Category Archives: essay-narrative

Your brain on nonfiction vs. fiction

A guest post by Thomas Larson

In a recent New York Times essay, “Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul argues that “Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica” to “construct a map of other people’s intentions.” Research suggests that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.”

Narratives make us better people. I’m open to that. I do agree reading fiction is a pleasure as well as socially instructive. And, it seems, neuroscience confirms it. But why only study novel-reading and then moralize it, like eating your spinach, into preferential behavior?

There are two fallacies in Paul’s argument. First, there is no correlation between reading fiction and human compassion or intelligence. (Remember the concentration camp guards who loved Brahms?) Stating that the language of fiction helps us understand social relationships as well as we do “in life” is meaningless. People who don’t read novels are less able to judge one another? To assume that reading “enlarges” this power seems self-congratulatory to print, and sneers at oral cultures.

Second is the claim that such “improvement” is the province of the novel or story. Does that exclude nonfiction narrative? When I read Geoff Dyer’s nonfiction, does less of my wiring crackle and pop? Is such brain-lightning reserved only for the “social life” fiction supposedly portrays so well? Does my brain go all dim reading the anti-social W. G. Sebald or the graphic-nimble Errol Morris? Any good nonfiction writer (and there are thousands) who uses “leathery hands” (which is Paul’s example of a stimulating metaphoric phrase) need not have a “made up” character who has such hands in order to excite his audience. An actual person nonfictionists write about can have such hands, too.

I think it odd that a nonfiction writer (Paul is a social-science writer herself) claims this reading circuitry solely for novels, which she also calls “great literature.” We know what that means: the hearty oatmeal of Jane Austen. But how can anyone argue this, especially after the rise of memoir, collage forms, immersion journalism, and multimedia online storytelling? Nonfiction has accomplished everything fiction has in terms of narrative, description, and insight into human character. What’s more, it extends and complicates the relationship between an author and her actual (some dead, some living) human subjects, which fiction cannot do because its characters exist only in the book itself.

Neuroscientists, please add us nonfictionists to your MRI studies. If you really want to fathom what happens between the artist and the real world, you’ll find our minds are just as voltage-hot and layers deep as any other of the language arts.

Thomas Larson, a nonfictionist, is the author of The Memoir and the Memoirist [reviewed on this blog].

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Filed under essay-narrative, evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, narrative

About John D’Agata

I believe in immersion in the events of a story. I take it on faith that the truth lies in the events somewhere, and that immersion in those real events will yield glimpses of that truth. I try to hew to a narrow definition of nonfiction partly in that faith and partly out of fear.  I’m afraid that if I started making things up in a story that purported to be about real events and real people, I’d stop believing it myself. And I imagine that such a loss of conviction would infect every sentence and make each one unbelievable.—Tracy Kidder, from his essay “Making the Truth Believable”

I’m a sucker for an art-for-art’s-sake stance, but given my background in daily journalism I cannot easily accept John D’Agata’s defense of changing facts in About a Mountain as his artistic right. He says art tricks us and that he practices art, not traditional essayistic nonfiction and certainly not journalism. Apparently he calls About a Mountain a book-length lyric essay.

But to reasonable people About a Mountain presents itself as a nonfiction inquiry that melds D’Agata’s righteous probe of nuclear waste disposal with details of Las Vegas’s strangeness and an account of his and his mother’s relocation there. He increases the perception that his book is journalistic by dividing it into these chapters: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, Why, Why, Why.

That stream of screaming whys is damn good, let’s face it. And, again, it reinforces the sense that like any good reporter D’Agata is a stand-in for us. He’s a stand-up guy on a quest to get at truth.

Maybe he’s playing with a journalistic approach to rub our noses in the shallow, obtuse nature of traditional journalism that preserves the status quo even as it ostensibly attacks it. But in doing so he’s also trading on the legacy of journalistic martyrs. From 1960s Mississippi to today’s Syria, reporters have endangered their lives to file their reports. They’ve died trying to get mere facts, like how many innocents were vaporized in a bombing. They’ve struggled to place those fatalities in a larger context, tried to show a brutal pattern asserting itself. They’ve suffered to assemble meaning from random shards. To give faces to the dead, to transcend mere facts, to carry the awful truth of human tragedy into our hearts.

It bothers me, to see anyone appear to mock that.

For instance, D’Agata portrays Congress debating whether to make Yucca mountain a nuclear dump, and, as if in response, a sixteen-year-old boy makes a suicide leap off the balcony of a cheap Las Vegas hotel. In a review for The New York Times Book Review, novelist Charles Bock excoriated D’Agata for changing the date of the boy’s death to better serve his narrative (D’Agata gave the correct date in a footnote). The book indicates that D’Agata worked hard in a journalistic way, collecting data and even visiting the boy’s family, but he changed things here and there, in this instance not only the boy’s suicide date but also the fact that at least one other person in Las Vegas took his life in the same way that day.

