Category Archives: modernism/postmodernism

Reading Rilke again at Eastertide

Spirituality, authenticity & Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Sunrise, Double x

A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.

Letters to a Young Poet

As a broody kid, growing up in a Florida beach town and grieving my family’s exodus from our farm in Georgia, I found a library book by a guy about his hobby farm. I loved it, probably sensing how both my father’s and my own loss might be redeemed. I shared it with Dad. When I asked him what he thought he said, “I think he wanted to write a book.” Nothing else—Dad was always as concise as a telegram—but I grasped the devastating judgment in his unsparing remark.

Rilke cover

Writers trying to wrest from their guts that necessary, handmade, human thing called art, which involves (among other things) seeking to see more clearly their lives and those of their fellow humans, might enjoy Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a slender book, some forty pages, with many admirers and much resonance. Rilke was only twenty-seven, already becoming famous in Germany as a lyric poet, when in 1903 a boy in a military school wrote to him for advice. Rilke had spent five miserable years himself in the same school. His precepts, delivered over an eight-year period, float free of whatever experience or thought process produced them. Yet his judgments feel no less true for lacking explanation.

That’s for you to fill in—you with your private inner inquiry into gender, artistic authenticity, human nature, spirituality, and the concept and definition of what might be termed God.

A key Rilke passage:

Perhaps there is over everything a great motherhood, as a common longing. The loveliness of the virgin . . . is motherhood foreboding and preparing itself, uneasy and yearning. And the mother’s beauty is serving motherhood, and in the old woman there is a great memory. And in the man too there is motherhood, it seems to me, physical and spiritual; his begetting is also a kind of birth-giving, and it is birth-giving when he creates out of his innermost fullness. And perhaps the sexes are more akin than we suppose, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maiden, freed from all false feelings and perversions, will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will unite as human beings to bear in common, simply, seriously and patiently, the heavy sex that has been laid upon them.

This is strikingly reminiscent to me of Virginia Woolf’s notion of artistic androgyny with which she concludes A Room of One’s Own, and Rilke’s ideas elsewhere mirror her concept in her essay “Moments of Being” of authentic presence. Everywhere he confirms, completes, and foreshadows manifold later spiritual insights. It appears, for instance, that another German mystic, Eckhart Tolle, owes Rilke a great debt, especially in Tolle’s profound spiritual synthesis A New Earth.

Like Tolle, Rilke advises inner communion instead of identification with ego and form: “What is needed is, in the end, simply this: solitude. Going into yourself and meeting no one for hours on end,—that is what you must be able to attain. To be alone, as you were alone in childhood, when the grown-ups were going about, involved with things which seemed important and great, because the great ones looked so busy and because you grasped nothing of their business.”

Unlike Tolle, he refers directly to God, though only twice and in a most contemporary and Tolle-like way. For Rilke, God appears to arise not from knowledge or even from faith but from intimations from the lost realm of childhood:

And if it dismays and torments you to think of childhood and the simplicity and stillness that goes with it, because you can no longer believe in God who is to be met with everywhere there, ask yourself . . . whether you have after all really lost God? Is it not much rather the case that you have never yet possessed him?

Rilke touches upon the adult task of defining God for yourself:

As bees collect honey, so we take what is sweetest out of everything and build Him.

Of course Rilke wrote to a presumed believer in a time of presumed belief. The important ideas of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud were afoot but hadn’t yet crushed humans’ self-confidence. Nor had we yet put ourselves through two world wars and the Holocaust. After all that, unbelief and hostility to God and religion—and a pervasive doubt about our own species’ worth—became understandable. I have friends and family members across the spectrum, from those who become enraged at the mere mention of “God” or “religion” to those who dispense Jesus’ name like iodized salt. Just more evidence of humans’ long struggle against their own riven nature: a violent simian substrate; a gentler group mind from a long and at times Edenic evolution among extinct human-like ancestors; and greedy individual egos that arrived with the emergence of our shiny, anxious, hypersexual new species only 200,000 years ago.

