Tag Archives: David Shields

New essay era, 17 classics by women

 

Bonus: Jake Adam York offers a fine minute of writing advice.

We’re living in the golden age of essays, proclaims a February 18 essay by Adam Kirsch in  New Republic. In “The New Essayists, or the Decline of a Form? The Essay as Reality Television,” Kirsch immediately invokes as an example John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, which in another day, with its roots in magazine pieces and celebrity profiles, might have been labeled journalism—but which, as an exciting hybrid of reportage and personal musing, can fairly be claimed by essayists.

And then Kirsch seems to backpedal from his opening pronouncement:

But all is not as it seems. You do not have to read very far in the work of the new essayists to realize that the resurrection of the essay is in large measure a mirage. For while the work of writers such as David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Davy Rothbart are described as essays—My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays, is the title of Rothbart’s new book—they have little in common with what was once meant by that term. The new essay, like the old essay, is a prose composition of medium length; but beyond that the differences are more salient than the resemblances.

So which is it, golden age or mirage? Well it seems to be more like a new wave, to help Kirsch mix his metaphors further. The self was always at the heart of the essay, he says, but the new essay is exclusively about the self. (Making me wonder whether Joan Didion ever wrote about anything but herself, in the end, and so how new is this new phenomenon?) The popularity of comedic essayists, who bare the world’s supposed assault on their egos, is Kirsch’s prime example: “What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist.” Hmmm. If you say so. You don’t have to agree with him to find his essay interesting, albeit not very humorous despite his focus is on comedic essayists. He has some interesting things to say about the fictionalized personas they create to achieve their effects.

The most exciting thing about Kirsch’s piece is the way he posits the knowing collaboration between an obviously exaggerating author and his audience. Raising the question as to whether only humor gets a pass or if something else indeed might be brewing, the blurring of genres that David Shields has predicted and celebrated.

• • •

 Flavorwire has recently posted “17 Essays by Female Writers that Everyone Should Read,” a varied selection of work by grizzled matriarchs and fresh-faced up-and-comers. The selection, made by the editors of Creative Nonfiction, includes live links to a dozen of the essays. Classics like Virginia Woolf’s short “Street Haunting,” Adrienne Rich’s powerful “Split at the Root,” and Didion’s ambitious “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” appear with Jo Ann Beard’s contemporary classic “The Fourth State of Matter” and Cheryl Strayed’s more recent “Heroin/e.”

I haven’t followed all the available links, but of those I’ve read or re-read I’ve gotten the biggest kick out of Joyce Carol Oates’s “Against Nature.” No Thoreau, she. Oates’s beef with nature is  refreshing because of the assumed pieties of nature writers; at least, a pitfall of nature writing seems to be that it can so easily come off as smarmy. In any case it’s hard to argue with Oates when she points out, making a deliciously personal and curmudgeonly indictment that also seems true, that nature lacks a sense of humor.

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

Poetry & journalism

“Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.”John Updike

As with David Shields, when Archibald MacLeish talks about “poetry” he means poetry in the larger sense of writing that is literary art vs. writing considered a mere transcription of events. Good journalism was never that, but exemplary works of reportage have always tended to get lumped by the literati—perhaps more so in MacLeish’s day—with garden-variety news reports. Following are excerpts from MacLeish’s essay “Poetry and Journalism” and my comments as I try to think my way through this seminal work.

No one would claim that the usual news story is a work of art, at least in the ordinary sense of that term. No one would deny either that great works of journalism exist and that when they exist they exist within a discipline of their own—a discipline which reveals itself, as the disciplines of art always reveal themselves, in form.

The distinction MacLeish makes here is that journalism can be art but that it must be judged against its own kind—just as a sonnet should, perhaps, best be judged in relation to other sonnets. That is, in comparison with other works of art that share the same formal constraints. The poets have chosen their constraints, of course. An apparent weakness of daily journalism’s ascension to art is that the constraints have been chosen by people or forces outside of the journalist—by publishers and editors—by the marketplace, as it were. Thus, does the journalist struggle toward art despite the form?

