Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Let's hear it for the bee.

Excerpts from the introduction to If Bees Are Few

It is said there are twenty thousand species of bees in the world, a genus fifty million years old, but in the fertile imagination of the world's poets, there is no beginning and no end to bee buzz. As Rilke wrote, poets are "bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible."

Sappho wrote of bees in the sixth century BCE ("neither honey nor bees for me"), as did Virgil, Rumi, Shakespeare, Bobby Burns, Clare, Coleridge, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, Emerson, Herrick, Issa, Machado, Mandelstam, Neruda, Dickinson prolifically, Whitman, Whittier, Tennyson, Yeats, Frost, and on into the distracting buzz of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from Sherman Alexie to Timothy Young.

Sylvia Plath's father kept bees, and while living in England she tried it, too. She got six jars of honey and the famous "bee sequence" of poems from 1962, later published in Ariel, which convinced her she was a real poet.

During the early seventies, when I ran an experiment in rural education, I kept bees. This fact relates me to Plath, but encounters with bees, whether in the guise of a bee-masked holy father or the mysterious swarms themselves, were indeed unforgettable to us both and worthy of praise in poems, if one can only figure out how.

I finally figured out how, and it is this anthology (the word, from ancient Greek, means a "gathering of flowers"). If Bees Are Few is a gathering of poems collected over the past decade that touch on, or are touched by, bees, including "To make a prairie" by Emily Dickinson:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee.
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.


Ross Conrad writes in Natural Beekeeping: "The bee is the only creature in the animal kingdom, that I am aware of, that does not kill or injure any other being as it goes through its regular life cycle. Apis mellifera damages not so much as a leaf. In fact, honey bees take what they need in such a way that the world around them is improved."

During much of human history, bees and human life have been intertwined, lured by more than durable sweetness. As early as 3000 BCE, one of Pharaoh's titles was "Bee King," and beekeeping had begun at least by the seventh century BCE. Hilda Ransome notes in The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore that one cathedral of the Middle Ages required thirty-four thousand beeswax candles annually for services planned during one year.

Rudolf Steiner, in a 1923 lecture on bees, goes so far as to say, "If you look at a swarm of bees, it is, to be sure, visible, but it really looks like the soul of a human being, a soul that is forced to leave its body. . . . You can really see, by looking at the escaping swarm of bees, an image of the human soul flying away from the body."

From sweet honey to practical wax to spiritual projection, the bees have been able to handle it all.

Until now. The age of synthetic fertilizers and monoculture farming creates bee food deserts, certain pesticides scramble their nervous systems, and pests such as the mite Varroa destructor sap their strength, all of which weaken or collapse honeybee colonies and wipte out wild bee species. That's our age. That's right now.

Poets do what we can, in our reverie, our observation, our listening, our metaphors, our occasional beekeeping, our outrage, our grief, to keep the sweetness and sting of these poetic companions alive. Scientists and citizens must do the rest.


This book is dedicated to entomologist Marla Spivak, whose pioneering work with bees has awarded her a MacArthur fellowship. A portion of proceeds from this anthology are dedicated to the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota, established by Dr. Spivak.


James P. Lenfestey is a former editorial writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has published a collection of personal essays, five collections of poems, the poetry anthology Low Down and Coming On: A Feast of Delicious and Dangerous Poems about Pigs, and coedited Robert Bly in This World, also from Minnesota. His memoir with prose and poems, Seeking the Cave: A Pilgrimage to Cold Mountain, Milkweed Editions, was a finalist for the 2014 Minnesota Book Award.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

On truthiness and trustworthiness: Why nonfiction is best defined as a literature of questions.

University of Cambridge

It’s a cliché that by the time one finishes writing a book, one hates it. Well, I have just finished a book—A Literature of Questions: Nonfiction for the Critical Child—and if it’s not quite true that I hate it, it’s certainly true that this book continues to cause me no end of discomfort.

Unfortunately, the discomfort is the point.

Let me explain.

1. My book might—indeed, intends to—undermine that which is most comfortable about the genre: the idea that nonfiction is a literature of facts.

This idea that it is a literature of facts is not just comforting, but nearly inevitable. If a book is “not fiction,” then surely we are being asked to assume that it is true. Certainly, nonfiction might be structured with an eye to narrative shape, an ear to evocative language, a heart for the passions and trauma that spurred history, mathematical breakthrough, scientific discovery, or any of an infinite number of other aspects of learning. Those literary elements, though, according to the dominant understanding, must be subjugated to truth. Nonfiction tells the truth. It is a literature of facts; that’s the way we distinguish it from fiction.

As intuitive as this position is, though, it’s just silly. Nonfiction is written by human beings. Imperfections, mistakes, and bias are inevitable, which means that insofar as it is ever a literature of facts, it is a literature of facts laced with error. Indeed, what I have been finding is that nonfiction often seems to have been written with an awareness of where it is wrong, but—because we keep telling our nonfiction writers that what we want from them is authority—it is also written with a discernible effort to obscure places where its authors feel doubt in the conclusions that they have drawn.

