I write all sorts of books, fiction and “non”-fiction. 101 so far and another in the pipeline. They’re all very different, for different readers and with different aims. It’s a while since I wrote fiction and I do yearn to get back to it but I get a lot of satisfaction from the type of non-fiction books I’ve been writing, ever since Blame My Brain changed my career back in 2005.
I read all sorts of books, too. I usually either alternate non-fiction and fiction or sometimes have both on the go at the same time. I don’t deliberately alternate but I tend to be drawn to non-fiction because I’m so interested in the various aspects of psychology that I write about, but I need to feed my fiction muscles, too, so I make sure I get the chance to do that. My shelves reveal my passions for both.
Why does there need to be a month to celebrate non-fiction over fiction?
Because non-fiction is the poor relation. It’s there in the name: “non”-fiction, as though it has to be defined by what it’s not. (Poetry is another poor relation. Note that neither poetry nor non-fiction is properly represented in next year’s World Book Day selection. Next year, it would be great if FCBG could somehow get WBD to value these important areas properly.)
We could call non-fiction “true” books, but fiction is true, too. We could call them factual, but they’re not always purely factual: the wellbeing books I write are also about ideas and insights, not just facts and figures. We could say “knowledge books”, but that doesn’t work for the same reason as factual doesn’t. And “evidence-based” would be so ugly. Information books comes close but “information” is far too dull for the fire that the best factual books light in the mind and heart of a reader.
Whatever we call them – these books that provide a basis of truth about the world, a foundation of knowledge on which to build one’s world view – they are undervalued. They tend not to be eligible for prizes – or not chosen even when they are eligible. (The Carnegie allows non-fiction but then creates criteria for judging that make it impossible for a non-fiction book to fit.) The authors and illustrators tend to be paid less and their names are less well promoted. Often, the author or illustrator’s name won’t be visible on the cover and sometimes we are asked to sign away our “moral rights”, so that our name may not even appear anywhere in the book. (I always turn down contracts where that is requested.)
But what’s worse is that there are adults, often working in schools, who seem to think that reading non-fiction somehow doesn’t count or counts for less. I’ve recently heard science teachers say they “don’t read”, meaning that they don’t read fiction. They read! I’ve twice heard of an English teacher removing the non-fiction from the classroom shelves or library because “boys need to read fiction.” I’ve written about this before, for example here.
I give talks and training about the science behind different types of reading and the benefits reading brings. Non-fiction books equally valid reading material; they are no less powerful at creating and inspiring readers; they are no less engaging, thrilling, fascinating, stretching. For lots of the research, see here and for my talks see here.
What matters is not whether a book is fiction or not, but whether the book is well-written. String some dull sentences together poorly and you’ve got a bad book that’s hard to engage with, whether it’s a made-up story or full of facts. And a bad book won’t engage, inspire, inform, educate, fascinate or anything other than bore and switch off.
The School Library Association is another wonderful champion of non-fiction books and I’ll be in the audience at their Information Book Award ceremony on Weds 7th Nov, for an evening where non-fiction books will be brilliantly celebrated. I won this a couple of years ago with The Teenage Guide to Stress but I’m not shortlisted this year so I can relax! [Except… see here for what happened!]
To us, non-fiction books are just books that happen not to centre around a made-up story. They require just as much skill and creativity and word-smithery and doing that for young readers is both difficult and extremely rewarding.
There’s a course I’m running next March near Bristol which has already had great interest and two other areas of the UK have asked me to come and do the same for them. Do get in touch as this is my favourite topic for a training day, combining material on mental health and wellbeing with material on the science and benefits of reading for pleasure. Ideal for librarians, info professionals, teachers and school staff of any sort.