Prose other than fiction

Very few schools use prose other than fiction for Part 3: the 2015's Examiner report stated that they "did not see enough responses to make a general comment" on the questions for prose other than fiction at Higher Level; while at Standard Level they wrote that it "would appear that no-one had studied Prose other than fiction." This is probably unsurprising given that most Literature teachers have a background that is mainly focused on the other three available genres and for many of us there would seem to be a wider and richer range of choices available for the study of fictional prose, drama and poetry. Furthermore, students who choose the Literature over Language and Literature course often do so because they have a preference for fictional texts.  

However, some teachers do like to choose this option and argue for its rewards and benefits.  For a start, if the rest of the course has been intensely focused on fictional prose, drama and poetry there is a freshness to encountering a new genre for the last part of the course; in addition, there is a pleasing potential course structure to be developed around building to a final unit where you look at what happens when elements of fictional writing are used to respond to and convey experiences in the real world and in real life.  Furthermore, choosing this genre guarantees your students will stand out from the crowd in at least one respect, as it is clear that examiners encounter very few responses to the questions on prose other than fiction.  

The texts studied for Prose other than fiction might include autobiography, biography, travel writing, letters, memoirs and essays, although the detailed study of this genre will take you deeper into some of the problems of clearly defining this (or any) genre, as well as some of its sub-genres, such as new journalism.  A good place to start your study is with a discussion around a term that may appear to be an oxymoron when first given to students - creative nonfiction:

Creative non-fiction

All of the authors on the PLA for prose other than fiction could be described as writing creative non-fiction, using many of the same literary features as writers of short stories and novels.    As a starting point, give students the following quotation from Lee Gutkind and use the questions that follow as prompts for discussion:

“[The term creative non-fiction] precisely describes what the form is all about. The word ‘creative’ refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting non-fiction – that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events – in a compelling, vivid manner. To put it another way, creative non-fiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and, often, more accessible. It is important to remember that there are lines – real demarcation points between fiction, which is or can be mostly imagination; traditional nonfiction (journalism and scholarship), which is mostly information; and creative non-fiction, which presents or treats information using the tools of the fiction writer while maintaining allegiance to fact. Creative non-fiction offers flexibility and freedom while adhering to the basic tenets of reportage. It is a genre in which writers can be poetic and journalistic simultaneously.”

Questions for discussion:
  • What seem to be the benefits and attractions of this genre (for writers and readers)?
  • Are there any potential problems/issues with this genre and its definition?

These questions should generate an interesting initial discussion and hopefully students have read some examples of creative non-fiction to draw upon for specific examples.  If you have a classroom library  - and all Literature classrooms should have one  - make sure it includes some non-fiction texts so that students have access to good examples of this genre.  

Following this initial discussion, use the extracts below to take students' thinking further in terms of how writers use "literary craft in presenting non-fiction" and how they use creativity to engage with people, places and events in the real world.  

Extract A: from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

'What you looking at me for?

I didn’t come to stay ...'

I hadn’t so much forgot as I couldn’t bring myself to remember. Other things were more important.

'What you looking at me for?

I didn’t come to stay ...'

Whether I could remember the rest of the poem or not was immaterial. The truth of the statement was like a wadded-up handkerchief, sopping wet in my fists, and the sooner they accepted it the quicker I could let my hands open and the air would cool my palms.

'What you looking at me for ...?'

The children’s section of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church was wiggling and giggling over my well-known forgetfulness. The dress I wore was lavender taffeta, and each time I breathed it rustled, and now that I was sucking in air to breathe out shame it sounded like crêpe paper on the back of hearses.

As I’d watched Momma put ruffles on the hem and cute little tucks around the waist, I knew that once I put it on I’d look like a movie star. (It was silk and that made up for the awful color.) I was going to look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world. Hanging softly over the black Singer sewing machine, it looked like magic, and when people saw me wearing it they were going to run up to me and say, 'Marguerite [sometimes it was "dear Marguerite"], forgive us, please, we didn’t know who you were,' and I would answer generously, 'No, you couldn’t have known. Of course I forgive you.'