Bock writes of D’Agata’s decision to change the date, one of the few fabrications known at that time, before D’Agata’s recent admissions in The Lifespan of a Fact:

To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites—a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.

I agree of course, and don’t see how using the boy’s actual date of death would have undercut D’Agata’s saying he emotionally associated it with another event—if that’s true and not another pose. The purpose of persona is to reflect and to reveal self and its reaction to the world, in this case Las Vegas’s and America’s damaged soul, thereby treating readers as friends or partners instead of as foes or stooges.

And besides, it just feels wrong to use that kid, poor Levi who solved his temporary problem permanently, as a narrative prop. To deny him the dignity of his choice to die on a particular day. Real journalism is far more humble than that; it says, I don’t know the significance of this fact, this date, this brand name, but maybe it will mean something to someone.

Maybe the day he chose to die meant something to Levi.

John D’Agata: a genre of one

Surely D’Agata is an outlier. But this flap has implications for how nonfiction practitioners are enculturated, especially since the rise of creative nonfiction as a popular major in English departments’ writing sequences. D’Agata himself teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa. It concerns me that kids who don’t yet know the original sin of assumptions—how hard it is to get the most basic facts right in the first place—might think they have license to make up stuff and to change facts, stubborn signifiers of objective reality.

Nonfiction has a plethora of subgenres, including reportage, literary journalism, criticism, classical essay, narrative essay, memoir, and the currently popular catch-all and mixed-bag label of creative nonfiction. Having an over-arching rule—don’t make up anything unless you tell the reader or it’s obvious—can make the genre seem lesser, since the only rule in fiction is that it work (not bore the reader). But the sonnet is the result of following rules, and fictions operate within rules the writer chose (such as the ramifications of point of view) and then had to live by.

When Lee Gutkind came up with the term creative nonfiction, I think he wanted to describe the genre’s writerly freedom to employ persona and the dramatic storytelling techniques now associated with fiction (point of view, scenes, dramatic structure). Gutkind is most famous himself for his work as an immersion journalist. Tom Wolfe, as the 1970s poster boy for the now-dated label New Journalism, famously expressed contempt for the mere essayist, calling him “the gentleman in the grandstands.” That is, someone too refined and timid to talk to people and report. Someone who misses the real story of what real people, civilians, are doing and saying and thinking because his gaze is directed equally between the oh-so-distant parade and his own fuzzy navel.

But while immersion is the hallmark of all great writing, some can produce art by immersing in themselves alone. And while Wolfe was a great reporter, personally I can tire of his persona: always aping the alleged point of view of his subculture subjects, whether Black Panthers, test pilots, or NASCAR drivers, who always sneered at the uninitiated in the same voice.

I enjoy seeing a real human put on his big boy pants, stuff a notebook in a back pocket, and wade into the impersonal world on some heroic, ennobling quest. That’s what I thought D’Agata was doing, and I admired him for it. There’s a self at work, and we see it grapple with everything that’s not-self, see its limits and its biases and its internal conflicts. But that self is trying to get the objective world right.

The master of this sort of fused essay and reportage was David Foster Wallace, and lately John Jeremiah Sullivan walks the same path. A milder master of reporter-with-persona is science and food writer Michael Pollan, who once told Nieman Narrative Digest, “Journalists often write as people who have mastered subjects and are telling you about them. That’s a real turn-off for readers. In my work I often begin as a naif. It’s a good place to start because it’s a lot closer to where your reader is. Instead of starting as someone who knows the answers, you begin as someone learning about something. That’s a good way to connect with readers.”

Restoring persona to reportage makes the process transparent and makes the reader an ally. The writer can be a blunderer who makes his fear and confusion and flaws a theme, but he cannot be an unreliable narrator, at least not in the same way that one in fiction can be. We must believe, whatever the charms of his damage, that he’s trying to get at truth through hard internal and external inquiry.

His character must stop short of being or appearing to be sociopathic.

Giving D’Agata the benefit of the doubt here—he’s so young, such a wunderkind—rather than institutionalizing him, and since he already is sequestered in academe, if I could I’d sentence him to three year’s hard labor on a small American daily.

Johnny D’Agata, cub reporter, would cover city council, two school boards, the cops, and, oh, all high school sports. Since I have magical powers here, I’d also put him under my scariest editor from my newspaper days.

It would cure John—if choleric Bill, forever seething and red-faced, didn’t strangle him first.

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, essay-personal, fiction, honesty, journalism, teaching, education

Journalism & John D’Agata

“Facts are stupid things,” said Ronald Reagan in one of his priceless gaffes. He meant to say what his speechwriter wrote, that facts are “stubborn things.”

They’re both.

D'Agata blows the whistle on himself in his new book.

