Malcolm Gladwell, author of "The Tipping Point" and a New Yorker staff writer, told me how he prepared, years ago, to write his first "Talk of the Town" story. "Talk" articles have a distinct style, and he wanted to make sure he got the voice straight in his head before he began writing. His approach was simple. He sat down and read 100 "Talk" pieces, one after the other.
The story nicely illustrates how careful reading can advance great writing. As a schoolteacher, I offer Gladwell's story to students struggling with expository writing as evidence that they need not labor alone. There are models out there -- if only they'll read them!
Gladwell's tale provides a good lesson for English teachers across the country as they begin to implement the Common Core State Standards, a set of national benchmarks, adopted by nearly every state, for the skills public school students should master in language arts and mathematics in grades K-12.
The standards won't take effect until 2014, but many public school systems have begun adjusting their curriculums to satisfy the new mandates. Depending on your point of view, the now contentious guidelines prescribe a healthy -- or lethal -- dose of nonfiction.
For example, the Common Core dictates that by fourth grade, public school students devote half of their reading time in class to historical documents, scientific tracts, maps and other "informational texts" -- like recipes and train schedules. Per the guidelines, 70 percent of the 12th grade curriculum will consist of nonfiction titles. Alarmed English teachers worry we're about to toss Shakespeare so students can study, in the words of one former educator, "memos, technical manuals and menus."
David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. "It is rare in a working environment," he's argued, "that someone says, 'Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.'"
This and similar comments have prompted the education researcher Diane Ravitch to ask, "Why does David Coleman dislike fiction?" and to question whether he's trying to eliminate English literature from the classroom. "I can't imagine a well-developed mind that has not read novels, poems and short stories," she writes.
Sandra Stotsky, a primary author of Massachusetts' state standards (which are credited with helping to maintain that state's top test scores) challenges the assumption that nonfiction requires more rigor than a literary novel. One education columnist sums up the debate as a fiction versus nonfiction "smackdown."
A striking assumption animates arguments on both sides, namely that nonfiction is seldom literary and certainly not literature. Even Coleman erects his case on largely dispiriting, utilitarian grounds: Nonfiction may help you win the corner office but won't necessarily nourish the soul.
As an English teacher and writer who traffics in factual prose, I'm with Coleman. In my experience, students need more exposure to nonfiction, less to help with reading skills, but as a model for their own essays and expository writing, what Gladwell sought by ingesting "Talk of the Town" stories.
I love fiction and poetry as much as the next former English major and often despair over the quality of what passes for "informational texts," few of which amount to narrative much less literary narrative.
What schools need isn't more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing. Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call "narrative nonfiction": writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways.
What Tom Wolfe once said about New Journalism could be applied to most student writing. It benefits from intense reporting, immersion in a subject, imaginative scene setting, dialogue and telling details. These are the very skills most English teachers want students to develop. What's odd is how rarely such literary nonfiction appears on English -- or other class -- reading lists. In addition to a biology textbook, for example, why can't more high school students read "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"?
Narrative nonfiction also provides a bridge between the personal narratives students typically write in elementary school and the essays on external subjects that are more appropriate assignments in high school and beyond. David Coleman may dismiss self-expression. Yet he recommends authors, like the surgeon and medical writer Atul Gawande, who frequently rely on personal storytelling in their reporting.
Models of narrative nonfiction are everywhere, on programs like "This American Life" and "Radiolab," in nonfiction books for young adults, like "Sugar Changed the World" (which is about slavery and science in the pursuit of the food additive), and even in graphic nonfiction works, like "Persepolis," which tells the story of a young woman who grew up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Each has a personal angle that students can relate to but is also a genuinely enthralling narrative. Adult titles, like "The Omnivore's Dilemma," already have young readers editions, and many adult general-interest works, such as Timothy Ferris' "The Whole Shebang," about the workings of the universe, are appropriate for advanced high-school students.
Most readily, narrative nonfiction is available every day of the week in the dwindling outlets for long-form journalism. Students are a natural (and the future) audience for serious, in-depth reporting. Skilled practitioners can demonstrate the power of facts, and provide models -- topic sentence by topic sentence -- for compelling narrative.
There are anthologies of great literature and primary documents, but why not "30 for Under 20: Great Nonfiction Narratives?" Until such editions appear, teachers can find complex, literary works in collections like "The Best American Science and Nature Writing," on many newspaper websites, which have begun providing online lesson plans using articles for younger readers, and on ProPublica.org. Last year, The Atlantic compiled examples of the year's best journalism, and The Daily Beast has its feature "Longreads." Longform.org not only has "best of" contemporary selections but also historical examples dating back decades.
If students read 100 such articles over the course of a year, they may not become best-selling authors, but like Gladwell, they'll get the sound and feel of good writing in their heads. With luck, when they graduate, there will still be ranks of literary nonfiction authors left for them to join.