No, Philip Gerard answers in Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life. A “really good piece of nonfiction will stretch the bounds of whatever genre it falls into,” he says. “If you balk at writing to satisfy formal constraints, believing that only absolute freedom of length, subject, and structure is necessary to produce art, you’ll find yourself at odds with most of the greatest writers who ever lived.”

And MacLeish seems to think, as the following excerpt shows, that form surely serves intent and content.

The style of a great work of journalism is the man in terms of the purpose—the man working at the utmost intensity of which he is capable toward an end to which he is wholly committed. But this, of course, is precisely the characteristic of the style of any work of art—the precise characteristic which distinguishes a work of art from a mere indulgence of personality on the one hand or an impersonal “job” on the other. The young critic who recently remarked that the magazine article or newspaper story has become, with us, a more effective form than the novel, may or may not be right, but the recognition that the newspaper story or the magazine article is capable of a form comparable to the great form of fiction is as just as it is belated.

Paging Truman Capote. MacLeish’s essay, in part a 1958 time capsule, underscores how old the new claims to nonfiction’s supremacy are. And it showcases MacLeish’s prescience, coming as it does eight years before Truman Capote published In Cold Blood, which amazed novelists and journalists alike with the power of highly evolved storytelling techniques when applied to true stories.

Truman Capote in 1966

In any case, what MacLeish understood here is that a great work of journalism is a personal construct, however much its form (a slippery word) might indicate otherwise. The conventions of the objective form obscure the degree to which the journalist is making sense of the world like any other writer. She may be unable to waffle on like an unfettered essayist, but her portrait is equally based on personal perception.

MacLeish asks, “Is the poet’s ‘creation’ different in kind from the journalist’s ‘selection’”? He concludes that it is not. Without denying imagination, he says there’s no pure creation, only re-creation from the world’s elements, for both poetry and journalism. Thus the forms are “different in degree” only. Poetry’s truths inform us, just as some journalistic facts take on symbolic weight and “become something more” in their telling. MacLeish takes some pains with this point, spending about six pages of his eighteen-page essay on it.

Creation has a grander sound than re-creation and is undoubtedly, if we may accept the evidence of the book of Genesis, more difficult. But poetry, despite the almost magical powers of the greatest poets, is a human labor and what humanity most desperately needs is not the creation of new worlds, but the re-creation, in terms of human comprehension, of the world we have, and it is to this task that all the arts are committed. Indeed it is for this reason that the arts go on from generation to generation in spite of the fact that Phidias has already carved and Homer has already sung.

Art is useful. MacLeish seemingly advances a utilitarian view of art, with which I agree. That is, the notion that art is useful in helping us live richer lives by making sense of the world’s “humming, buzzing, boggling confusion” at various levels. Or just to remind us of the world’s beauty and the gift of our existence. MacLeish goes on to argue for new forms, however, in a passage that would surely delight David Shields. At least it helps explain Shields’s disdain for the old ways.

New charms are necessary, new spells, new artifices. Whether they know it or not, the young . . . [writers] foregather in Paris in one generation, in San Francisco another, because the world goes round, the light changes, and the old jugs will not carry living water. New jugs must be devised which the generation past will reject as monstrosities and the generation to come will, when it arrives, reject for other reasons: as banalities and bores.

Next: MacLeish’s great essay “Poetry and Journalism” on what really distinguishes poetry from journalism.

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Filed under journalism, NOTED, poetry

Bob Dylan meets Archibald MacLeish

MacLeish: poet, essayist, playwright

Archibald MacLeish (1892–1982) won three Pulitzer prizes, two for poetry and one for his play about Job, J.B, which also won a Tony Award. His collected poems won the National Book Award. Like some other famous writers of his generation, MacLeish served as an ambulance driver in World War I but also as an artillery officer. After the war he moved to Paris and knew many artists, including Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, John O’Hara, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, and Dorothy Parker. He was good friends with Scott Fitzgerald and one of Ernest Hemingway’s closest. He served as Librarian of Congress.

