Welcome to May’s installment of Classroom Takeover, a new monthly feature here at Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog! Every month, a new blogger creates an ideal college class featuring a subject, author, or genre that they think doesn’t get enough attention in mainstream college classes.
Look! Look! It’s a takeover post by Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness! She finally caved to my whining on Twitter and made a post! And look! Look at it! It’s amazing!
Kim is a Professional Journalist who Gets Paid and Everything, so she knows what she’s talking about when she’s talking about narrative nonfiction. If Kim had taught the sole journalism class I took in college, I know I’d have enjoyed it way more than I actually did. And I know Kim wouldn’t have made me buy a $90 book that’s both unreturnable and worth about $5 used just because she wrote it. Right, Kim? Right?
Journalists Who Say “I”
Right now, there is no place within college English or journalism departments to discuss the literary merits of narrative nonfiction (loosely described as nonfiction that uses the techniques of fiction to tell true stories). English departments mostly focus on analyzing fiction, while journalism departments generally discuss narrative nonfiction in terms of the journalistic elements — reporting, editing, or ethics. However, narrative nonfiction writers are producing interesting work that could be considered in the same ways we often think about fiction.
This class will focus on a particular style of narrative nonfiction writing — journalists who insert themselves into the story they’re trying to tell. This complicates journalistic notions of objectivity and fairness, while also opening up a discussion common in English departments — the complex role of the author and narrator in a story.
There are many books that could work for a class like this. This reading list tries to be an expansive as possible, using examples of true crime, immersion reporting, sports writing, stunt journalism, and history to look at journalists who say “I.”
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (1994) — In this book, John Berendt moves to Savannah, Georgia, “a city whose eccentric mores are unerringly observed — and who’s dirty linen is gleefully aired.” The action of the book is the killing of Danny Hansford, a male prostitute, by a respected member of Savannah society, Jim Williams. Berendt uses his situation as a resident and outsider in Savannah to both get close to the characters of the city and remain an observer of what impact this crime — and ensuing trials — has on Savannah. We’ll use this book to look at how the role of the author is impacted by his/her status as an insider or an outsider.
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (1998) — In 1994 John Laroche and a group of Seminoles in south Florida were arrested for poaching rare orchids. In The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean investigates Laroche and, more broadly, the obsessions that drive all of us. Orlean puts herself into the story from the very beginning, chronicling her time following Laroche around, visiting rare flower shows, and even trekking through a Florida swamp to see an elusive Ghost Orchid. In this book, we’ll look at whether or not Orlean’s presence in the story changes what the book is about and how the book may have been altered had Orlean taken a different approach.
Newjack by Ted Conover (2000) — Ted Conover is probably the most recognized participatory journalist in the last 20 years. In his first book, Rolling Nowhere, he rode the rails with America’s last hobos. He’s also traveled with illegal immigrants (Coyotes) and lived with the wealthy residents of Aspen (Whiteout). In Newjack, Conover writes about his experience becoming a correctional officer in the New York State Department of Correctional Services. Conover initially wanted to write about prison by shadowing a guard, but his request was denied. He believed going undercover might be the only way to tell this particular story. For this book, we’ll look at methods of storytelling and explore the impact of deception on the narrative.
Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis (2001) — In order to tell a story about the world of competitive Scrabble, sports writer Stefan Fatsis chronicles his quest to rise to the top of the competitive Scrabble landscape. He starts with his novice experiments memorizing two-letter worlds and ends at the National Scrabble Tournament, along the way writing about the history of Scrabble and the other major players in this field. We’ll use this book to look at the necessity of participatory writing and what some of the problems focusing on the narrator can have on the broader story.
The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs (2007) — The Year of Living Biblically is an example of what is sometimes called “stunt journalism” — an author setting off on a sort of quest to see what happens with the intent to write about it. In this case, A.J. Jacobs starts his book with a quest: “to live the ultimate biblical life. Or more precisely, to follow the Bible as literally as possible.” This book provides a jumping off point for a discussion of what books predicated on an author’s behavior mean and whether stunt journalism even has a place in literary discussions.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010) — When Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman, went to John Hopkins for treatment of cervical cancer, her cells were harvested — without her permission — and eventually grew into the first line of immortal human cells, HeLa. In the book, Rebecca Skloot weaves together the stories of Henrietta Lacks, Henrietta’s family, and her experience trying to tell the story of HeLa. While the book offers many discussion points, Skloot’s richly detailed account of her reporting and writing process offers a way to look at ethical questions raised by author that insert themselves in a story.
Pick another nonfiction book where a journalist uses themselves in the narrative, then present an analysis of the book. How does the use of “I” impact the story? How does the journalist’s presence change the story as well as the way the story is told? How does the journalist portray themselves? Finally, you must address the following question: How would the book be different if the journalist was not in it?
Possible books to consider include:
- Rolling Nowhere by Ted Conover
- Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
- The Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman
- A Few Seconds of Panic by Stefan Fatsis
- The Know-it-All by A.J. Jacobs
- A Prayer for the City by Buzz Bissinger
- Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
- Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer
- Other options as you see fit!
Thanks for hosting this Classroom Takeover, Kim! Kim definitely wouldn’t have made me buy a $90 book, and I would have had way more fun in her class. What about you lot?
If you’d like to create your own Classroom Takeover post, there are plenty of free spots available! Quite literally, because I don’t have any Classroom Takeovers for June-December. This makes me very sad and I may have to resort to begging on Twitter again for posts, which is never pretty to see. So, if YOU’D been wanting to create your own class, please check out this post here and then get to emailing me!