Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Field Waiting to Be Explored

Fiction throughout its history has embraced many subjects, and viewpoints. It is a potent tool of education, but, 'educational fiction' is a field waiting to be studied and accepted. This commentary will propose a rationale for considering 'educational fiction' as a genre.

Educational fiction arguably began with Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 -1400): J. D. Rolleston in a Lancet article 'Chaucer and Medieval Medicine (1932)' argues that Chaucer's works - notably The Canterbury Tales - are as concerned with medical conditions (plague, leprosy and malaria) as with literary innovation.

Medically trained Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) could be termed the 'father' of modern education fiction. Medicine and medical instruments feature heavily in his novels, from the cataract knife in 'Silver Blaze' (1892) to the obscure poison of 'The Lion's Mane' (1926). His interest in ophthalmology appears in Round the Red Lamp, a 1894 collection of short stories; one of these, 'The Doctors of Hoyland' describes an iridectomy. Laura Synder's article Sherlock Holmes: Scientific Detective credits Doyle and Holmes with reawakening the public's interest and trust in forensic science. In 1932 the Lancet in an editorial The Sherlockian Method in Epidemiology commented that Sherlock Holmes' methods of deduction were widely used in epidemiology.

Doyle's Sherlock Holmes inspired many scientist-writers who recognised fiction's educational power. Jonathan Kellerman, a psychologist, has penned several bestselling novels incorporating psychology themes. When the Bough Breaks (1985) explained the mind's workings in layman's terms and received huge critical acclaim. The novel's reception, and Kellerman's continual success, demonstrates that the public is willing to be educated in conventionally academic and medical topics.

Any line of work now has a fresh angle to approach the public. The radiographer and radiologist are a crucial part of diagnosis, yet few are acquainted with their roles. The American College of Radiology commissioned research into exactly this problem in 2008, resulting in a 'Face of Radiology' campaign. However in 2009 Gunderman and Mortell examined scripts from several TV programs. They found that radiologists were either portrayed negatively, or missing. Perhaps the 'Face' campaign's repercussions had yet to filter through print and film media - but it could also be argued that, had an established writer penned an edufictional novel with a radiologist as a main character, the results could have been more dramatic. Education fiction is not simply about incorporating technical language into a novelistic format.

Current readers of fiction are more inter-disciplinary in their tastes than their Holmes-era counterparts, perhaps due to widespread multimedia and increasing university attendance. So we need a standardised classification of fictional books with accurate references under the genre of 'education fiction' (abbreviated to 'edufiction'). A reader of an 'edufiction' would be assured, perhaps, of a bibliography to verify some of the assumptions it makes. Any specialist terms could be explained in a glossary, and an appendix would include recommendations for further reading. I propose the following generic definition:

"An edufictional novel intends to educate its reader, and may also seek to promote awareness about its chosen topics. Although the narrative is fictitious, all its references are verifiable, and all its assumptions plausible in the light of current thought."

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