Humanity’s puzzle and core dilemma—What does it mean to be human?—Rilke touches upon directly or by implication everywhere in Letters to a Young Poet as he works out for himself and for his acolyte his answers. This is all we can ask of any writer, his sincere testimony, expression seemingly driven by some personal necessity—for Rilke, necessity being art’s acid test. We crave the authenticity concentrated in the fruit of someone’s honest emergency. Oh, the struggle by writers to make something authentic from the necessity that impels them!

And the world’s listeners still draw near to lovely songs, like Rilke’s, that seem true.

///

Austin Kleon has an excellent blog post about the more writerly aspects of Letters to a Young Poet. 

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Filed under essay-expository, honesty, modernism/postmodernism, MY LIFE, NOTED, religion & spirituality, teaching, education

Whither the postmodern memoir?

Moby Dick Kabob x

 

Beyond ‘crazy shit’ content: stories that intrigue, inform, illuminate.

 I want to believe we can think of memoir in terms of the author’s personal connection to the ideas in the book; that the form, at its best, can use personal experience to gather up the distinct threads of a book and bring them together into a narrative of thought that is more compelling and nuanced than a simple summary of the crazy shit that happened. Perhaps memoir can be about a place, a state, or about an entire generation and less about trafficking in humiliation or confessing some pain, loss, or sorrow.

—Steven Church

It’s probably inevitable, having written a traditional memoir myself, that I’d become smitten with nontraditional forms. Or taken at least with the idea of experimental memoirs, which offer the hope that they can truthfully reflect contemporary life. The risk, of course, is that by abandoning a chain of dramatic past events as narrative propulsion, they bore or anger readers. Postmodernism implies confusion and fracture, not a clean narrative line.

Shards of culture & life united.

Shards of culture & life threads united.

Which isn’t exactly what Steven Church argues for—he seems after a realistically sideways and nuanced approach—in “On the ‘Stealth Memoir’ and the Confessional Expectation,” a recent post at his site My Atomic Angst. Church, author most recently of The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst, addresses how the memoir “might accomplish some of the aims of memoir while focusing on subjects outside the self or by using different forms and styles.”

As he puts it in explaining his new book:

   OK, so the book is about the nuclear fear I felt growing up in Kansas in the 70’s and 80’s and how the made-for-TV post-apocalyptic movie, The Day After (set and filmed in my hometown of Lawrence, KS) brought these fears home in more ways than one. It’s also about the violent, apocalyptic history of Lawrence and of Kansas, culminating with a 2007 F-5 tornado that destroyed my father’s hometown of Greensburg in southwest Kansas. It’s also about the movie itself and the lasting cultural resonance of a film that even the director, Nicholas Meyer told me he didn’t consider art but instead a giant “public service announcement,” a video essay of sorts that at the time garnered the 2nd highest Nielson rating in history. And finally, the book is about the seemingly sudden and apocalyptic implosion of my parents’ marriage. The book uses a variety of forms and styles, from outright fiction and fabrication to more straightforward journalistic interview, memoir and film criticism.

Okay, sounds pretty postmodern. In the best sense: layered, formally complex and experimental, discursive, genre blurring. Church says one of his challenges in writing this book was that his own experience with the movie, other than as a scared watcher, was limited. His parents’ divorce likewise was only one thread—and, again, he didn’t have great material there (narratively speaking) but, instead, in real life, gained a happier mother.

He desperately wanted to avoid having his publisher label his book a memoir:

I begged, in fact, during production, that it not say “memoir” in the title or subtitle. I didn’t want it to be reduced to that one word label, perhaps because for the last few years, especially at conferences like the AWP conference, the “memoir” tag has been like the herpes of genre labels; but more importantly than labels, I wanted the book to behave differently than a traditional memoir. I wanted it to be something more like a book-length braided personal essay with fictional and journalistic elements. . . .

