Editor's Note: Nonfiction is Art, Too

Dec 1, 2010

Dana Heupel
Credit NPR Illinois
My wife and I were feeling housebound on a recent rainy Sunday, so we set out for one of my favorite places in Springfield: a small used-books store near our home. It’s not the sort of place where you go with a particular book in mind; it’s the kind where you drop in periodically to scour the shelves for unexpected treasures.

As I headed for my favorite room, a large area usually marked with signs such as “history,” “sports,” “reference” and “cookbooks,” I noticed that they had rearranged the store. Now, the room contained only fiction alphabetized by author, so I wandered around awhile and then finally asked a worker where they had relocated the nonfiction. “We’re not doing that anymore,” I was told. “It doesn’t sell.” She then pointed me to a lone bookcase, not much larger than a refrigerator, where the remnants of their nonfiction inventory were stashed.

My dismay must have been evident, and when I muttered something like “How can they call this a bookstore?” in what I thought was sotto voice but apparently wasn’t, my wife quickly ushered me out the door “before you make a scene.”

If nonfiction doesn’t sell, you can’t tell it by me. Over the years, I’ve left that store with biographies of Churchill and LBJ and Hemingway, with essays on fly fishing and golf, with dictionaries and thesauruses, with books about leadership and Macintosh computers and language and tinnitus and many more subjects. Hardcovers, softcovers and paperbacks, often dog-eared and occasionally inscribed inside with endearing handwritten sentiments, such as “To Tom, Christmas 1996.”

When I was younger, I eagerly awaited the next fictional tale by Herman Wouk or Philip Roth or John Updike or Frederick Forsyth, but as time passed — though I haven’t entirely sworn off fiction — my tastes have gradually turned more toward the tangible world. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’ve accepted the reality that I’ll never become a daring secret agent or a brilliant private detective. Maybe because I’ve earned my living for many years writing and editing articles about actual people, places and things.

I hope my local bookstore is an aberration. Perhaps people keep nonfiction books such as biographies, histories and how-to’s as treasured components of their own libraries and don’t recycle them back to used bookstores.

Great fiction is often regarded as art, while nonfiction masterpieces are usually viewed more as craft. But in my opinion, at least, a well-woven biography or enthralling history requires as much creativity as a great novel — maybe even more because the story has to be spun within the constraints of accuracy and verification.


From left: 2010 Bill Miller Public Affairs Reporting Hall of Fame inductees Barbara Hipsman, Susan Cornwell and John O'Connor. Photo by Lee Milner.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Speaking of people who have devoted their lives to writing accurate nonfiction accounts, congratulations to the three new inductees to the Bill Miller Public Affairs Reporting Hall of Fame, sponsored by Illinois Issues and WUIS, Springfield’s National Public Radio station. They were honored at an event at the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield on November 15.

The 2010 inductees are:

  • Susan Cornwell, a Capitol Hill correspondent for Reuters who focuses mainly on foreign policy. In more than 30 years as a journalist, she has covered Congress, the State Department and the White House and worked in several foreign countries, such as the Soviet Union during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika-era.

    In 1996, she won the Merriman Smith award for presidential reporting on a deadline, given to one journalist a year by the White House Correspondents’ Association. She grew up in Metropolis and Edwardsville and began her professional career in Illinois, working as a copy clerk for the Alton Telegraph and obtaining her first full-time reporting job at the Springfield State Journal-Register.

  • John O’Connor, an Associated Press political writer who covers the Illinois Capitol. Among his recent enterprise and investigative stories are reports on an Illinois Department of Corrections early prison-release program that became an issue for Gov. Pat Quinn during this year’s election and forced changes in state laws requiring minimum sentences. He also wrote about the racial disparity in school discipline and revealed that Quinn gave salary increases to top staff during a budget crisis that had prompted the governor to announce extra furlough days for all state workers.

    This year, O’Connor won the $10,000 Oliver S. Gramling Journalism Achievement Award from the AP for a year-long body of work. Born in Freeport, he has worked at several Illinois newspapers, including the Springfield State Journal-Register, the Bloomington Pantagraph and the Chicago suburban Daily Herald.

  • Barbara Hipsman, an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Kent State University, Kent, Ohio. Before moving there in 1987, she was an assistant professor at Bradley University in Peoria and had worked as the Illinois Statehouse bureau chief for the Belleville News-Democrat, a community newspaper group in the suburbs of Chicago, a weekly newspaper in Guam and in radio and TV throughout Micronesia.

    Hipsman is active with Capitolbeat, the national association of Capitol reporters and editors, as a judge, facilitator and presenter at national meetings and has spent sabbaticals at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Chicago Tribune, the Arizona Daily Republic and the Columbus Dispatchto study the effects of convergence, varying ownership and unionization. She received Kent State’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1994.

The inductees are all graduates of the Public Affairs Reporting master’s degree program at UIS and were chosen by a selection committee of journalists and educators.

They were honored during a ceremony on November 15 in Springfield. The keynote speaker was Kathy Best, managing editor for digital news and innovation at The Seattle Times and also a Public Affairs Reporting graduate. She was instrumental in helping that newspaper win the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for its print and online coverage of the shooting deaths of four police officers.


We at Illinois Issues are deeply saddened by the recent death of Larry Hansen, the chairman of the magazine’s advisory board and a strong advocate for clean and efficient government.

I first met Larry about 15 years ago, when he was director of the Joyce Foundation’s Money and Politics program. The foundation underwrote a book based on a series of newspapers articles I coordinated on the relationship between campaign contributions and state contracts and legislation.

Our paths crossed several times in the ensuing years but converged when I came to this magazine in 2008. Larry was a trusted friend and adviser and a dedicated supporter of Illinois Issues. I have sought his counsel many times concerning matters at the magazine, and he always was able to point me in the right direction. I will miss him sorely and offer our deepest sympathies to his family and many friends.

Illinois Issues, December 2010