Natasha Vargas-Cooper suggests that “maybe the novel is not the best device for transmitting ideas, grand themes, to hormonal, boisterous, easily distracted, immature teenagers”:
[M]ost high-school-age kids … go to overcrowded, underfunded schools, staffed by largely well-intentioned adults who don’t have the resources, or sometimes even the intellectual vigor, to make emotional landscapes of the western front, nineteenth-century London, or Pamplona very real to sixteen-year-olds. … Maybe there is a better format and genre to spark a love of reading, engage a young mind, and maybe even teach them how to write a coherent manner. Thankfully this genre exists: It’s called non-fiction.
Journalism, essay, memoir, creative nonfiction: These are only things I started reading as an adult because of how little I enjoyed reading novels in high school. Surely, the un-made-up stuff would be more of bore, I thought. Yet when I finally read In Cold Blood, Into Thin Air, the works of Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion, I continually pleaded aloud my friends in their twenties, “Why didn’t anyone make me read this in high school?!”
Margaret Eby agrees with Vargas-Cooper that most high schools may be unequipped to make novels appealing to teenagers, but “that’s not the point of teaching novels”:
At its loftiest, the idea of a high school curriculum—really, the idea of education in general— is to get students to think about, react to, absorb, and otherwise navigate situations that they wouldn’t have to outside of school. Solve a calculus problem. Dissect a frog. Memorize the preamble to the Constitution. These aren’t just party tricks for later, the point is the introduction. Just because teenagers might not totally grasp the implications and nuances of a subject doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expose them to it. Realizing that you don’t understand something is how you begin to understand it.
What’s striking about the hypothetical syllabus Vargas-Cooper caps her essay with—one that’s brimful of literary journalism gems—is that the authors on it all owe a tremendous debt to fiction writing. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s “Random Family,” to name two selections from Vargas-Cooper’s list, are engrossing reads not just because of the extensive research their authors conducted, but because they deftly employ the storytelling conventions of novels in their writing. I’m willing to bet that none, or very few, of the writers on her list got to where they are without reading novels.