Reluctantly I address the controversy that’s been raging over John D’Agata’s fictions in his nonfiction, specifically in his book About a Mountain, which deals with the federal government’s desire to entomb nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas. The topic is radioactive enough without the fallout over D’Agata’s cheerful duplicity that’s revealed in his new book, The Lifespan of a Fact, about his conflict with a fact checker over an article excerpted from About a Mountain.

I know the limitations of the “just the facts” objective journalistic style, the five Ws and the H: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How, and I believe deeply in openly subjective, personal writing. But my twelve years in daily journalism, counting a year spent as a Kiplinger fellow at Ohio State, marked me in more ways than one.

When I was in newspapers, I raged sometimes against the objectivity that cruelly constrains reporters. For instance, at most daily newspapers, then and now, news reporters put their honest perceptions in the mouths of others by asking leading questions: “Miss Councilwoman, don’t you think the mayor looked haggard tonight, facing this same issue all over again?” And she says, “The mayor is weary—we’re all weary.” That’s often how reporters get their “ledes” and get their headlines—“Mayor wearies of battle”—and how they skirt the reality that a human being—someone functioning as a writer—selected and shaped the world into words, imposed meaning. An exception is columnists, who are expected to operate at the opposite extreme, as colorful personalities or even as cranky ideologues whose screeds are untainted by reportage.

The authorial persona allowed newspaper reporters is slim to none except at the biggest and best newspapers. Which is one reason I refuse to allow newspapers to define what journalism is and does. Why not The New Yorker as a model? Some commentators now call magazine articles “essays” because of greater writerly freedom to use the self overtly; in blurring genre these folks are thereby claiming that the authors of magazine articles are writers even if they are functioning also as journalists.

They are writers, of course, but so are reporters. Yet to be a journalist is fraught; there’s so much baggage. Including the fact that the objective style can allow them to dodge responsibility for what appears under their bylines: they followed the rules. A writer’s task, like anyone’s, is to become ever more human, while a “journalist’s” is to figure out what a journalist should do. And she or he is going to fail somewhere along the line as a journalist and somewhere as a person.

I was shocked when I left daily newspapers by how self-serving some objective journalism practices appeared. I’d just finished writing a long investigative series of articles about the head of a unit at the local university, which was as big as a small city, and I then went to work for a division of that institution. The embattled leader, now technically my colleague and hanging on by her fingernails, told a visiting reporter that I’d been preparing to write something favorable about her, so the university had bought me off.

The reporter called me for a response.

“You can’t believe that,” I said. “It’s obviously nonsense. It’s crazy.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “But unless you comment it’s going to look bad for you.”

Outraged as I was, I almost laughed. I’d surely performed the same blackmail many times, I realized, and at last knew how it felt to be on the receiving end. Ostensibly I’d done it to “get both sides,” but really to get a better, juicier story, to get and to stoke even more conflict. If a reporter is any good, his allegiance is to the story more than to sources, especially if they’re not daily, bread-and-butter beat sources but those who stray into the news or who are obvious miscreants he’s beholden to bite in the ass.

And yet, for all that, the format and the flawed practices that served so-called objectivity had rough virtues.

The odd beauty of the objective style

I learned how strong a case you had to build and how you had to demonstrate it, show it, number by number, quote by quote. The rigor of it amazed. Strange, too, how slippery “facts” were: carefully gathered, when reassembled in your story they had to be checked again, as if they’d somehow altered when lifted from their original context and placed beside other information.

And I believed in the crusading aspect of American journalism. There’s a long tradition of “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted,” as they say. Good newspapers reek with the desire to uncover and expose wrongdoing. As a reporter, I tried to live up to that ideal. Who else could take on politicians, bureaucrats, and corporations? Who else was supposed to? The aggression unsuited my temperament, but I was good at, and it was my job. That’s what I got paid for, won awards for.

This role of being a feedback loop to society contributes to the reduced use of persona, a restraint that bleeds even into the feature pages. The most painful lesson a young reporter learns—only by making mistakes and having to write corrections and to deal with angry readers—is how hard it is to get basic facts right. One reason is that reporters often aren’t deeply familiar with what they’re writing about. A related but deeper reason is that humans operate daily on assumptions: the downtown will not shift locations, the lover will remain true, the sun will rise in the east. But in writing, which confidently proclaims “the way it is,” natural assumptions lead to errors.

Two plus two, strangely, no longer equals four. As the old newsroom quip goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

I left daily journalism because I wanted to do longer, deeper, and much more personal work. But, as I say, I internalized some rules. Like get the basic facts right, even if—praise God!—you’re going to function as a writer in the larger sense and reveal your perspective, even your biases. I go weak with admiration when a magazine journalist reveals her passionate beliefs, even her agenda, maybe her own relevant flaws, and yet is fair to the ugly opposition.

