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Towards Day 1: Identifying the Genre (?)

Anne Dalke's picture

Welcome to a new course on non-fictional prose.
What WILL we be talking about?

Let's playing
“Two Truths and a Lie.”


How to succeed @ this game?
How can/did you make a "lie" seem like truth?

How can/did you make a "truth" seem like a lie?

Why'd we do this?
To get you doing something experiential/thinking about it.
To remind you that you know quite a bit already, from your life experience; and
to remind you that what you know is infinitely revisable, in exchange w/ others.
And to suggest that there's been lots of interesting work done in these areas,
where we can learn more....

Course proposed by my dept. chair,
as a follow-up to my class on "literary kinds."Most literature courses are about fiction, but most writing (and stories, generally?) are actually non-fictional.

Let's try this from another angle,
both literary and comparative -->
Edna St. Vincent Millay's 1932
"Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies” and
Li-Young Lee’s 2008 poem, “A Hymn to Childhood."

Would you call one of these "factional,"
one "fictional"?
Would you call either one "non-fictional"?
(Why/why not?)

Here's another (poetic) example:
Craig Dworkin, “Fact,” Poetry (July/August 2009).

So: let's talk some more about facts.
Where do they come from?
How do we get 'em?
How do we know we've gotten a-holt of one?

Proposal: that the difference
lies in the READER(‘s attitude):
Are you expecting “truth”?
Are you reading allowing for “gaps”?

Let's talk (not entirely tangentially)
about poetry and prose.
Would you call all three of these texts--
by Millay, Lee and Dworkin--poetry?

What’s poetry?

What’s prose?  
  How do we distinguish them?
Why do we distinguish them? 

(At the deepest/highest level: 
this is a course about category-making...)

Here's the (conventionally classic)
example of non-fictional prose,
the opening to  Thoreau's Walden (1854):

In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me. Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students....

What do you expect, as a reader,
of what is to follow?
Would you call this non-fictional prose?

Paradigmatic non-fictional prose?
(Following what definition?)
How does it differ from the poems we've read?

All these exercises: diverse ways into...

"...The roominess of the term nonfiction:
an entire dresser labeled nonsocks"
(David Shields,
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, 2010)

What is "non-sock"?

What is non-fiction?

(How does
a negative definition operate?)

What’s fiction?

For Thursday's class:

Given the fictional? constructed? nature of “fact,”
how might non-fictional prose (nonetheless)
be a useful category for organizing our
thinking-and-experiencing of literature?

Patricia Hempl. "Memory and Imagination." I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory. New York: Norton, 1999. 21-37.

Horst Zander, "Factional Discourse." Fact-Fiction-"Faction": A Study of Black South African Literature in English (Narr, 1999): 403-407.

Michiko Kakutani, Texts without Context, New York Times (March 17, 2008).

Plan for the semester....

After this introductory week, I've selected four texts, all available @ the Bookshop (for a total of $53.25):

David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Knopf, 2010, $18.75)
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragiccomic (Houghton Mifflin, 2006, $10.50)
Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Penguin, 2005, $11.25)
Arne Naess, The Ecology of Wisdom (Counterpoint, 2008, $12.75)
Organized as an "arc," reaching towards increasingly shared subjectivity.

After that, we'll select together the remainder of the texts for the semester.

You are of course free to take this class.
If you decide to,
then I will ask you to make these commitments:
the reading assigned for each week;
a weekly on-line comment in the course forum about the material we've read and discussed (before/after class/no matter;
included among those will be two on-line summaries of our conversation);
two (or more) writing conferences w/ me;
post three 4-pp. and 1 12-pp. papers on-line
(Fridays, 9/17, 10/29, 12/3 and 12/17).

One distinctive thing about this course (besides its web presence) is its form of evaluation:
I will not grade any of your individual papers.
@ the end of the semester, you will put together
a portfolio of all your work, and evaluate yourself.

The checklist for that evaluation, and my expectations,
are on-line, and not mysterious:
come to class and conferences,
contribute in-person and on-line,
hand your papers in on time,
be responsive to instruction....

Questions? Further thoughts?

Following the instructions for posting on-line,
introduce yourself and write up your initial reactions (to today's discussion, tonight's readings)
by early Thursday morning.