I tell myself and my students that it’s often better to begin by looking away from the personal, by starting not with confession but curiosity. I did this with my book because I believed it would make it a better book and because I knew the material was there anyway, fueling much of what I was writing about. You don’t have to see the engine to know it’s running. But whether I wanted to write about it or not divorce was a big part of 80’s culture. It was one kind of apocalypse that defined those years—the end of one reality and the beginning of a new, somewhat alien world; and as such it made a good literary device. I also tell my students that their responsibility as a nonfiction writer is to be an ethical and efficient parasite. If you’re going to use the personal, the confessional to explore some larger ideas, your responsibility is to do it for very good reasons and to do it well, with the minimum amount of collateral damage. In the 80’s divorces were as hot as parachute pants, Def Leppard, and post-apocalyptic fantasy.

Ironically, he says a memoiristic thread late in the book—helping his father and aunt clean up after that apocalyptic tornado—brings the threads in his story together.

• • •

Some recommended postmodern memoirs

A lighthearted & clever approach to memoir.

A lighthearted & clever approach to memoir.

Steven Church’s stimulating essay led me in a roundabout way to Hugh Ryan’s take on the postmodern memoir for Associated Writing Programs. Ryan shows he knows what he’s talking about in his first paragraph:

As the literary descendent of biography and journalism, it is no wonder that memoir (as a genre), has a rocky relationship with the truth. Like the artistic child born to scientific parents, it defies expectations. On the one hand, it is reportage, expected to convey facts; on the other, it is art, expected to reinvent the world.

Quite simply but ambitiously he asks whether it is “possible for writers who perceive the world as a collection of competing truths, where the ‘real’ answer may never be known, to honestly write a work of nonfiction? And if so, what would it look like?” He observes that writers who cut their teeth as readers on the great modernists, from James Joyce to Joseph Heller—and, I’d add, raised in a fractured, mediated world—are still trying to answer that question.

Ryan explains:

As the children raised in this chaotic literary moment begin to write their memoirs, it is not surprising that they are looking to recreate this sense of confusion. For these authors, it is not enough to assume that readers acknowledge the unknowability of objective fact. They are consciously creating books in which the unreliable narrator is themselves. They are not trying to report on their lives from the outside, but rather, to replicate for the reader the experience of living them.

Like the original postmodernists, they are interested in exploring those areas where the metanarrative of truth is at best useless, and at worst, stands in the way of actual comprehension. By highlighting their own bias and doubt, they are presenting a more honest depiction of life. Furthermore, while they diminish the trust of the reader in the author-as-narrator, they strengthen the reader’s trust in the author-as-writer: in a genre rocked by scandal, the writer who admits her own faults seems more reliable than the writer who presents herself as perfect. This is a dangerous line to walk, and the writer who goes too far stands the chance of losing all authority and being disregarded.

He gives these examples of postmodern memoirs, recommended by implication:

Wickersham Memoir

• Joan Wickersham’s second-person The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order, an annotation on a larger story, was widely raved, including by Publishers Weekly;

DJ Waldie’s celebrated Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, a third-person “story of alienation so profound it almost prevents him from writing his own life”;

• Ann Marlowe’s How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z, structured as a dictionary,not chronological, but it does follow an internal order separate from the arbitrary progression of the alphabet . . . [H]er nonlinear structure is an effort to call her own story into question”;

• Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, like the previous arranged alphabetically, it’s “filled with charts and illustrations, making for a more playful text,” an anti-memoir that “consciously avoids the neat linearity of most nonfiction”;

Flynn Memoir

• Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City grapples with the fiction of easy facts, even turning part of it into a surrealist play, the obviously fictional move reflecting his own uncertain experience;

Lauren Slater’s Lying, a memoir of epilepsy in which shedoes not tell us one lie and then expose herself; rather, she maintains multiple truths at the same time, allowing us to pick and choose between them.”

I’d add Church’s The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst as worth looking at. But lest we get too excited about postmodern possibilities, Ryan ends with a warning and a prediction:

The backlash against postmodernism is already going strong. Postmodern has become a dirty word, meant to convey something confusing, precious, pretentious, or just downright sloppy. When it was born, it was David fighting the Goliath of Modernism. Now it has become the dominant force, and with nothing to rage against, it seems useless. A genre designed to take things apart cannot stand alone. The New Sincerity movement, which combines postmodernism’s playfulness and rejection of universal truth with the search for personal meaning and real emotion, is gaining ascendency-and rightfully so. It is time we moved on.