Just thinking about it made me go around with angel’s dust sprinkled over my face for days. But Easter’s early morning sun had shown the dress to be a plain ugly cut-down from a white woman’s once-was-purple throwaway. It was old-lady-long too, but it didn’t hide my skinny legs, which had been greased with Blue Seal Vaseline and powdered with the Arkansas red clay. The age-faded color made my skin look dirty like mud, and everyone in church was looking at my skinny legs.

Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten? My light-blue eyes were going to hypnotize them, after all the things they said about 'my daddy must have been a Chinaman' (I thought they meant made out of china, like a cup) because my eyes were so small and squinty. Then they would understand why I had never picked up a Southern accent, or spoke the common slang, and why I had to be forced to eat pigs’ tails and snouts. Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.

'What you looking ...' The minister’s wife leaned toward me, her long yellow face full of sorry. She whispered, 'I just come to tell you, it’s Easter Day.' I repeated, jamming the words together, 'Ijustcometotellyouit’sEasterDay,' as low as possible. The giggles hung in the air like melting clouds that were waiting to rain on me. I held up two fingers, close to my chest, which meant that I had to go to the toilet, and tiptoed toward the rear of the church. Dimly, somewhere over my head, I heard ladies saying 'Lord bless the child,' and 'Praise God.' My head was up and my eyes were open, but I didn’t see anything. Halfway down the aisle, the church exploded with 'Were you there when they crucified my Lord?' and I tripped over a foot stuck out from the children’s pew. I stumbled and started to say something, or maybe to scream, but a green persimmon, or it could have been a lemon, caught me between the legs and squeezed. I tasted the sour on my tongue and felt it in the back of my mouth. Then before I reached the door, the sting was burning down my legs and into my Sunday socks. I tried to hold, to squeeze it back, to keep it from speeding, but when I reached the church porch I knew I’d have to let it go, or it would probably run right back up to my head and my poor head would burst like a dropped watermelon, and all the brains and spit and tongue and eyes would roll all over the place. So I ran down into the yard and let it go. I ran, peeing and crying, not toward the toilet out back but to our house. I’d get a whipping for it, to be sure, and the nasty children would have something new to tease me about. I laughed anyway, partially for the sweet release; still, the greater joy came not only from being liberated from the silly church but from the knowledge that I wouldn’t die from a busted head.

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.

It is an unnecessary insult.

Extract B: from In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Passing through the orchard, Mr. Clutter proceeded along beside the river, which was shallow here and strewn with islands—midstream beaches of soft sand, to which, on Sundays gone by, hot-weather Sabbaths when Bonnie had still “felt up to things,” picnic baskets had been carted, family afternoons whiled away waiting for a twitch at the end of a trout line. Mr. Clutter seldom encountered trespassers on his property; a mile from the highway, and arrived at by obscure roads, it was not a place that strangers came upon by chance. Now, suddenly, a whole party of them appeared and Teddy rushed forward roaring out a challenge. But it was odd about Teddy. Though he was a good sentry, alert, ever ready to raise Cain, his valor had one flaw: let him glimpse a gun, as he did now—for the intruders were armed—and his head dropped, his tail turned in. No one understood why, for no one knew his history, other than that he was a vagabond that Kenyon had adopted years ago. The visitors proved to be five pheasant hunters from Oklahoma. The pheasant season in Kansas, a famed November event, lures hordes of sportsmen from adjoining states, and during the past week plaid-hatted regiments had paraded across the autumnal expanses flushing and felling with rounds of bird shot great coppery flights of the grain-fattened birds. By custom, the hunters, if they are not invited guests, are supposed to pay the landowner a fee for letting them pursue their quarry on his premises, but when the Oklahomans offered to hire hunting rights, Mr. Clutter was amused. “I’m not as poor as I look. Go ahead, get all you can,” he said. Then, touching the brim of his cap, he headed for home and the day’s work, unaware that it would be his last.

