Monthly Archives: August 2009

The glory of nonfiction

from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s interview with James Norton for Flak Magazine

“I believe in the glory of nonfiction. I don’t believe in the hierarchy of genres that seems to prevail in the United States. Is the novel the higher calling, or is poetry the higher calling? Frankly I think nonfiction is equally great and equally profound—and often gloriously better. I’m a convert to my own genre, is the way I’d say it. You meet a lot of nonfiction writers who feel their next step ought to be to write a novel, and for a lot of them, it’s just not a good idea. The number who have actually pulled it off is actually very small.”

“My influences as a writer come out of a lifetime as a reader. It draws from all over the map. It comes from the real training I got as a Ph.D. scholar, reading 18th-century and 17th-century prose in depth. It comes really out of a love of all sorts of writers—at the moment, John McPhee and Joan Didion, essays by Richard Rodriguez, some by Annie Dillard . . . It’s a very eclectic range of influences, and they have more to do with what I hear in my ear than what I see in nature.”

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Filed under creative nonfiction, Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, journalism, NOTED, poetry, research

The power of chronological structure

Amidst a gripping account of his gig as a $90,000-a-year staff writer at The New Yorker, freelance writer Dan Baum discusses the magazine’s views on narrative nonfiction structure, as codified by a longtime articles editor there, John Bennett. In talking with Baum early in his relationship with the magazine about finding and writing a story from the Iraq war, Bennett advised him to make it a “process” story:

“ ‘It’s a New Yorker standard,’ he went on. ‘You simply deconstruct a process for the reader. John McPhee was the New Yorkermaster. It makes for a simple structure.’ ”

And Baum says Bennett advised him to use a specific structure for such an account:

“ ‘This is the New Yorker, so you can use any narrative structure you like,’ he said. ‘Just know that when I get it, I’m going to take it apart and make it all chronological.’ Telling a story in strict chronological order turned out to be a fabulous discipline. It made the story easy to write, and may be why New Yorker stories are so easy to read.

“Of course, the magazine does run everything through the deflavorizer,” Baum continues, “following Samuel Johnson’s immortal advice: ‘Read what you have written, and when you come across a passage you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’ ”

Baum said he took Bennett’s advice and followed a young soldier from his home in rural Wisconsin to his return from the Army without his right leg. See “The Casualty” among Baum’s archived articles on his web site. His inside look at what it’s like to work on staff for The New Yorker—and to get fired for being too familiar with its editor—is here.

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Filed under editing, journalism, narrative, NOTED, structure

That old fly on the wall

“Dialogue for me is the most effective and most interesting way of defining character, making it unnecessary for the writer to intrude with any song-and-dance routine of his own,” explains literary journalist Lillian Ross in Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism. “Moreover, as in a play or movie, dialogue moves the action along. That is why so many readers write to me and say that they felt, while reading a piece, that they were right there, with me.”

“A tape recorder gets in the way, too,” she goes on. “I, not the machine, must do the listening. And you must be selective Ross-Reportingin listening to the characters. If I edit the dialogue a bit to make it more truly theirs, I do it in a way that is not noticeable to the talker or to anyone else.”

Ross explains that real, back-and-forth dialogue brought to life her famous New Yorker “Portrait of Hemingway,” later published as a book. The piece caused an uproar because many readers thought Hemingway came off as an egotistical monster, and they condemned him; and because others supposed Ross had maliciously made the writer, then a battered fifty, appear a crazed blowhard. Students, I’ve found, usually like the writer as oracular bon vivant that Ross apparently intended to present. She has explained that she adored Hemingway—they were friends and corresponded—and that he found her account accurate and funny.

What I’ve seen no comment on is the irony that Ross used Hemingway’s own favored point of view: severely limited, direct-observer, third person in which the narrator lacks access to thoughts or emotions and doesn’t interpret or judge, only depicts what can be seen and heard. This “fly on the wall” viewpoint has the effect of forcing readers to stand back and analyze rather than sympathize. Without characters’ inner life or the writer’s commentary, dialogue is crucial to revelation. By careful use of details and dialogue, Hemingway could make you feel awful and sense past, or coming, horror. As it happens, so did Ross in her portrait of the writer. Had she added her own, sympathetic point of view her piece might have read less like a short story and would have made the journalist a more obvious character in it. But it wouldn’t be the same classic profile, for good or ill.

In any case, Ross used limited third-person narration rigorously in her “Portrait.” She showed and did not tell, an aesthetic principle that dovetails nicely with journalism’s ostensible focus on the subject rather than the writer. In literary journalism the existence of the writer is usually at least acknowledged, however. The paragraph below consists of Hemingway discussing my favorite passage in all of literature, the opening of A Farewell to Arms—the novel’s entire first chapter is but two amazing pages—and subtly admits Ross’s presence:

“As we walked along, Hemingway said to me, ‘I can make a landscape like Mr. Paul Cezanne. I learned how to make a landscape like Mr. Paul Cezanne by walking through the Luxembourg Museum a thousand times with an empty gut, Hemingway-Farewelland I am pretty sure that if Mr. Paul was around, he would like the way I make them and be happy that I learned it from him.’ He had learned a lot from Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach, too. ‘In the first paragraph of Farewell, I used the word and consciously over and over the way Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach used a note in music when he was emitting counterpoint. I can almost write like Mr. Johann sometimes—or anyway, so he would like it. All such people are easy to deal with, because we all know you have to learn.’”