But postmodernism still has lessons to teach us. They lie (and oh, how skillfully they lie) in nonfiction. As memoir struggles to be recognized as art, it must find new ways to deal with the truth, when the truth is a confused and confusing thing.

You can read his whole essay, at least for a time, here. I googled New Sincerity and apparently there actually is such thing. As someone helplessly and hopelessly sincere himself, I’m all for it—I think, though it seems enough work for now to grasp postmodernism.

Here’s Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s postmodern approach to marketing her memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life:

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Filed under braids, threads, experimental, memoir, modernism/postmodernism, narrative, structure

Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’

Beachroom x

Narrative craft & spirituality in a classic feminist essay.

Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.—A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Harcourt, 112 pp.

Like last year when I was at the beach, where I’ve been for the past few weeks, I remember I should have brought Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, what with the Atlantic surf hissing and breaking outside. Sometimes I feel almost frightened by what a ghost I feel here, so much time alone for memories to flood in of the boy I was and of my past friends, some dead or disabled and most scattered. A few people whom I’ve lost touch with are living quietly here where we grew up, and in my mind’s eye they are still eighteen. I wouldn’t know them if I saw them, yet part of me thinks I’d still be eighteen had I stayed here too. At the same time, the beach is magic—it’s the air, so mild, and the ceaseless murmur of the waves and the sun on the living and moving water. Perfect, really, for reading Woolf, that most retrospective of writers, who wrote often of the sea and of water. And so I reread A Room of One’s Own, which I did bring, and marveled anew at her foresight, her courage, her humor, and her artistry.

One might assume that this extended essay, six chapters that make a short book, would be didactic. But I’d noticed before how much Woolf unfolds her essay in scene. For instance, there’s always the track of her mind in a physical place—as she roams a public library or ponders a bookshelf in her home—and there are a series of sexist indignities she suffers while researching the book, which is famous for its dictum that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This time I noticed Woolf’s caveat about her scenic narrative approach, her “making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist” to show her audience how her topic consumed her and how she “made it work in and out of my daily life.” Great novelists are highly sensitive to the murky nature of memory and to the porous border between fiction and nonfiction; Nabokov and Updike made similar statements in their memoirs. In any case, a great move there on Woolf’s part, flagging her method and making her audience complicit in her imaginative approach. And there was at the start of A Room of One’s Own a very specific audience: two women’s colleges at Cambridge University, where Woolf delivered her book in a series of lectures in October 1928.

The first edition's cover.

The first edition’s cover.

Having been asked to speak on “Women and Fiction,” Woolf tells the story of her process, beginning with being flummoxed by what in the world that topic meant and what to say about something so nebulous and vast. Soon we have her brilliant imagining of Judith Shakespeare, the genius sister she creates for William, and her fate. Which isn’t pretty. Indeed the midsection of A Room of One’s Own makes for uneasy reading by a man, despite Woolf’s ever-present tart humor. For we know those opening incidents might well have happened to her—the world’s great lyrical novelist and avatar of modernism chased off the grass at “Oxbridge” by the Beadle (women had to stay on the paths), then barred from the library (being unaccompanied and without a letter), and then too timid to risk entering the institution’s chapel. Thus she gives us experience along with then-radical ideas regarding the equality of women. And of course this resonates too because we know that Woolf herself wasn’t granted a formal university education by her philosopher father, who instead squandered higher education on her cretinous half brothers. Who’d bullied and molested her.

So it’s tough, this little book. But its transcendent reward comes in the final chapter, where Woolf argues that at base gender differences are a fiction of and for the small-minded. Quite simply, Woolf says, beyond that it is natural for the sexes to cooperate, artists must be conversant with their inner opposite sex. The creating mind must indeed be androgynous. Only those with this dual mind, those who partake in this “marriage of opposites,” she says, have a shot at writing with “suggestive power,” at making writing that has “the secret of perpetual life.” The book’s spiritual dimension soars here, so reminiscent of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet with its insistence on the sexes’ deep commonality, their inner union. Woolf: “The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating.” For in the end, for anyone of either gender involved in creation, Woolf observes, “There must be freedom and there must be peace.”