Next: John D’Agata’s genre of one

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-narrative, honesty, journalism, teaching, education

‘Our Secret’ by Susan Griffin

Often I have looked back into my past with a new insight only to find that some old, hardly recollected feeling fits into a larger pattern of meaning.—“Our Secret”

Susan Griffin’s long essay, a chapter in her book A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, is about the hidden shame and pain humans carry and their consequences. It is an astonishing essay, a meditation on the soul-destroying price of conforming to false selves that have been brutalized by others, mentally or physically or both, or by themselves in committing acts of violence and emotional cruelty.

As an essay, it shows the power of a writer’s voice—the scenes are few and spare in its forty-eight pages—but it’s mesmerizing. “Our Secret” has joined my pantheon of all-time great essays,  along with Jonathan Lethem’s “The Beards,” Eudora Welty’s “The Little Store,” and James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.” Despite its innovative braided structure, Griffin’s essay is much like Baldwin’s in being a rather classical reflective essay, though Baldwin’s essay’s spine employs a more traditional framed structure (opening and closing in essentially the same scene). Somehow Griffin achieves narrative drive with her segmented approach, perhaps because of her interesting juxtapositions, intense focus, and the quiet power of her language as her family’s own story unfolds alongside those of war criminals and victims.

“Our Secret” is a hybrid of memoir, history, and journalism, and is built with these discrete strands: the Holocaust; women affected by World War II directly or indirectly in their treatment by husbands and fathers; the harsh, repressive boyhood of Heinrich Himmler, who grew up to command Nazi rocketry and became the key architect of Jewish genocide; the testimony of a man scarred by war; and Griffin’s own desperately unhappy family life and harsh, repressed girlhood. In between these chunks are short italic passages of just a few sentences on cell biology—for instance, how the shell around the nucleus of the cell allows only some substances to pass through—and on the development of guided missiles in Germany and, later, by many of the same scientists, in the United States, where nuclear warheads were added and the ICBM created.

Griffin returns often to the thread of Himmler’s life, going back to his boyhood diary, a recording of times and trivial events, that his father Gebhard, a schoolmaster, required him to keep. Griffin reflects on her own life in relation to Himmler’s:

I was born in 1943, in the midst of this war. And I sense now that my life is still bound up with the lives of those who lived and died in this time. Even with Heinrich Himmler. All the details of his existence, his birth, childhood, adult years, death, still resonate here on earth. . . .

In the past few years I have been searching, though for what precisely I cannot say. Something still hidden which lies in the direction of Heinrich Himmler’s life. I have been to Berlin and Munich on this search, and I have walked over the gravel at Dachau. Now as I sit here I read once again the fragments from Heinrich’s boyhood diary that exist in English. I have begun to think of these words as ciphers. Repeat them to myself, hoping to find a door into the mind of this man, even as his character first forms so that I might learn how it is he becomes himself.

It is not easy. The earliest entries in the diary betray so little. Like the words of a schoolboy commanded to write what the teacher requires of him, they are wooden and stiff. The stamp of his father’s character is so heavy on this language that I catch not even the breath of a self here. It is easy to see how this would be true. One simply has to imagine Gebhard standing behind Heinrich and tapping his foot.

Griffin comments on the ordinary “mask” Himmler’s parents usually wore in photographs, like anyone—the father kindly, even. But this contrasts with the advice of German childrearing experts at the time that parents should crush the child’s will, dominate and suppress him. Braces and straps were used to correct posture while standing and sitting, and to prevent masturbation. “The child, Dr. Schreber advised, should be permeated by the impossibility of locking something in his heart.

Of course there cannot be one answer to such a monumental riddle, nor does any event in history have a single cause. Rather a field exists, like a field of gravity that is created by the movements of many bodies. Each life is influenced and it in turn becomes an influence. Whatever is a cause is also an effect. Childhood experience is just one element in the determining field.

As a man who made history, Heinrich Himmler shaped many childhoods, including, in the most subtle of ways, my own. And an earlier history, a history of governments, of wars, of social customs, an idea of gender, the history of a religion leading to the idea of original sin, shaped Heinrich Himmler’s childhood as certainly as any philosophy of child raising. One can take for instance any formative condition of his private life, the fact that he was a frail child, for example, favored by his mother, who could not meet masculine standards, and show that his circumstance derived its real meaning from a larger social system that gave inordinate significance to masculinity.

Yet to enter history through childhood experience shifts one’s perspective not away from history but instead to an earlier time just before history has finally shaped us. Is there a child who existed before the conventional history that we tell of ourselves, one who, though invisible to us, still shapes events, even through this absence?

In this I recall a cast-off thought: what was I like before relationships and opinions hardened, my own and others’, and took irreversible and unchangeable form? Griffin, on the track of Himmler’s soul that was lost in boyhood, buried under a rage turned inward as much as outward, speaks to a rabbi in Berlin who appears to have lost his faith. Yet here in this somber essay there’s a shard of hope: “Still, despite his answer, and as much as the holocaust made a terrible argument for the death of the spirit, talking in that small study with this man, I could feel from him the light of something surviving.”