Like Mr. Clutter, the young man breakfasting in a café called the Little Jewel never drank coffee. He preferred root beer. Three aspirin, cold root beer, and a chain of Pall Mall cigarettes—that was his notion of a proper “chow-down.” Sipping and smoking, he studied a map spread on the counter before him—a Phillips 66 map of Mexico—but it was difficult to concentrate, for he was expecting a friend, and the friend was late. He looked out a window at the silent small-town street, a street he had never seen until yesterday. Still no sign of Dick. But he was sure to show up; after all, the purpose of their meeting was Dick’s idea, his “score.” And when it was settled—Mexico. The map was ragged, so thumbed that it had grown as supple as a piece of chamois. Around the corner, in his room at the hotel where he was staying, were hundreds more like it—worn maps of every state in the Union, every Canadian province, every South American country—for the young man was an incessant conceiver of voyages, not a few of which he had actually taken: to Alaska, to Hawaii and Japan, to Hong Kong. Now, thanks to a letter, an invitation to a “score,” here he was with all his worldly belongings: one cardboard suitcase, a guitar, and two big boxes of books and maps and songs, poems and old letters, weighing a quarter of a ton. (Dick’s face when he saw those boxes! “Christ, Perry. You carry that junk everywhere? “ And Perry had said, “What junk? One of them books cost me thirty bucks.”) Here he was in little Olathe, Kansas. Kind of funny, if you thought about it; imagine being back in Kansas, when only four months ago he had sworn, first to the state Parole Board, then to himself, that he would never set foot within its boundaries again. Well, it wasn’t for long.

Ink-circled names populated the map: cozumel, an island off the coast of Yucatán where, so he had read in a men’s magazine, you could “shed your clothes, put on a relaxed grin, live like a Rajah, and have all the women you want for $50-a-month!” From the same article he had memorized other appealing statements: “Cozumel is a holdout against social, economic, and political pressure. No official pushes any private person around on this island,” and “Every year flights of parrots come over from the mainland to lay their eggs.” acapulco connoted deep-sea fishing, casinos, anxious rich women, and sierra madre meant gold, meant “Treasure of Sierra Madre,” a movie he had seen eight times. (It was Bogart’s best picture, but the old guy who played the prospector, the one who reminded Perry of his father, was terrific, too. Walter Huston. Yes, and what he had told Dick was true: He did know the ins and outs of hunting gold, having been taught them by his father, who was a professional prospector. So why shouldn’t they, the two of them, buy a pair of packhorses and try their luck in the Sierra Madre? But Dick, the practical Dick, had said, “Whoa, honey, whoa. I seen that show. Ends up everybody nuts. On account of fever and bloodsuckers, mean conditions all around. Then, when they got the gold—remember, a big wind came along and blew it all away?”) Perry folded the map. He paid for the root beer and stood up. Sitting, he had seemed a more than normal-sized man, a powerful man, with the shoulders, the arms, the thick, crouching torso of a weight lifter. Weight lifting was, in fact, his hobby. But some sections of him were not in proportion to others. His tiny feet, encased in short black boots with steel buckles, would have neatly fitted into a delicate lady’s dancing slippers; when he stood up, he was no taller than a twelve-year-old child, and suddenly looked, strutting on stunted legs that seemed grotesquely inadequate to the grown-up bulk they supported, not like a well-built truck driver but like a retired jockey, overblown and muscle-bound.

