This week, Insight writer and English teacher Kate Macdonell outlines what you should be looking for when studying nonfiction texts.
In all nonfiction writing there is an implicit contract between the writer and the reader concerning the authenticity of the work. Unlike fiction, which portrays an imaginative world regardless of how realistic it might seem, nonfiction promises the reader a truthful account of real events and people. We expect that what we read about really happened, and that the writer has experienced the events or researched them thoroughly enough to act as an authority on the issues and events depicted.
Despite this promise of authenticity, we need to be aware that all writing – nonfiction as well as fiction – is crafted. The form, the presence or invisibility of the writer, the structure and the style all work together to produce a narrative that both relays factual information and also positions readers to see events and people in particular ways.
Some background research into the historical and geographical contexts of your text is essential. Some nonfiction narratives contain supplementary material such as maps, translations of words, a list of key events and photographs. You might have to look right through the text to find these items as they are not always placed at the start. Regardless of whether such supplementary information is included, it is wise to do some background reading so that you can improve your understanding of the content.
- Look for historical information, maps, and images of your subject and the setting of the narrative.
Under the banner of nonfiction are a number of different genres. The current VCE English Text List includes examples of autobiography and memoir (I am Malala, Tracks and Joyful Strains), and other texts that can be referred to as narrative nonfiction or journalistic nonfiction (Behind the Beautiful Forevers, In Cold Blood and Stasiland). In the first set, the writer is also the main subject of the text. Throughout this sort of narrative we learn about the writer, the obstacles they have negotiated and their beliefs and values. Thus, we are positioned to form a close relationship with the writer, and it can be easy to think of the text in terms of the writer’s experiences without being mindful of the key ideas and how those ideas are conveyed.
- When reading autobiography or memoir, ask yourself: how does the writer represent themselves and others? How do these representations shape your view of the writer?
- If a narrative has been co-written (as I am Malala is), consider the impact of another authorial presence on the work.
In narrative nonfiction, the relationship between the writer and the content can be more flexible. In Stasiland, Funder’s presence is very much in the foreground, reminding us that the events and experiences she relates are filtered through her investigative practices, the people she chooses to interview, the questions she asks and her own experiences in Berlin. Although the extensiveness of the research and the realism of the prose make it clear that Stasiland is not an imaginative work, Funder’s voice and her frequent use of the first person signal that this work is shaped and crafted to affect the reader in often powerful ways.
In Behind the Beautiful Forevers and In Cold Blood the presence of the writer is not as obvious as it is in autobiography or, indeed, in Stasiland. It is nonetheless crucial to think about how the text is constructed and how individuals and events are shaped in the writing, even if the writer themselves is not explicitly a figure in the narrative.
- Remember that no nonfiction text is completely objective. Consider: what is the writer foregrounding or focusing on, and how do they want the reader to view this subject?
One of the most highly regarded contemporary writers of nonfiction, Joan Didion, claimed in an interview for The Paris Review that:
writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. (Issue 176, Spring 2006)
Given this, we need to consider the shape of the narrative. Does it represent events in a mostly linear or chronological fashion? Or does it start at one point and then move backwards in time, before returning to the point at which the text began?
For example, the narrative of I am Malala is mostly linear but begins with the shooting of Malala by the Taliban in 2012, before going back in time to explore the events that shaped Malala as a fierce advocate of girls’ education and to describe Pakistan’s complex political and ideological make-up. The initial focus on the shooting highlights its importance in Malala’s life, but the fact that the narrative backtracks to Malala’s past and also moves beyond the shooting to describe her recovery and continued work shows readers that, while the shooting was an important episode in Malala’s life, it is not an event that restricts or defines her. This is one of the messages we can glean from the structure of I am Malala.
- Remember that the structure of a text is part of its message. Consider: does your narrative have a linear structure? Or does it move backwards and forwards in time? What are the effects of the writer’s structural choices?
As with imaginative writing, nonfiction can imbue objects with a potency that they might not ordinarily have in everyday life. If an item means more than what it represents on a surface or literal level, then it very likely has a symbolic function. This can be a useful way of identifying a key idea that the writer wants to promote. In Stasiland, for instance, a number of images on the first page have symbolic meanings, including images of physical damage (‘bruises’, the man whose ‘face and his shoes are as loose as each other’) and uncertainty (‘a morning drunk walks on the ground like it might not hold him’). Funder uses these images as symbols of the severe and ongoing forms of damage and uncertainty caused by the Stasi.
- In nonfiction, how something is described is just as important as what is described. Can you identify any symbolic objects in your nonfiction text? What elements of their description make them symbolic? What broader ideas do they represent?
In any kind of textual analysis, it is important to work out what the point of the text is. What are the key ideas or messages the writer wants to promote? Sometimes these views will be directly conveyed, while in other texts you will have to read between the lines to gauge the writer’s viewpoints and values. For instance, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood can be seen as presenting an argument against capital punishment, due to its relatively sympathetic portrayal of Perry Smith. It is also possible to interpret the title as referring to the execution of Smith and Hickock as well as to the brutal murder of the Clutter family.
- Write a list of points about what the writer’s key concerns are, why they have those concerns and how they position the reader to share those concerns.
Not sure how to approach your text essay? Insight has at least one Insight Sample Essay for each List 1 text and List 2 text comparison. Each high-level essay features annotations identifying the elements of the essay that work and areas for improvement, as well as tips on how to approach the essay topic and appropriate strategies for analysis.
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