Phillip Lopate on literary nonfiction

An esteemed essayist and theorist, the editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate was interviewed in 2008 by Lania Knight for Poets & Writers Magazine, online version. I just stumbled across it, and it’s well worth reading in its entirety. Some excerpts:

Creative nonfiction is somewhat distortedly being characterized as nonfiction that reads like fiction. Why can’t nonfiction be nonfiction? Why does it have to tart itself up and be something else? I make no apologies for the essay form, for the memoir form, or for any kind of literary nonfiction. These are genres that have been around for a long time, and we don’t have to apologize for them, or act like they’re new fads when they’re not. A colleague pointed out that James Frey, in his defense, said memoir is a new genre. He said there aren’t as many rules as there were when Hemingway and Fitzgerald were writing fiction. This is total nonsense because, in fact, Hemingway and Fitzgerald both wrote nonfiction as well. Frey showed his ignorance. Nonfiction is a very old genre. Go back to The Confessions of St. Augustine. For so long, individuals have attempted to understand how one lives and what one is to make of one’s life.

There’s a kind of bestseller that’s being written now, true crime nonfiction, which is essentially told through scenes. Perhaps this goes back to Capote’s In Cold Blood, or Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, but the idea is to write a kind of narrative that makes you feel like you’re watching television, so it’s very close to a screen play. That’s okay, but I don’t see any reason to encourage graduate MFA nonfiction students all to write that way.

I am more interested in the display of consciousness on the page. The reason I read nonfiction is to follow an interesting mind. I’ll read an essayist, like E. B. White, who may write about the death of a pig one time, and racial segregation another time. Virginia Woolf may write about going on a walk to find a pencil, which seems like a very trivial subject, or about World War I, or a woman’s need for a room of her own. She has such a fascinating mind that I’m going to follow her, whatever she wants to write about. One of the ploys of the great personal essayists is to take a seemingly trivial or everyday subject and then bring interest to it.

I have no desire to pick a fight with [immersion journalist Lee] Gutkind. I’m arguing more for reflective nonfiction where thinking and the play of consciousness is the main actor.

There is a lot of great fiction that is largely reflective. Proust, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Sebald, Conrad, Samuel Beckett, on to the post-modernist people like David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker. It’s not true that fiction is always showing and not telling. That’s a distortion, a very narrow way of looking at fiction.

One objection you could make to my prescription is that it’s rather snobbish. I’m interested in intelligence and interesting minds. You could finesse a certain amount of technique, scenes, and dialogue, but it’s hard to finesse having or not having an interesting mind. I try to read writers who are better than I am, or who have deeper minds than I do because I need to learn.

Anybody who works intensively with autobiographical nonfiction realizes fairly early on that they’re going to have to make a construct, you might say a dummy. The mind produces thought after thought, and it’s incredibly random and vagrant. We need focus, and we need to pretend that we’re more coherent than we really are. This kind of writing posits a more coherent self, which is a kind of achievement—that your self has coalesced into something, however limited, more than the rest of the culture wants to allow.

The most advanced literary theory talks about the dissolution of the self and asks if there is really an author. In literary nonfiction, we cling to an old-fashioned, humanistic idea that each person is an individual, each individual has a kind of self, and that that self is cohesive. . . .

Writing a piece of nonfiction is a conscious act, it’s an artifice, however naked or transparent you want to be. You may as well accept that guilt and go at it. Roll up your sleeves and say, “Okay, I’m constructing a persona here. I want to create the appearance of total frankness, but I know that I’m being highly selective.” The selection has to do with what events or parts you choose to highlight. However, you don’t have to put everything in there. People are under the mistaken impression when they first start that if they can’t tell one secret, then they have to be reserved. You can be very unbuttoned about some things and still keep secret about many others.

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13 Comments

Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-personal, honesty, NOTED, scene, teaching, education

13 responses to “Phillip Lopate on literary nonfiction

  1. Most of the times i visit a blog I consideration that most blogs are amateurish. On the other hand,I could precisely say that you writting is decent and your website solid.

  2. richard moore

    I love these views of Philip Lopate. I found them more refreshing and illuminating than his other writing on LNF. There is an iconoclasm here that, to me, is new and even important. To say that we do not need to follow in the footsteps of Capote, who relied heavily on scenes and other literary craft techniques, is exciting. As he says, in LNF we are dealing with individual creativity, not tarted-up screen plays.

    I was also stimulated by his statement that “Writing a piece of nonfiction is a conscious act, it’s an artifice, however naked or transparent you want to be. You may as well accept that guilt and go at it. Despite this, LNF seems to promise readers that they are reading the “Truth.”

    I was curious about Mr. Lopate’s utterly reasonable focus on looking to nonfiction “to follow an interesting mind.” Curious because this is a motive for reading PE’s and formal essays, but I had not heard of this as a motive for other forms of LNF, especially memoir.

    The only real question I have is whether writing programs, and journal editors, are prepared to be as flexible—aka iconoclastic—as Mr. Lopate. I don’t feel optimistic.
    Thanks for posting this.

    • Richard, thanks. I think your caution is well placed: the market favors scenic, story-driven prose more than meditative, at least at present. But the entire nonfiction market does seem to be expanding.

  3. I really enjoyed reading these fascinating musings. I find the reference to Woolf particularly interesting. Her nonfiction (like her exquisite book reviews) to me reads like magic, but so does her fiction. From what I have read about her fiction (which I must confess has sometimes transfixed me and bemused me simultaneously), she often incorporated elements of reality from her unique perspective into her fiction. So I was wondering if we could get too hung up on classification and if we might be as well just to plunge into high quality writing of all types. In other words, if a memoir is a little hazy or selective it may not matter if inner or outer ‘truths’ resonate, just like with a great novel. Many thanks.

    • Interesting point, John. I agree with your sense that the line between fiction and nonfiction is often thin to nonexistent. Perhaps that’s one reason the laity persist in calling any book a novel and any short piece of prose a short story. Writers are sensitive to genre, but to many readers any work of prose is as creative as another—for good or ill.

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  5. Thanks for this excerpt, Richard. The last two sentences helped clear away a little fog for me on something I’ve been working on.

  6. I too like the idea of following an interesting mind. But that begs the question of what an interesting mind is. I’ll ponder that one for a while.

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  8. Hi Richard,
    What a nice surprise to come across this discussion of my interview with Phillip. He was so gracious to grant it to me–he visited the University of Missouri when I was working on my PhD in creative writing. I offered to drive Phillip to the airport (two hours), and he agreed to answering my questions in the car. I rubber-banded a digital mic to the rearview mirror and printed out a few questions to get us started, and then we went from there. I was so thankful to get this interview with him.

    Currently, I am the Nonfiction Editor at Bluestem Magazine, a print and online journal published by faculty at Eastern Illinois University. We are in desperate need of CNF for the next print issue. Please pass the word to your followers. They can submit at http://www.bluestemmagazine.com/?page_id=10.

    Thanks,
    Lania

  9. Wow. This helps me in so many ways. Thanks for this post.
    So, we can shine the light on what we think as the things that are most important while doing LNF and/or memoir writing. How liberating that is.