I previously reviewed Woolf’s memoir A Sketch of the Past.

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Filed under craft, technique, essay-narrative, fiction, humor, modernism/postmodernism, MY LIFE, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, scene

Q&A: Aldrich on order & randomness

Marcia Aldrich reflects on her Companion to An Untold Story.

On her book trailer, Aldrich reads from “what was mine to tell.” After my recent review of her memoir, she gave the e-mail interview below to Narrative:

How did you decide upon the “companion” form for your memoir?

A prior version of the book was organized chronologically and told a fuller, more conventional story about Joel. There was, for example, a much longer discussion of his relationship with his brother. At one point I thought I was writing a literary biography of a suicide under the mistaken assumption that if I put together a biography it would provide me with answers as to why he killed himself and what my role in his story was. But each account led me farther away from my subject. This earlier form implied that I had confidently grasped Joel’s life and death, whereas I was haunted by questions. What I discovered at nearly every turn was an inexplicable gap between the gifted man I knew and the man who suffered so many disappointments. Why do some people with modest gifts succeed, while others blessed with ability struggle to survive? Why can you help one person, while another person turns away your help? There are mysteries in this life, and I needed to find a form that allowed me to reveal them in this man, a truer picture of the aftermath of his death, the little pieces that I tried to assemble. What was my experience, my role? I needed to find a way to puzzle through my own unruly and mixed feelings.

There is the story of Joel’s actions and there is the companion story of my actions in response to what his suicide set into motion.  These are not neat strands running in parallel formation, but narratives that cross, tangle, knot, and break.

This fragmentation and entanglement is reflected in the book’s form. It is modeled on an adult’s reference tool and guide to something already known called a “companion” (one of the books my friend gave us, for example, is the Oxford Companion to English Literature). The alphabetical approach imposes a kind of order, but an order that contains randomness within it, an order that undoes order. One thing I have learned is that suicide imposes a narrative on a life. The alphabetical form goes some way in counteracting that narrative inevitability. It is the reader’s task to assemble a story by means of the elements provided in my companion to it. I have also chosen the “companion” form to imply that the story it accompanies has weight, and the subject merits the treatment I give it, as much as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman insists that his subject’s death is worth presentation as a tragedy.

You resist filling in all the blanks, letting some facts emerge but making no attempt at a complete narrative or exhaustive portrait. Was this decision hard to keep to, or natural for you?

What was hard was composing the early versions of the book in which I attempted an exhaustive account of Joel’s life, writing against the grain of what was essentially characterized by gaps, holes, incompleteness. My initial approach was at odds with the shape of Joel’s life. Once I found the right structure and realized what was mine to tell, everything got much easier.

How did you decide what got what treatment, a sentence instead of a page?

In some cases an aphorism came to me that struck a strong spark and seemed complete. Sometimes I worked against what I thought would be the reader’s expectation of a long discussion. Although in my remarks here I’ve emphasized the incompleteness of the story, the reader does need some background to make sense of things, and in some cases the material needed a longer, narrative form—for example, Joel’s history as a student. The fact that I had done the labor of producing a more complete book allowed me the freedom to carve a more nuanced and surprising book out of the material.

I also wanted uncertainty, a variety of tones and lengths, to keep the reader’s ears pricked.

Did you wonder as you worked what Joel would make of your efforts to depict his life, his death, and your relationship?

Over a period of months Joel gave away or disposed of everything he owned. His apartment was empty when he died. I interpret his behavior to mean that he didn’t want to leave any record of himself behind. On that point I am defying his last wishes. I refuse to erase Joel from the records of the living, from love’s ledger, as I put in the Companion. We may not be able to save people from disaster, but we can remember and honor them—that is the intention behind my writing.

I hope he would not say, were he to look over the book, that I’ve badly misrepresented him.

What did you learn in the writing process?