MacLeish ultimately broke with modernism, though his early modernist statement in his 1926 poem “Ars Poetica” endures: “A poem should not mean/But be.” Later, he became somewhat unpopular in the literary world for writing poems that dealt with political and public life. As David Barber wrote in an essay for Modern American Poetry, “He rejected the modernist emphasis on the private individual’s experience and the poet’s alienation from society. The poet, he came to believe, was inevitably involved in society.” MacLeish defended himself to Benjamin DeMott in an interview for the Paris Review:

There are those on the fringes of the art who think that poetry and the public world should be mutually exclusive—as though poets were the internists of the profession and should stick to their bowels. . . . If you can break through the confusion of words about a political crisis like the Pentagon Papers to the human fact—such as the human reality of an attorney general’s behavior—you have written the experience. And the fact that the writing appears in The New York Times won’t change that fact for better or worse. Journalism also has its uses—and to poets as well as to journalists.

You spoke of the Apollo flight—the first circumnavigation of the moon—the one that produced that now familiar, but still miraculous, photograph of the earth seen off beyond the threshold of the moon . . . “small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats.” This was one of the great revolutionary moments of the human consciousness, but the moment was not explicit in the photograph nor in the newspaper accounts of the voyage. Only the imagination could recognize it—make imaginative sense of it. Are we seriously to be told that the imagination has no role to play here because the event is in the newspapers? Or is it the publication in the newspapers of the imaginative labor which offends?

MacLeish’s statement about the dangers of pride for writers also endures, while also being the first and last word on ethics for writers. (He knew well three hugely talented victims of egotistical self promotion: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Robert Frost.) He said in the Paris Review interview:

The essential is not to think of one’s self as a writer and to do nothing which will put one’s self in that popinjay attitude. You don’t write as a writer, you write as a man—a man with a certain hard-earned skill in the use of words, a particular, and particularly naked, consciousness of human life, of the human tragedy and triumph—a man who is moved by human life, who cannot take it for granted. . . . You can put it down, I think, as gospel that a self-advertising writer is always a self-extinguished writer.

MacLeish courted Bob Dylan in the late sixties to write songs for his play Scratch, based on the Stephen Vincent Benét short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Dylan said in his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, that MacLeish was “the poet of night stones and the quick earth. . . . He could take real people from history . . . and with the tender touch of a creator, deliver them right to your door.”

Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles. I’d bought Chronicles years ago and only recently opened it to read about MacLeish, then read the whole thing, and was glad. It’s impressionistic, unconventional—the New York Times called it “flabbergasting.” It zooms when Dylan jumps years ahead and writes about his creative rebirth with producer Daniel Lanois in New Orleans, working on what became Oh Mercy. That 1989 album—another Dylan “comeback”— features one of my favorite Dylan songs, “Man in the Long Dark Coat,” and Dylan tells of its genesis. He got in a funk during the recording sessions, and to change his emotional weather took a long motorcycle ride through Louisiana, met a strange old apocalyptic coot named Sun Pie who ran a funky store-restaurant-boatyard. Sun Pie’s Old Testament ramblings sparked something mysterious; it’s like one of his Mojave songs, or so I think of them, like “All Along the Watchtower,” “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky,” or “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power),” the latter with the immortal line: “Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled/ Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field.” But unlike the other Mojave songs, “Man in the Long Dark Coat” is humid, with a hurricane, crickets, floodwaters, a menacing Bible-quoting stranger.

