of the Samuel Johnson Prize is its motto that “All the best stories are true.”

There is truth in fiction as well. For example, even 2013’s most outlandish film Sharknado, has a degree of truth. The film detailed a supernatural phenomenon where thousands of sharks, scooped from their watery environment, twisted into another force of nature. The film generated waves of chatter on social media sites, so much so that the website Deepseanews.com speculated about the film’s implausibilities and calculated the physics of tornados holding great white sharks aloft. Researchers concluded in a post titled “Recipe for a Sharknado” that, “Winds in the most intense tornadoes are strong enough to keep a shark airborne.” Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? Physics suggests how.

The year 2013 provided many true stories that also lend themselves to possible re-tellings. The following three true stories of 2013 get my votes as the best potential candidates for future re-tellings, either as fiction or non-fiction:

1. NY TimesDiscovery of Art Looted by the Nazis:
The upcoming film The Monuments Men (February 2014,) where “a World War II platoon is tasked to rescue art masterpieces from Nazi thieves,” is a timely example of the storytelling potential about looted art. This past November, Bavarian authorities arrested an art dealer in his  Munich apartment uncovering a horde of art stolen during WWII. The recovered 1,500 works by Pablo Picasso, Max Liebermann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Marc Chagall, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustave Courbet, Auguste Renoir and Canaletto are estimated to be worth $1.4 billion. Since the discovery was made public, there are suspicions as to when authorities first knew about the stockpile. The intrigue abounds in this latest episode of Nazi treachery that continues to today.

2.Amazon.com:  Commercial Delivery using Drones:
While today’s science fiction writers may scoff at so pedestrian an example of technology, delivery drones could be fictionalized as key characters, featured perhaps in dystopian literature. While Hedwig, Harry Potter’s delivery owl, was a fantasy, a writer may consider that the possibility for pet drones has potential. The CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, demonstrated that drones could be used for delivery purposes, in 30 minutes or less, and what better audience in a consumer culture motivated by immediate gratification than an audience of young adults? Storytelling or story-commercials…or both?

3. NYTimes: Richard III Rediscovered
My favorite story this year was the discovery of the bones of Britain’s medieval monarch, Richard III, paved over in a parking lot. He had been killed in 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, the last king of England killed on a battlefield. This archaeological find, also dubbed the “King in a Car Park” in the video from the British Channel 4, put an end to the search for remains of the former king of York. A shorter version of the discovery is available from the University of Leicester:

Richard III had been characterized as a brutal tyrant by Shakespeare in the historical play Richard III, but an organization known as the Richard III Society  has tried to clear his reputation. The remains found so ingloriously buried were identified by his hunchback and the bones that bore the scars of the battle that killed him, including eight wounds on his skull.

Richard IIIThe subject of Richard III has already been fictionalized by the great writer Josephine Tey in her 1951 detective story The Daughter of Time. In this novel, she directly confronted Richard III’s sordid reputation in an attempt to clear him of any misdeeds. This latest archeological find is also ripe with storytelling possibilities.

In the end, though, how we will remember 2013 will be through the stories that we created ourselves. We will remember the births, deaths, accomplishments, failures, celebrations, and losses we experienced over the past 365 days of 2013. We will remember because we have, individually and collectively, made the stories of 2013, and the best stories are true.

Tis the season of commencement addresses. Speeches brief and not so brief, exhorting graduates to go forth and improve the world. The people who deliver these addresses are often famous, coming from all walks of life; actors, writers, politicans, musicians, military leaders are de rigor for commencement addresses. One address was given by director, actor, and producer Sydney Pollack at Binghamton University in 2003.

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 8.09.07 PM

Sydney Pollack (IMDB.com)

Beginning in the 1960s, Pollack represented a blend of Hollywood celebrity and artist.  His famous films included This Property Is Condemned (1966), the hit comedy Tootsie (1982), and the award winning Out of Africa (1985) which garnered him two Oscars:  Best Direction and Best Picture. Pollack also produced the films The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and Cold Mountain (2003). He was honored with the John Huston Award from the Directors Guild of America in 2000 as a “defender of artists’ rights” before he died in 2008.