Himmler’s stilted diaries remind Griffin of life in her grandmother’s home, where she was sent at age six when her parents divorced. She says, with chilling simplicity, “We were not comfortable with ourselves as a family. There was a great shared suffering, and yet we never wept together, except for my mother, who would alternately weep and rage when she was drunk. Together, under my grandmother’s tutelage, we kept up appearances. Her effort was ceaseless.” In particular, her grandmother worked to reshape Griffin. Grammar. Manners. Memorization. Drill.

The Griffin family was terrified, like Himmler’s, that its modest origins would be discovered, and had managed to forget one side’s Jewish roots. Just so, young Heinrich was taught to befriend boys whose fathers held prestigious jobs; he was taught to be punctilious in manner and increasingly harsh.

Griffin reflects on how boys are shaped into men:

Most men can remember a time in their lives when they were not so different from girls, and they also remember when that time ended. In ancient Greece, a young boy lived with his mother, practicing a feminine life in her household, until they day he was taken from her into to the camp of men. From this day forward the life that had been soft and graceful became rigorous and hard, as the older boy was prepared for the life of a soldier.

Researching her book in Paris, Griffin meets a woman, Helene, who survived one of Himmler’s death camps. She’d been turned in by another Jew and tracked down using a net of information—a system tracing back to Himmler’s boyhood diaries—collected on cards and sent to the Gestapo for duplication and filing, the work of countless men and women. “One can trace every death to an order signed by Himmler,” writes Griffin, “yet these arrests could never have taken place on such a massive scale without this vast system of information. What did they think, those who were enlisted for this work?”

She leaps ahead: “The men and women who manufacture the trigger mechanisms for nuclear bombs do not tell themselves they are making weapons. They say simply that they are metal forgers.”

Many learn this ability in childhood, to become strangers to themselves, she points out. And outwardly the Nazi mechanism of death was cloaked in legality: “These crimes, these murders of millions, were all carried out in absentia, as if by no one in particular.” Others inflict more directly upon others the suffering they have endured. Leo, a Russian refugee, brutalized in a German prison in World War II, made his way to America. In high school, he and his friends decoyed and beat up gay men for sport. Later he was drafted for the Korean War and assigned to interrogate Russian prisoners.

He was given two men to question. With the first man he made every kind of threat. But he carried nothing out. The man was resolutely silent. And Leo learned nothing from him. He left the room with all his secrets. You can never, Leo told me later, let any man get the better of you. With the second man he was determined not to fail. He would get him to tell whatever he knew. He made the same threats again, and again met silence. Then, suddenly, using his thumb and finger, he put out the man’s eye. And as the man was screaming and bleeding, he told him he would die one way or the other. He was going to be shot. But he had the choice now of seeing his executioners or not, of dying in agony or not. And then the man told him his secrets.

Sharing his sins, Leo does not break down until he tells Griffin of how, after the war, he killed an innocent black man with the butt of a pistol. Looking into the man’s broken face, Leo sees “he’s just like me.” Griffin breaks down as she finds the core of her own rage, her memory at eight years old of the injustice of a punishment by her grandmother. In her desire to make the woman feel the same pain, her imagination takes over: “I am forcing her to feel what I feel. I am forcing her to know me. And as I strike her, blow after blow, a shudder of weeping is released in me, and I become utterly myself, the weeping in me becoming rage, the rage turning to tears, all the time my heart beating, all the time uttering a soundless, bitter, passionate cry, a cry of vengeance and of love.”

This powerful, inspiring essay lingers in the mind.  “Our Secret” took courage to write, and it bravely asks a reader to consider unpleasant subjects and to slow down. Slowly it teaches one how to read it and begin to appreciate its many layers, its juxtapositions, its depths.

I’m grateful to my blogging friend Paulette Bates Alden for giving me a copy of “Our Secret” while trying to help me with one of my essays. Googling Griffin’s name and the essay’s title reveals a cottage industry among writing teachers and students. I sampled a few student reactions to “Our Secret” and was impressed by their insights; though there are many essay services that supply slacking students with interpretations, I like to think the ones I read were original.

I found a full text of the essay (at: learning.writing101.net/wp-content/readings/griffin_our_secret.pdf ) that a teacher uploaded (often you can find these by googling the author’s name and the essay’s title and “pdf”); and I also bought her book.

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Filed under braids, threads, emotion, essay-classical, essay-expository, essay-narrative, essay-personal, evolutionary psychology, NOTED, teaching, education

What’s an essay, what’s journalism?

“From journalism to the essay to the memoir: the trip being taken by a nonfiction persona deepens, and turns ever more inward.”

—Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story

Over thirty years ago, in the heyday of the New Journalism, Tom Wolfe enumerated the techniques, associated with fiction, that can make journalism equally absorbing. He repeated his precepts recently in an essay, “The Emotional Core of the Story,” collected in the excellent 2007 textbook Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call. I’ve used this book in journalism feature writing classes, along with Zeitoun by Dave Eggers and sometimes The John McPhee Reader.

There are, Wolfe repeats in the book, “exactly four” techniques the successful narrative journalist needs to employ:

 Scenes: Present the narrative in a series of scenes and use “ordinary historical narration” as little as possible.

Dialogue: Quote copious verbal interplay among characters. Dialogue is the easiest prose to read “and the quickest to reveal character.”

Details: The careful use of details that reveal “one’s rank or aspirations, everything from dress and furniture to . . . speech, how one talks to the strong, to the weak, to the sophisticated, to the naïve . . .”

POV: Point of view that puts the reader “inside the mind of someone other than the writer.”

“Journalists no longer argue about the New Journalism—I mean, how many decades can you keep arguing about something that calls itself ‘new’?” Wolfe writes. “Instead, a new generation of journalists, writing books and magazine articles, have simply appropriated the techniques however they please and are turning out brilliant work—in fact, the best of contemporary American literature, taken as a whole. I could mention more names, but consider just these two and you will know what I mean immediately: Michael Lewis and Mark Bowden.”

Grandpappy Wolfe has taken a lot of credit here, deservedly so, and yet one begins to wonder if he totally missed the latest posse of literary journalists following in the tracks of the late David Foster Wallace. But Wolfe goes on:

To this day newspaper editors resist the idea, but they desperately need their reporters to adopt the Lewis and Bowden approach. It is not that it produces pretty writing—though indeed it does. They need such reporters and writers to provide the emotional reality of the news, for it is the emotions, not the facts, that most engage and excite readers and in the end are the heart of most stories. . . .

. . . [E]very newspaper editor in the United States is asking, “How can this newspaper be saved?” They should be asking, how can we get to the emotional heart of our stories? Yet only a few newspaper editors are considering any such thing—not knowing that it is the question of the hour, and that this is the eleventh hour.

Criticizing newspaper editors is good mean fun, and I agree about emotion, but I find Wolfe’s principles incomplete. It seems the best essays do so much more than present scenes, dialogue, details, and someone else’s point of view—and so do magazine articles, which some people are now labeling essays if they’re successfully personal. For instance, in the New Yorker recently (December 19 & 25, 2011) critic James Woods reviews John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection Pulphead, made of pieces that sprang from GQ assignments (and available there on line) and gigs for other magazines, and calls them “essays.”

Woods does this, strangely in my view, by comparing Sullivan’s work to fiction while attacking both the “perceived conservatism” of contemporary short stories and the flaws of Sullivan’s putative nonfiction storytelling model, Mr. Wallace. For example:

Sullivan . . . has been compared to Tom Wolfe and David Foster Wallace. But he is kinder than the former, and less neurotic than the latter (whose own compassionate sensitivity got blocked by obsessive self-consciousness, or, when unblocked, sometimes emerged as outright sentimentality).

Amen on the big bad Wolfe, James, but nice drive-by on DFW. I suppose Wallace has reached Parnassus, so that criticism can be levied without citing evidence: “If you don’t know WTF I am talking about, it is because you are not well read.” For me, Wallace’s magazine journalism is superior to Wolfe’s because he is warmer while also having more interesting and less political observations, flowing from the fact that he has at least ten IQ points on Wolfe. On Wolfe! Imagine that. Is it possible? The hell of it is that DFW really was smarter than almost anyone.

But, unlike Wolfe, Wallace didn’t present himself as a Master of the Universe; he didn’t ape the halt and lame, though he did have sport with them—and with himself, too. He exposed himself in his reportage in a way Wolfe would never do and never did. Thus Woods dubs him an essayist, while sidestepping labeling Wolfe. Maybe because Wolfe didn’t reveal himself, but appropriated others’ supposed points of view, he’s more obviously and only a journalist.

Woods joins Geoff Dyer, author of Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence (and Dyer’s unmentioned fanboy David Shields), in expressing weariness at the techniques that the bright-eyed Wolfe dragged back into the foul cave of journalism:

One knows exactly what Dyer means by novelization—it’s the clanking train of novelistic grammar (the plots, the formulas, the scenes, the “conflict,” the dialogue, the so-called “telling details.” Roland Barthes spent a lifetime subtly exposing the artifice of this artifice; sometimes he just called it “Fiction,” as if indicating the entire monstrous novelizing urge. . . .

So the contemporary essay is often to be seen engaged in acts of apparent anti-novelization: in place of plot, there is drift, or the fracture of numbered paragraphs; in place of a frozen verisimilitude, there may be a sly and knowing movement between reality and fictionality; in place of the impersonal author of standard-issue third-person realism, the authorial self pops in and out of the picture, with a liberty hard to pull off in fiction.