That writing isn’t emotionally cathartic! At least, I’m not a great success story for the therapeutic model. I can still go to pieces talking about Joel’s death. Recording the voice-over for the book trailer was pure misery. I was stepping back into the tangled mess of my emotions once again. I’ve learned that you don’t get to the end of any powerful experience and are done with it. Part of the reason I employed a system of cross reference in the book—a forward sweep that is simultaneously looping backwards, is to suggest there’s always another ripple in this dying business, in this business of feeling.  Thus, even the final entry returns the reader back to the beginning through its cross references.

I have, nonetheless, over the years achieved a measure of acceptance, even admiration, of what Joel did.

What works inspired you?

Marcia Aldrich’s “holy book”

In writing I found myself returning to my modernist training. I thought about the great quoting poems of modernism: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, and Marianne Moore. Samuel Beckett is never far from my mind. I read Krapp’s Last Tape every year.

Closer to my time and within the field of memoir I have learned from Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and D. J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir—a holy book to me.

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Filed under Author Interview, memoir, modernism/postmodernism, structure

Noted: ‘Steal Like an Artist’

Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.—Steal Like an Artist

Austin Kleon is a writer and visual artist—collage and sketches and mashups—whose magical new little book is a smash hit, a New York Times bestseller. I’m eager to read it. Plus he’s from here in Ohio and attended an institution right down the road, Miami University of Ohio. His website and related pages, including blog, are worth your time.

Here are the principles enumerated in Steal Like an Artist:

1. Steal like an artist.

2. Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.

3. Write the book you want to read.

4. Use your hands.

5. Side projects and hobbies are important.

6. The secret: do good work and share it with people.

7. Geography is no longer our master.

8. Be nice. (The world is a small town.)

9. Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)

10. Creativity is subtraction.

Per the first point: Kleon says good theft honors, results from study, is diverse, credits, transforms, and remixes (versus degrades, skims, steals from one person, plagiarizes, imitates, and rips off).

My friend Paulette Bates Alden, a great freelance writing teacher and editor, happened to just tell me number three (regarding my memoir, which is kind of two books; pick the one you want to read, she said). As Kleon says, what humans know must be stated over and over again because no one was listening the first time.

And the last point about creativity being subtraction I should tattoo on my forehead. Everything becomes Moby-Dick with me! First I build a whole whale, then I pare it into the goldfish it always should have been. I end up covered with blood and guts—and, of course, I’m blubbering.

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Filed under aesthetics, discovery, experimental, flow, modernism/postmodernism, NOTED

Essay’s ancient spell, memoir’s transformation

[The essay] should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last word. In the interval we may pass through the most various experiences of amusement, surprise, interest, indignation; we may soar to the heights of fantasy with Lamb or plunge to the depths of wisdom with Bacon, but we must never be roused. The essay must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world. . . . What can the essayist use in these short lengths of prose to sting us awake and fix us in a trance which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life—a basking, with every faculty alert, in the sun of pleasure? He must know—that is the first essential—how to write. His learning may be so profound as Mark Pattison’s, but in an essay it must be so fused by the magic of writing that not a fact juts out, not a dogma tears the surface of the texture. . . . [and] if the voice of the scold should never be heard in this narrow plot, there is another voice which is as a plague of locusts—the voice of a man stumbling drowsily among loose words, clutching aimlessly at vague ideas . . . the essay must be pure—pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter.—Virginia Woolf, “The Modern Essay,” from Collected Essays Vol. 2, p. 41

 

At the same time that the power of voice alone has been dwindling, an age of mass culture paradoxically much influenced by modernism has emerged on a scale unparalleled in history, and today millions of people consider themselves possessed of the right to assert a serious life. A serious life, by definition, is a life one reflects on, a life one tries to make sense of and bear witness to. The age is characterized by a need to testify. Everywhere in the world women and men are rising up to tell their stories out of the now commonly held belief that one’s own life signifies. . . .

But memoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by the idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”—Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story, p. 90-91

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Filed under essay-classical, essay-expository, memoir, modernism/postmodernism, NOTED

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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