Bob Dylan’s New Morning

Anyway, Dylan found MacLeish’s Scratch too dark, “heavy,” and MacLeish found Dylan’s trial songs too light; after a second meeting at MacLeish’s house they went their separate ways. Dylan used some of his Scratch efforts on his wonderful 1970 family-man, Woodstock-phase album New Morning (the title song, for one, according to Dylan; evidently “Father of Night,” supposedly “Time Passes Slowly”). After the disaster of Dylan’s Self Portrait, critics hailed New Morning as a comeback. As for Scratch, it bombed, closed in three days.

When Dylan met MacLeish. Dylan’s accounts of their meetings are touching for how he portrays his feeling of being flattered by MacLeish’s attention and for how star-struck he seems in MacLeish’s presence. Dylan saw Joyce’s Ulysses on MacLeish’s shelf and almost asked him to explain it, since when Dylan tried to read Ulysses Joyce had seemed “the most arrogant man who ever lived” and its words mystifying. MacLeish was highly educated—the product of Hotchkiss, Yale, and Harvard Law—and could have summed up Ulysses for Dylan, the intuitive bohemian. MacLeish had even known Joyce. But Dylan was too shy: he wondered but didn’t ask. As for “Archie” MacLeish, Dylan said, “He possessed more knowledge of mankind and its vagaries than most men acquire in a lifetime.”

I agree. MacLeish was wise. He took a long view—he knew he was no Yeats, was modest, but he was a poet; his efforts fed the ocean of literature, and he was smart and had learned from experience. In a continuation of his thought that a writer lives as a man, not as a writer, MacLeish said in Paris Review:

What you really have to know is one: yourself. And the only way you can know that one is in the mirror of the others. And the only way you can see into the mirror of the others is by love or its opposite—by profound emotion. Certainly not by curiosity—by dancing around asking, looking, making notes. You have to live relationships to know. Which is why a lifetime marriage with a woman you love is a great gift, and five marriages in a raddled row is a disaster to everyone, including the marrier. The great luck—the immeasurable luck—for a man trying to write the poem of his life is to have known good men and women and to have loved them well enough to learn the differences from himself. It won’t guarantee the poem will get written but it is immeasurable luck.

Reading Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to Ernest is illuminating in this connection: you see at once what was wrong with that friendship. Scott writes as a writer. And in friendship, in human relations, in life, there is no such thing as a writer: there is merely a man who sometimes writes. I can’t imagine anything shallower than a friendship based on a common interest in the production of literature.

MacLeish’s essay “Poetry and Journalism,” delivered as a lecture in 1958, published as a monograph, and collected in his 1967 book A Continuous Journey, is a touchstone for me. His recognition of journalism as a form of literature inspired me when I was a young reporter. I returned to his words during this surge of creative nonfiction, curious about what he said about journalism and whether it applies more broadly. MacLeish defines art in the essay in a way that includes journalism, still literature’s and nonfiction’s red-headed stepchild.

David Shields redux. Today’s creative nonfiction seems often to set itself apart from journalism, on the one hand, and to claim equal artistic status with fiction on the other. David Shields, in Reality Hunger, claims greater artistic merit for creative nonfiction, at least compared with what he considers the dead narrative moves of traditional fiction. Shields calls the book his “ars poetica,” which means the art or nature of poetry. In fact it was Shields’s recent, second interview with The Rumpus, on the occasion of his book’s issuance in paperback, that spurred my return to MacLeish’s “Poetry and Journalism” to try to figure out for myself, once again, what art is and how much freedom the artist needs to achieve it.

I believe that art is intensely personal and so must the artist be. Does this mean that journalism, at least, cannot be art, while creative nonfiction with its greater freedom can be?

Next: Archibald MacLeish’s seminal essay “Poetry and Journalism” on how all writing, from poems to news reports, consists of recreations from the world’s materials and shares more similarities than fundamental differences.

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Filed under journalism, music, NOTED, poetry

Review: Dillard’s ‘Living By Fiction’

Living By Fiction by Annie Dillard. Harper Perennial. 192 pages.