Outside the café, Perry stationed himself in the sun. It was a quarter to nine, and Dick was a half hour late; however, if Dick had not hammered home the every-minute importance of the next twenty-four hours, he would not have noticed it. Time rarely weighed upon him, for he had many methods of passing it—among them mirror gazing. Dick had once observed, “Every time you see a mirror you go into a trance, like. Like you was looking at some gorgeous woman. I mean, my God, don’t you ever get tired?” Far from it; his own face enthralled him. Each angle of it induced a different impression. It was a changeling’s face, and mirror-guided experiments had taught him how to ring the changes, how to look now ominous, now impish, now soulful; a tilt of the head, a twist of the lips, and the corrupt gypsy became the gentle romantic. His mother had been a full-blooded Cherokee; it was from her that he had inherited his coloring—the iodine skin, the dark, moist eyes, the black, brilliantined hair, which was plentiful enough to provide him with sideburns and a slippery spray of bangs. His mother’s donation was apparent; that of his father, a freckled, ginger-haired Irishman, was less so. It was as though the Indian blood had routed every trace of the Celtic strain. Still, pink lips and a perky nose confirmed its presence, as did a quality of roguish animation, of uppity Irish egotism, that often activated the Cherokee mask, and took control completely when he played the guitar and sang. Singing, and the thought of doing so in front of an audience, was another mesmeric way of whittling hours. He always used the same mental scenery—a night club in Las Vegas, which happened to be his home town. It was an elegant room filled with celebrities excitedly focussed on the sensational new star rendering his famous, backed-by-violins version of “I’ll Be Seeing You” and encoring with his latest self-composed ballad:

 

Every April flights of parrots

Fly overhead, red and green,

Green and tangerine.

I see them fly, I hear them high

Singing parrots bringing April spring. . . .

(Dick, on first hearing this song, had commented, “Parrots don’t sing. Talk, maybe. Holler. But they sure as hell don’t sing.” Of course, Dick was very literal-minded, very—he had no understanding of music, poetry—and yet, when you got right down to it, Dick’s literalness, his pragmatic approach to every subject, was the primary reason Perry had been attracted to him, for it made Dick seem, compared to himself, so authentically tough, invulnerable, “totally masculine.”)

Nevertheless, pleasant as this Las Vegas reverie was, it paled beside another of his visions. Since childhood, for more than half his thirty-one years, he had been sending off for literature (“fortunes in diving! Train at Home in Your Spare Time. Make Big Money Fast in Skin and Lung Diving. free booklets . . .”), answering advertisements (“sunken treasure! Fifty Genuine Maps! Amazing Offer. . .”), that stoked a longing to realize an adventure his imagination swiftly and over and over enabled him to experience: the dream of drifting downward through strange waters, of plunging toward a green sea-dusk, sliding past the scaly, savage-eyed protectors of a ship’s hulk that loomed ahead, a Spanish galleon, a drowned cargo of diamonds and pearls, heaping caskets of gold. A car horn honked. At last—Dick.

Extract C:  from A Hanging by George Orwell

We set out for the gallows. Two warders marched on either side of the prisoner, with their rifles at the slope; two others marched close against him, gripping him by arm and shoulder, as though at once pushing and supporting him. The rest of us, magistrates and the like, followed behind. Suddenly, when we had gone ten yards, the procession stopped short without any order or warning. A dreadful thing had happened — a dog, come goodness knows whence, had appeared in the yard. It came bounding among us with a loud volley of barks, and leapt round us wagging its whole body, wild with glee at finding so many human beings together. It was a large woolly dog, half Airedale, half pariah. For a moment it pranced round us, and then, before anyone could stop it, it had made a dash for the prisoner, and jumping up tried to lick his face. Everyone stood aghast, too taken aback even to grab at the dog.

‘Who let that bloody brute in here?’ said the superintendent angrily. ‘Catch it, someone!’

A warder, detached from the escort, charged clumsily after the dog, but it danced and gambolled just out of his reach, taking everything as part of the game. A young Eurasian jailer picked up a handful of gravel and tried to stone the dog away, but it dodged the stones and came after us again. Its yaps echoed from the jail wails. The prisoner, in the grasp of the two warders, looked on incuriously, as though this was another formality of the hanging. It was several minutes before someone managed to catch the dog. Then we put my handkerchief through its collar and moved off once more, with the dog still straining and whimpering.

It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working — bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming — all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned — reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.

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