Two paragraphs from his commencement address were posted in the NYTimes in a feature piece by Sam Dillon titled Commencement Speeches; Reflections on War, Peace, and How to Live Vitally and Act Globally (6/1/2003). When I read this section of his address, I was inspired to use his ideas as the objective for a film and literature English elective for the senior class.

In two paragraphs, Pollack articulated the power of fiction as a tool for developing compassion:

  “We all live rather prescribed and narrow lives. I’m just this one white guy, 60-something years old. I’ll never be anything else except older. I’ve got one set of kids. I’ve got one wife. That’s it for me. But then, there’s this great, great library of experiences that’s housed in the liberal arts. Fictional worlds created that I can put on like this gown or coat, eyes that I can borrow to see the world.

      I can be a black housewife. I can be a king. I can be a C.I.A. spy. I can be a warrior. I can learn what it is like to be tried and convicted, to confess, to win the beautiful girl, lose the beautiful girl. It’s a way of understanding the world that functions beyond intellect and it teaches and touches through feeling and experience even when that experience is part of the imagination. Compassion finally is the great gift of literature. Fiction, and by that I mean the aesthetic creation of all artificial worlds, must persuade you to interpret the world with compassion.”

The fictional worlds that Pollack created in his films are similar to those worlds created by a reader experiencing fiction. Film, however, demands a combination of sight and sound in order to communicate a story, and the talented Pollack knew how to manipulate those elements to make the viewer surrender self to the emotional highs and lows in a retelling of a story.  For example, his, “aesthetic creation of all artificial worlds” used various points of view to make viewers feel as through they were flying in a biplane over the African Savannah in this clip from Out of Africa:

Making a film is a collaborative activity that includes actors actesses, cinematographers, producers, editors, and directors. Even the credits for the shortest film scroll with a multitude of oddly-named professions: key grips, gaffers, and best boys. Literature, by contrast, is created as a singular, intimate activity; the author’s words stimulating the reader’s imagination. Both creative processes are studied in the Film and Literature course offered to 12th graders.

In the film part of the course, students are made aware of the technical elements in film making. They learn to recognize the differences between diegetic and non-diegetic sound. They learn how to notice a cinematographer’s or film editor’s use of the rule of thirds. They learn to identify long shots, establishing shots, and extreme close-ups. They watch John Ford’s Stagecoach and notice his use of natural lighting in many scenes. They watch Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and comment on the use of light for transitions from scene to scene. They watch Frank Darabont’s  The Shawshank Redemption and deconstruct the lighting in the mise-en-scene of the prison break.

In the literature section of the course, the students study how Milos Forman recreated the character of R.P. McMurphy from Ken Kesey’s text One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a film of the same name. They analyze the authentic dialogue of adolescent males in Steven King’s short story The Body, a story that eventually became the film Stand By Me. By the end of the course, the students agree that at the heart of every great movie, all technical elements aside, must be a good story.

Pollack understood how a story is shared in literature between the writer and reader, and he allowed viewers to become the characters: the housewives, kings, spys, warriors he mentioned in his commencement address. He understood that film exacerbates sensory experiences that aid in developing empathy, an empathy that can lead to compassion. In his work in the film industry, he also proved that creating compassion is also the great gift of film since film lets us “borrow eyes to see the world.”

The two paragraphs in Pollack’s commencement address in 2003 served as the genesis to the Film and Literature course now running at my high school, but they could just as easily serve as the objective for any literature course; fiction persuades us to learn compassion. In our increasingly connected, contentious, and competitive world, learning compassion through story is a skill worth developing.

Smartblogs recently ran a post by Bill Ferriter titled “Reading Nonfiction is not Optional ” where he argued that there is too much fiction in a student’s reading diet. “The sad truth,” he wrote, “is that fiction still dominates the literacy lives of young readers. Whether they are wrapped up in fantastic exploits written by guys like Rick Riordan or churning through the latest release in the hottest new vampire series, today’s kids rarely make room for nonfiction in their book bags.”