Where does this contempt—for fiction on the one hand, traditional journalism on the other—lead?

There’s a huge flap going on right now over John D’Agata’s fabrications in his “lyric essays,” presented in the form of journalism, that alter facts (the day of a boy’s suicide, verifiable numbers recast for better “rhythm”). (Laura Miller’s Salon take is here.) D’Agata seems to have set himself up as the Andy Kaufman of nonfiction: he’s smarter than everyone, and is putting all of us on.

Is D’Agata an outlier who’ll help us find the center? We used to know what we thought journalism was. Apparently, when we weren’t looking, it mated with the essay. And to boot, it seems we’re running out of ways to label nonfiction’s messy genres. Woods has tried to clarify things momentarily, at least for himself, but there’ll be another furious mashup soon that causes everyone to scratch their heads.

At least we’ve lived to see Tom Wolfe, journalism’s three-piece radical, become the fuddy duddy he really always was. I still like his four rules, as far as they go, but it’s interesting that he left out the journalist-as-writer—which is to say, as human being—from his decoction of prose verities. Wolfe’s journalist was a smirking chameleon. DFW’s work restored a moral dimension to personal magazine journalism; he stood before us with a persona seemingly closer to his naked human—and therefore wounded—self. D’Agata, a child prodigy, flaunts his contempt for his audience’s lumpenprole expectations, and stands utterly alone.

John McPhee, who never considered himself a New Journalist, meanwhile keeps writing his personally astringent and intricately structured “essays” or “articles” or “stories” or “pieces”—whatever he or his magazine, The New Yorker, calls them—in his eighth decade. I think both sides still claim him.

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Filed under emotion, essay-narrative, honesty, journalism, modernism/postmodernism, scene, teaching, education

Undercurrents in narrative essays

There is a wonderful freedom in the essay, a rare permission to follow one’s curiosity wherever it may lead. But with this freedom comes the challenge of how to insure coherent movement and interest for the reader.”—Dinty W. Moore, Crafting the Personal Essay

I admit, I told a class last semester, that we read stories for various reasons, including intrinsic interest. “If you score an interview with Barack Obama,” I said, “you can lean pretty heavily on that. But otherwise, stories that grip us involve some tension—a conflict or question.” How to get this across to students—and to myself—keeps me occupied. And it devils me when I receive a student’s personal narrative that lacks any urgency or even movement. Or when I churn out one myself.

Such flat writing flunks the “So What?” test. Bruce Ballenger writes in Crafting Truth: Short Studies in Creative Nonfiction, “The simple question, What is going to happen next? is triggered by the tension between what readers know and what they want to know. This is the most familiar dramatic tension in storytelling.”

Of course, Ballenger adds, withholding information can seem manipulative, since readers know that the writer knows the outcome. Narrative alone isn’t enough: “Ultimately the work has to answer a simple question: So what? Or as Philip Gerard suggested, What is at stake here? Why might this story matter to the reader? What is at stake for the writer or the characters? Is there a larger truth that will somehow matter?”

Questions or mysteries drive effective writing more than a mere narrative of events. E.M. Forster puts it this way in Aspects of the Novel: “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” And a plot with a mystery in it is “a form capable of high development,” Forster adds: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.”

Tension arises as a work tries to answer such mysteries, though in nonfiction at least I think the reader must be persuaded that the writer herself is on a voyage of discovery, trying to solve a riddle that perhaps can’t be solved, or at least not neatly. Ballenger says, “Fundamentally, every essay, memoir, or piece of literary journalism must seem purposeful.  . . . Usually, purpose is signaled early in the work—the first few paragraphs of a short essay, the first page or two in a longer one, or perhaps an early chapter in a memoir. This destination must seem appealing, and tension is key.”

Ballenger says tension is an “exercise in defying readers’ expectations” and can be achieved four ways:

• drama: will the story unfold in the way expected;

• emotion: the gap between what readers expect the writer will feel and what she does feel;

• thematically: an unusual idea or viewpoint;

• and through language: a surprising or pleasing way of expression.

Tension can be enhanced through structure, and Ballenger lists these ways:

• Withholding information (again, risky if readers feel manipulated);

• Playing with time: the past and present used together raise questions: why did that happen? what’s the full story? what are the links between then and now?

• Juxtaposition: placement can raise questions about relationships

• Questions: readers want answers raised by the material itself or the writer.

In “How Structure Creates a Sense of Movement in Non-Narrative Essays”—one of many great concise essays on craft at the Hunger Mountain Review web site—Allison Vrbova discusses how traditional meditative and contemporary lyric essays work. But to do so she must first explain how storytelling essays work. They have, she says, “a horizontal, time-driven trajectory” but also include a “second direction of movement” that writer Eileen Pollack calls the “central question.” Vrbova quotes Pollack:

As the writer holds up his question to the narrative while moving along in time, the friction between the question and the scene (or even a single detail) throws up meditative sparks.