Joan Didion called Hemingway’s heartbreakingly beautiful first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms “thrilling and mysterious,” four sentences which in their arrangement achieve a “liturgical cadence.” Hemingway’s sentences are often said to be “simple” —but they aren’t. They’re  rhythmical, with artful repetition, and their construction is varied and complex. His sentences’ weirdly powerful effect resides in this and in their words, which in contrast to the syntax that carries them are simple indeed, as plain and elemental as earth. Here’s the famous paragraph, rendered in that old fly-on-the-wall point of view; emotion arises from the details the narrator emphasizes and from the rhythm of his telling, rather than from explanation:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

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Filed under dialogue, fiction, flow, journalism, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, syntax

The sentimentality tightrope

from Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg:

“A responsibility of literature is to make people awake, present, alive. If the writer wanders, then the reader, too, will wander. The fly on the table might be part of the whole description of a restaurant. It might be appropriate to tell Goldberg-WritingBonzprecisely the sandwich that it just walked over, but there is a fine line between precision and self-indulgence.

“Stay on the side of precision; know your goal and stay present with it. If your mind and writing wander from it, bring them gently back. When we write, many avenues open up inside us. Don’t get too far afield. Stay with the details and with your direction. Don’t be self-absorbed, which eventually creates vague, muddy writing. We might really get to know the fly but forget where we are: the restaurant, the rain outside, the friend across the table. The fly is important, but it has its place. Don’t ignore the fly; don’t become obsessed with it. Irving Howe wrote in his introduction to Jewish American Stories that the best art almost becomes sentimental but doesn’t. Recognize the fly, even love it if you want, but don’t marry it.”

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Filed under craft, technique, creative nonfiction, NOTED, religion & spirituality, sentimentality, theme

Death to dingbats!

Reading an elegant memoir this week, I became annoyed with the dingbats the publisher inserted in the author’s line breaks, the white spaces he used as transitions between sections in chapters. A dingbat, in this case a set of three square blocks, is “an ornamental piece of type for borders, separators, decorations,” says Dictionary.com. That’s the third definition—the first is “an eccentric, silly, or empty-headed person” and the second is “dingus,” a “gadget, device, or object whose name is unknown or forgotten.”

Amen. The dumb things arose in the age of hot lead type, an era of imprecise technology and poor communication, to safeguard authors’ intentional white space from harried printers in the back shop. Now dingbats traduce this important authorial decision. Clearly they’ve outlived whatever usefulness they possessed, something evolution tried, like tailfins on Cadillacs, that was excessive, grew vestigial, and faded. Except of course in newspapers, where dingbats are used to insult normal readers by shouting that a mistake isn’t being made.

In short, dingbats are moronic. And yet some book publishers still reflexively put the damn things in whenever a writer hits an extra return and pauses for breath. Tradition is at work, but mindlessly, which is my real beef. Melville used only four line breaks, by my count, in all of Moby-Dick, and the novel’s printer used five bristling asterisks in each break.

With the poetic influence of lyric essays growing, even many traditional writers are using white space to set up a mere line or two—and dingbats bracketing such liminal space are grotesque. (Somehow poets survive without dingbats after every stanza.) Dingbats deface the text and the writer’s intent to use white space as a resonant pause full of meaning and implied narrative. The white space is counterpoint, the ball hanging in the clear air before the racket’s downward thwock.

I’m supportive of dingbats used to separate sections in block-style paragraph format where most white space is simply a paragraph indicator, as on this blog, and dingbats (or numerals) can telegraph a more significant transition. Like so:

*      *      *      *      *

There, my jihad against dingbats is launched. Admittedly a number of publishers already do without them. But I expect slow dingbat extirpation because design is a realm that authors are ignorant of, or which they cede, and publishers refrain from soliciting design preferences from writers.

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Filed under aesthetics, design, editing, essay-lyric, journalism, structure

Narrative in the news

Brian Spadora interviewed Norman Sims for the Poynter Center, a progressive independent journalism education foundation. Sims is a scholar of literary journalism and the occasion was the release of his latest book, True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism. Some excerpts from their discussion:

“On the journalistic roller-coaster ride of the 20th century, the major styles, such as muckraking, interpretative reporting, and even investigative journalism, did not remove the reporter from the text, but objectivity did.”

“Done right, public affairs journalism is hard work. Similarly, literary journalism requires time and careful attention. Some scholars have suggested that bringing voice and storytelling back to the newspaper in the form of narrative journalism may pay returns in a larger audience. It would be wonderful if literary journalism and public affairs reporting could contribute to the survival of the newspaper.”

“You don’t have to be John McPhee at The New Yorker to use the tools of literary journalism in newswriting. Within a larger story, a writer can embed a scene complete with setting, characters, dialogue, and action. Characterization that brings people to life can involve more than details of age, occupation, and address.”

“The risk for literary journalism has shifted from the publishers to the writers. This is a difficult time financially for all journalists. Just ask the hundreds of Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and Chicago Tribune journalists who have been laid off. I don’t fear for literary journalism, because it has natural qualities that attract good writers. I have greater concerns about the sustainability of traditional public affairs journalism.”

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Filed under journalism, narrative, NOTED