Sad truth? Why is this a “sad truth”? What is wrong with reading fiction? Fiction, like its counterpart non-fiction, offers our student readers valuable life lessons. For example, in an online article in guardian.co.uk September 7, 2011 Reading Fiction ‘Improves Empathy’, Study Finds, Professor Keith Oatly at the University of Toronto who studies the psychology of fiction reports that:

“I think the reason fiction but not non-fiction has the effect of improving empathy is because fiction is primarily about selves interacting with other selves in the social world. The subject matter of fiction is constantly about why she did this, or if that’s the case what should he do now, and so on. With fiction we enter into a world in which this way of thinking predominates. …. In fiction, also, we are able to understand characters’ actions from their interior point of view, by entering into their situations and minds, rather than the more exterior view of them that we usually have.”

Annie Murphy Paul noted the same study in her article in The New York TimesYour Brain on Fiction (3/17/12) writing that, “Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.” Apparently, our brains cannot differentiate between the fictional experience and the real life experience, “in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” Furthermore, the simulation of social experience in fiction through a character’s point of view  helps prepare our brains for real-life social interactions.

In other words, while the genre of non-fiction may be the recording of real life, the genre of fiction is critical in preparing readers for real life.

In his post, Ferriter also quoted young adult (YA) writer Walter Dean Myers:

“We all know we should eat right and we should exercise, but reading is treated as if it’s this wonderful adjunct…We’re still thinking in terms of enticing kids to read with a sports book or a book about war. We’re suggesting that they’re missing something if they don’t read but, actually, we’re condemning kids to a lesser life. If you had a sick patient, you would not try to entice them to take their medicine. You would tell them, ‘Take this or you’re going to die.’ We need to tell kids flat out: reading is not optional.”

Ferriter’s paraphrase of Myers’s statement, the title of his post, “Reading Nonfiction is not Optional,” strikes the wrong tone. Myers, a writer of both YA fiction and non-fiction, did not specify as to the genre he endorsed for student reading. Myers was advocating reading, period. Both fiction and non-fiction are critical to our students’ growth and development, not one genre at the expense of another.

Independent reading means a student can choose to read non-fiction OR fiction

Yes, the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (ELA CCSS) call for an increase in non-fiction. The authors of the ELA CCSS created a little chart on page 5 of the ELA CCSS that notes that students should be reading 70% non-fiction and 30% fiction by grade 12. But this is not the ratio for reading in an English Language Arts classroom. That is the ratio for a whole school curriculum.

I am particularly sensitive to the increasing number of attacks on fiction and the need to reducing fiction from the English classroom. Ferriter’s post makes a similar argument and could be associated with the myth that “English teachers will be asked to teach non-fiction”. This myth is directly repudiated in the ELA CCSS document:

“Fact: With the Common Core ELA Standards, English teachers will still teach their students literature as well as literary non‐fiction. However, because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science. These goals can be achieved by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas.”

In other words, reading must be offered in every discipline, students must read across the curriculum.While Ferriter’s Reading Nonfiction is Not Optional makes the important point that all teachers are responsible for modeling reading, he oversteps when he says, “If you want students to love nonfiction — and you should considering the important role that nonfiction plays in learning — you really do need to stop spending all of your sustained silent reading time figuring out what’s going to happen next to Origami Yoda.” Good SSR programs allow for independent choice in any genre by students. What Ferriter could have suggested that the expansion of SSR to other disciplines would increase reading of non-fiction while having the additional benefit of satisfying the ELA CCSS.

Of course, I often hear arguments from teachers in other disciplines moaning, “What do I drop out of my course to include reading?” which could be interpreted as the reason why the authors of the ELA CCSS felt the need to develop reading and writing standards for History, Social Studies, Science and the Technical Areas. These disciplines need to step up the reading in their classrooms.

But who said reading non-fiction was an option? I can assure Ferriter that English/Language Arts teachers are dedicated to improving student reading. They are not hung up on genre, but when they teach fiction, English/Language Arts teachers are teaching their subject matter. The adoption of the ELA CCSS means that all disciplines must offer for opportunities to share their subject matter. To re-frame Ferriter’s argument to align with the new standards, reading non-fiction in every classroom is not an option, and reading non-fiction in an English/Language Arts classroom can be a choice. After all, that growing body of research shows that fiction is just as important as non-fiction for our students, including what happens in Origami Yoda.