Vrbova picks this up: “Throughout most of a narrative essay, this central question is a hidden undercurrent pulsing just below the surface. Only periodically does the narrative diverge from its horizontal path to plunge vertically toward this undercurrent. With each successive plunge, the central question is tested and revised. The narrative line works in sync with the undercurrent, propelling the central question further along.”

Vrbova says a non-narrative essay, meditative or lyric, “dives over and over again into an image or idea.” A great meditative example of this, she says, and I agree, is Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels,” much anthologized and available full-text on the web with a little searching. Another good example, of a more lyric effort, is Lia Purpura’s Pushcart-winner “Glaciology,” at Agni online. And Vrbova recommends as well Eula Biss’s celebrated Seneca Review essay “The Pain Scale,” a somewhat condensed Harper’s Magazine version of which is available as a PDF on about the third page of a Google search.

Meditative or lyric essays, Vrbova says, rely “on the accumulation and juxtaposition of often-disparate images” to impart a sense of movement.” I’d argue that that isn’t much different from what is propelling intrigued readers through all narratives: a desire to find out what happens and to share, with the writer, a significant experience in which something is unresolved and at stake.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-classical, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, fiction, memoir, teaching, education

Welty on what’s ‘greater than scene’


A version of this post first appeared on August 31, 2008.

Eudora Welty’s essay “The Little Store” takes us with her, as a child, to a neighborhood grocery, what we’d call a convenience store today. It’s a story about the lost world of childhood and it captures turn-of-the-century Jackson, Mississippi. All she conveys is suffused with meaning for her, but Welty avoids sentimentality by showing  instead of telling readers what to feel. The store’s realm is one of children on errands and of a kindly grocer who waits for them to “make up their minds.” But Welty steadily pours vinegar into the essay’s nostalgic soup until, by the end, we’re horrified with her by the violent, mysterious fate of the shopkeepers.

I like to assign this essay to students every year or two, so I can reread it, one of America’s greatest essays—or at least one of my favorites. Early on are a series of remarkable paragraphs full of tactile and sensory detail that bring to life the store, the children, and the grocer. Here’s the first:

Running in out of the sun, you met what seemed total obscurity inside. There were almost tangible smells—licorice recently sucked in a child’s cheek, dill-pickle brine that had leaked through a paper sack in a fresh trail across the wooden floor, ammonia-loaded ice that had been hoisted from wet croker sacks and slammed into the icebox with its sweet butter at the door, and perhaps the smell of still-untrapped mice.

Early on, too—just before the essay’s only emphasizing line break—are these foreshadowing lines:

Setting out in this world, the child feels so indelible. He only comes to find out later that it’s all the others along his way who are making themselves indelible to him.

II.

One day on the store’s stoop little Eudora encounters an organ grinder and his monkey, exotic and jarring presences. Here, in the essay’s only true scene—the rest is artful, visual summary—they break the illusion of normalcy. But they’re quickly fused in her mind with the benign store—as are all the objects and people and activities on her store trips connected—and with the adventure of going there.

Except she didn’t think the store had a life of its own. And she never wondered about those who owned the store and lived above it, though she was steeped in the changing stories of everyone else in her neighborhood.

People changed through the arithmetic of birth, marriage and death, but not by going away. So families accrued stories, which through the fullness of time, in those times, their own lives made. And I grew up in those.

But I didn’t know there’d ever been a story at the Little Store, one that was going on while I was there.

The patient storekeeper and his shadowy helper (his wife, his sister, his mother?) wore black eyeshades, Welty realizes in hindsight: “It may be harder to recognize kindness—or unkindness, either—in a face whose eyes are in shadow.” The wallop soon comes as the essay, her innocent girlhood, and the store end together in terror and mystery and violence and people “who simply vanished.”

We weren’t being sent to the neighborhood grocery for facts of life, or death. But of course those are what we were on the track of, anyway. With the loaf of bread and the Cracker Jack prize, I was bringing home the intimations of pride and disgrace, and rumors and early news of people coming to hurt one another, while others practiced for joy—storing up a portion for myself of the human mystery.

The climax’s impact is felt and lingers because the preceding narrative has prepared us to comprehend the enormity of the loss.

Welty (1909–2001) sent me with this haunting little essay to One Writer’s Beginnings, a memoir of her sensibility growing within the gift of her stable, happy family. She makes clear that what impelled her work was the love inculcated there. Not that her future spared her, as artist or woman, her allotment of human pain.

Discussing one of her short stories, about a girl who learns in painting to frame scenes with her hands, only to see unwelcome reality thereby intrude upon her inner dream of love, Welty writes, affirming the mystery that seems her work’s motif:

The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.

(“The Little Store” is available in a paperback collection, The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews, and is included in the Library of America’s Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays & Memoir.)

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Filed under essay-narrative, implication, memoir, NOTED, scene