How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor

How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor Summary and Analysis of Chapters 8-10


In the second part of the book, Foster moves to a discussion of traditional nonfiction sources, beginning first with journalism. To illustrate the importance and impact of journalism, Foster discusses the scandal wherein USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar sexually abused hundreds of young athletes. The Lansing State Journal played a prominent role in covering the story and ensuring it received widespread attention, evading attempts at cover-ups. From there, Foster traces the history of investigative journalism bringing heinous events to public light back to the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. Journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein first broke the story in the Washington Post, and then subsequently wrote a book called All The President's Men (which covers both the scandal and the process and experience of reporting on it). Foster argues that this book holds a foundational role in understanding the value and responsibilities of investigative journalism. He also compares the earlier book to Woodward's later book Fear: Trump in the White House (2018). Even before the book was published, Trump and many of his supporters accused Woodward of making false claims. However, Foster points out a number of practices (rarely quoting anonymous sources, using multiple sources to corroborate claims) that Woodward relied upon in both books that reflect why he can be considered a scrupulous journalist.

In contrast to investigative journalism's attempts at objectivity, some forms of nonfiction openly utilize and celebrate the subjective position of the writer. Foster divides subjective nonfiction into two categories: participative journalism (subdivided into New Journalism and immersive journalism) and creative nonfiction. Foster begins with a history of New Journalism, tracing its origins back to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), In Cold Blood (1965) & The Armies of the Night (1968). Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe also published important works of participative journalism in 1967-68, marking the key founding of New Journalism. Thompson rose to prominence with his 1967 book, Hell's Angels, followed by Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1971. There continue to be debates about whether or not Thompson's work should better be classified as fiction, and while this writing does contain descriptions of factual events, it is steeped in Thompson's own thoughts and feelings. Wolfe, in contrast, in his work The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), devotes most of his interest in subjectivity to a deep investigation into his subjects, a gang of Pranksters. Foster then discusses Joan Didion as a tricky example of a nonfiction writer who does not fit neatly into the New Journalism category but who merits attention for her subjective nonfiction.

Foster then turns to immersive journalism as a category of nonfiction that is less ostentatious than New Journalism but still preserves a subjective aspect. In this section, Foster focuses on John McPhee's Basin and Range (1981) as an example of nonfiction where the author is an active presence but does not take full primacy in the text. In addition to immersive journalism, creative nonfiction functions as a sort of catchall category for writing that can be traced back to literary essays such as Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own." Foster uses Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek (1974) as an example of this genre. Building on the role of the subjective within nonfiction, Foster goes on to discuss the personal essay. While the essay may be unfairly remembered in the context of academic assignments, it is actually a genre with a long history, dating back to Montaigne's writing in the 16th century. To illustrate variations in topics and styles within the genre of essay writing, Foster provides short discussions of 4 well-known essayists: John Henry Newman, Julian Barnes, Christopher Hitchens, and Marilynne Robinson. Regardless of this variety, Foster emphasizes that all well-written essays rely on a thesis that is clear, original, and drives the rest of the essay content. Therefore, reading an essay critically involves understanding what the author is attempting to do and whether they succeeded in doing it.

Foster describes opinion writing (including editorials, columns, and political cartoons) as primarily associated with newspaper writing, and cites some examples of popular opinion writing. Foster points out that while opinion writing should not be held to standards of objectivity (as that is clearly not what it is striving for), well-executed opinion writing can still show fairness towards other points of view. In order to engage with opinionated sources, Foster recommends that readers verify facts, question the source of a claim (does the source have a vested interest in the topic?), reflect on whether the facts are misapplied, are both supporting and conflicting sources quoted fairly, and unpack whether or not the argument being made actually aligns with the claim of the piece (or whether it requires a preexisting bias to be believed).


Throughout the book, Foster shows a particular focus on journalism as a key genre within nonfiction. Foster's investment in writing about nonfiction is linked to the role it plays in creating informed and ethical citizens who live in a thriving democracy. Journalism, arguably more than any other genre, plays this role because it is often via journalism that individuals learn about current events and what is happening in the world. Whether and how a story is covered by news media plays a huge role in how people perceive events and occurrences: unless we have actually observed something happening, most of what we know about what is happening in our communities and nations comes from what we hear reported in the media. Thus, an awesome responsibility rests with journalists, editors, and others involved in the news media ecosystem.

Foster certainly celebrates some of what journalism has been able to achieve, but in his coverage of New Journalism, he also hints that there have always been complex pressures on how journalists convey information. As Ostler explains, "Already skeptical of journalistic objectivity (recognized as a mere convention that developed in tandem with the teletype and radio), writers became increasingly suspicious of the synergistic interests that were both manufacturing news as well as deciding which news was 'fit' for distribution...Reacting against such powerful interests, new journalists and nonfiction novelists increasingly drafted themselves as the primary figures of their works" (pg. 49). While Foster explores the creative and artistic merits of subjective nonfiction, he does not position this type of writing as having the same type of political and ethical responsibility. The examples Foster chooses to discuss in his section on subjective nonfiction provide fascinating portraits of events, culture, or moments in time, but Foster does not position them as playing a key role in safeguarding democracy. Because of this shift in what this type of nonfiction offers, Foster also shifts in his tone and position. When writing about journalism, Foster adopts a tone of impassioned advocate, but in discussing immersive journalism and essays, Foster takes a tone of reflection and appreciation. He clearly takes pleasure in reading writers such as John McPhee and Julian Barnes, and he writes about them in the voice of a critic who is appreciative of their skill. Perhaps what is unique about nonfiction is that it can oscillate between fulfilling these ethical and aesthetic functions—and sometimes even combine them. Foster celebrates and elevates All the President's Men as a book that excels at both. He can admire what the book achieved in holding some incredibly powerful people accountable for their actions, and he can also appreciate the pleasurable reading experience it still provides.

Foster continues to echo his core themes of the responsibility of both readers and writers, while also showing flexibility towards different genres and contexts. For a journalist like Woodward, it is extremely important that he be reporting accurately and be able to substantiate his claims. Foster cleverly establishes Woodward's credentials and track record of integrity by praising All the President's Men and foreshadows Woodward's role in reporting on Trump in his later book Fear. Many Trump supporters have tried to denigrate Woodward's book. Foster models the engagement he asks of his readers: rather than rushing to support Woodward because he disagrees with Trump, Foster provides a more balanced perspective. He provides evidence for why Woodward's evidence can be believed and establishes a track record of Woodward as a reliable source. On the other hand, someone writing creative nonfiction or immersive journalism does not need to be as meticulous. They can take more risks and be more adventurous in their style; in some cases, it may not matter whether their accounts of events are entirely accurate or not. Foster shows himself to be fair and flexible, as he is not rigidly enforcing universal standards across different genres of nonfiction.