For example, one of my chapters focuses on a famous work of nonfiction about astronauts. It’s a very good book, one that I like and often teach. Its author, following the common script for the genre, has said repeatedly that nonfiction should always be reliable. The problem is, though, that her book’s central piece of evidence brings to light questions that the book pointedly does not pursue, questions that, it seems to me, the book cannot pursue because its goal is to be reliable. When I started chasing those questions myself, I found that the book was full of bandages on top of bandages covering up cracks in the book’s authority, cracks that spread from one unanswered question to another. Trying to be reliable, trying to be a literature of facts, incentivized a lack of transparency throughout the book.

By insisting that nonfiction be a literature of facts, we have cultivated a genre that is less honest. Nonfiction, in striving for the authority we demand from a literature of facts, is less factual.

2. My book’s argument also asks us to do more work when we read nonfiction.

Implicit in the call for nonfiction to be authoritative is the very seductive suggestion that it if is authoritative, we can rest in that authority. If we find places—or, more likely, think we have found places—where we can rest in the authority of a book, what we have found are places, we tell ourselves, that we can lay down our responsibility to engage critically with what we read.

Naturally, that’s bad. Obviously, it’s irresponsible to ask a book to speak with an authority that allows us to be lazy. Similarly, it’s wrong to think of the entire field as a genre whose primary responsibility is to traffic only in answers that let us escape the responsibility of asking questions.

But it takes work to engage with a nonfiction that is honest about what it doesn’t know. Kadir Nelson’s 2008 We Are the Ship, for example, tells the story of Negro League baseball, and it highlights the truth that this is a history in which hard facts are a luxury. The narrator explains,

Occasionally, a local newspaper would send a reporter out to keep stats, but the papers wouldn’t pay them to do it very often. Sometimes those guys would come late and have to ask around, “What happened in the first inning?” “Who did what?” or they’d just make up the stats. (21)

A history underpinned by meticulous, objective facts is, as this passage reveals, a privilege. Reading a book about a history that cannot be verified requires a constant vigilance, a creative, critical engagement that asks not for an opportunity to absorb data but to navigate and take into consideration gaps in knowledge.

Such a literature requires work on the part of the reader who performs those acts of navigation, and it also requires work on the part of a writer. Such writers must resist the call of editors, reviewers, and readers to speak with unwavering authority. They must justify their conclusions, humanize their characters, and label the “seams,” as Joe L. Kincheloe has put it, where they have stitched together faultless narratives of knowledge.

3. For many readers, the most uncomfortable aspect of the book will be that in it, I study not adult nonfiction, but nonfiction for children.

Although adults can sometimes practice humility in communicating their ideas to one another, we frequently find ourselves clinging to authority when we try to tell our truths to young people. Perhaps our reasons are nefarious: we can stave off being replaced by them for a little longer if they think we know what we know without harboring any questions. Or perhaps we don’t want to do the work required by a literature of questions rather than a literature of facts. Or maybe we feel we are doing children a favor by presenting the world to them in terms that are simple, even if those terms are—we know even as we lie to them—untrue.

Too, if we think of books whose goal is to inform as defined by the questions they provoke rather than the answers they instill, then we’re going to have to rethink how we ask children to engage with information and how we assess that engagement. Dutifully recording authoritative data is an act for which standardized examinations can test very easily. Recognizing and struggling with information that advertises its imperfect reliability is much trickier. Assessing the creative, productive engagement invited by a literature of questions is more challenging yet.

For me, though, the most persistent source of discomfort about my own book has to do with the cultural moment in which we find ourselves. Two of the most resonant (and troubling) phrases of our moment—“fake news” and “alternative facts”—carry with them a legitimate anxiety about disinformation, and more than once, I have glanced longingly at the reams of discourse that valorize taut, confident nonfiction, a discourse that this book contests. I miss the security of thinking about information as uniformly trustworthy or untrustworthy.

Still, insisting that the goal of a work of nonfiction should be authority only soothes the anxiety; it doesn’t eliminate the potential for—or harm caused by—truthiness. It requires us not only to bury our questions but to bury our fear about those questions. The work necessary to a literature of questions is not only worth the effort, but ethically imperative.

Joe Sutliff Sanders is author of A Literature of Questions: Nonfiction for the Critical Child and Disciplining Girls: Understanding the Origins of the Classic Orphan Girl Story and editor of The Comics of Herge: When the Lines Are Not So Clear. He is a university lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.

"A Literature of Questions is a groundbreaking work of criticism not only because it covers an area of children's literature that is largely unexamined but also because it provides the field with new language and a new set of critical lenses, which scholars, educators, and writers can use in the future to analyze, evaluate, teach, and create works of nonfiction for younger readers."
—Annette Wannamaker, Eastern Michigan University

"Not many courses about children’s literature that are offered in English departments include nonfiction titles on the reading lists. A Literature of Questions will irrevocably change this situation. In the wake of Joe Sutliff Sanders’s book, it will no longer be possible to teach an undergraduate or graduate course about literature for young readers without including a section on children’s nonfiction. Every individual working in the field will want to add a copy of A Literature of Questions to their campus library and even to their personal book collection. Additionally, they will want to assign this text their students. Sanders’s work is a new classic."
—Michelle Ann Abate, author of Bloody Murder: The Homicide Tradition in Children’s Literature