Why Write Non Fiction?

For a while now there has been terrible gloom amongst the writers of non fiction for children. almost no body gets paid royalties, just a flat fee, and that has been getting flatter and flatter, and is now so flat for many writers as to be a molecular monolayer. And it isn’t just the money, it’s the fact that the people who put non fiction books together are getting things in the wrong order. Instead of starting by seeking out an author with a track record in writing for a particular age group or with specific subject knowledge,  they are coming to the writers last. This means that, increasingly, writers are being asked to complete whole books in weeks, or even days, with no time to check, research, think and with no input at the start of the book. Of course a skilled writer can WRITE fast, but with no steering input at the start and with no time to think, the structure and function of the finished text will be a long way short of the best it can be. In some cases it’ll be toe curling, and the writer forced to churn it out, will put their head in their hands and wail.  This way of producing books is treating words as if they were something you could buy by the pound and squirt in like tile grouting (sorry those of you who’ve heard that phrase from me before).

Of course, as a writer of children’s non fiction all this makes me very, very, VERY cross. It’s a horrible negative feedback. Writers are not valued, so they are paid less, employed last with no time to do a good job, so the work they do is less good, so they are paid less, employed last. etc etc etc. But why does it MATTER?

Well, because there are number of casualties in this  situation. The first is, obviously, the writer: devalued, demoralised and – I’m not kidding here – in some cases forced out of a profession because it’s just no longer financially viable to stay in it. The next casualty is the book: abused and also devalued, it goes out into the world and gives a very poor report of itself, earning a poor reputation and making parents wonder why they are spending the price of two burgers on something they think they can get off the web for nothing.

But the third casualty is the most bloody. The one that makes me most angry: it is the intellectual and cultural heritage of a generation of children. Without good quality, creative, innovative non fiction – well researched, well presented, well written and age appropriate – children face a blank wall of information. A monolith of in-penetrable facts everywhere, like those dancing rows of figures that code for the world in the Matrix movies. What good children’s non fiction offers them is a door of the right size through the right bit of that wall. Without it, they are not invited into the world of knowledge, to open one door and then spend the rest of their lives opening others.

There is an even higher possible body count too, because for some children, typically male children, non fiction is a route into a more general world of the written word. Without it they face a life time of not being readers (like a male primary school teacher who confided in me not so long ago “I’m not much of a reader”) . Ok you shrug (well, no I know you probably don’t cos if you weren’t a reader you wouldn’t have found this blog…just imagine someone shrugging) So what? You aren’t a reader…well there are films aren’t there?

Deeeeeep breath for me here, because the argument that reading doesn’t matter is such obvious moronic nonsense as to make my veins fizz.

We don’t talk to each other in pictures. Pictures do tell a thousand words, but they tell a thousand different words to each person who looks at the picture. A picture is open to a number of different interpretations. Words are specific, precise, exact. And as long we desire communication that is precise, we’ll need to use them. And as long as we need to use them, then reading will be a skill essential to life.

Reading is the fastest, most autonomous way of growing the self. And why is that important? Well, when I was a kid at school we learnt that one of the characteristics of living things, how you tell something that is alive from something that’s dead in other words, is that live things grow.

So if you don’t read its much, much more difficult to distinguish between you and a corpse.

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