The cultural assumption is that the novel is the proper home of significance and that nonfiction is mere journalism. This is interesting because it means that in two centuries our assumptions have been reversed. Formerly the novel was junk entertainment; if you wanted to write significant literature—if you wanted to do art or make an object from ideas—you wrote nonfiction. We now think of nonfiction as sincere and artless.

Perhaps this has changed, in part due to her own work, since Annie Dillard first published Living By Fiction in 1982. She might have called it Living by Literature because although it’s about her love affair with reading fiction in particular, she says more about nonfiction in a few asides and by implication than some books entirely on the topic.

Her categories of “traditional” and “contemporary modernist” approaches, of “fine” prose and “plain” prose styles, cross genres as well. In fact, Living by Fiction enabled me better to appreciate and to understand David Shields’s less coherent and useful Reality Hunger for what it is: a modernist’s aesthetic.

Dillard prefers “contemporary modernist” work herself (in her lexicon, that’s postmodernism), but she’s knowing in her explanation of the forces—human, societal, economic—that drive writers into the middle ground. She observes that most writers are working there, including excellent ones, somewhere on the bell curve between traditional and modernist approaches, between fine prose and plain. Most people “write largely traditional fiction.” But she wonders, all the same:

After you have performed or read a detailed analysis of Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and Stevens’s “Comedian as the Letter C,” why would you care to write fiction like Jack London or Theodore Drieser’s? Contemporary fiction writers may be more influenced by Pound’s criticism than by Joyce’s novels, more by Stevens’s poems than Kafka’s stories. In style their work more closely resembles “The Waste Land” than Herzog; in structure it more closely resembles “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” than The Naked and the Dead. This strand of contemporary fiction has purified itself through the agent of criticism; it has adopted the brilliant virtues of Modernist poetry, whose bones are its beauty.

Of course, she allows, modernist poetry has, like such art, pretty much evaporated its audience as well. In any case she takes pains for readers to understand her categories by grounding them in literary and artistic history. With modernism, representative storytelling in prose and paint became secondary: “each was considered for centuries the irreducible nub of its art, and is no longer.” What is modernism? It’s not a mirror or a window on the world, Dillard says, but is characterized by the shattering of the narrative line, by collage. The juxtapositions and work’s surface are the point.

The reason? “Time no longer courses in a great and widening stream, a stream upon which the narrative consciousness floats, passing fixed landmarks in an orderly progression, and growing in wisdom. Instead, time is a flattened landscape, a land of unlinked lakes seen from the air. . . . The use of narrative collage, then, enables a writer to recreate, if he wishes, a world shattered, and perhaps senseless, and certainly strange.”

She distinguishes between good modernist collage and bad in a discussion on structural unity and integrity that draws on painter Rene Magritte’s birdcage example: the playful modernist’s birdcage might enclose fish or a shoe—but those are arbitrary and ad hoc, whereas an egg has something final and right about it. “Must arbitrariness always be damning?” she asks. “Must it forever be out of bounds not as a subject but as a technique. I think so. . . . Art is the creation of coherent contexts.”

Among her own works, certainly For the Time Being (reviewed previously) is modernist narrative collage. In it, she writes about birth defects, sand’s formation and ubiquity, China’s buried civilizations, clouds, numbers, Israel, random encounters, thinkers, and torture, and she makes the subjects cohere: her own obsessions with mortality and evil unify the work. Her latest book, and avowed last, the novel The Maytrees, is a shimmering work of art whose love story is told as if by a coolly distant modernist God. And each sentence of it is distilled into poetry.

Which brings me to her categories of fine and plain prose styles. Think of William Faulkner as the apotheosis of the former and Ernest Hemingway as the exemplar of the latter. Fine prose is showy and rhetorical, while plain is snappy and visual.

The great prose writers of the recent past, until Flaubert, were fine writers to a man. A surprising number of these—those I think of first, in fact—wrote nonfiction: Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Macaulay, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Ruskin, William James, Sir James Frazer. . . . I think fine writing in fictional prose comes into its own only with the Modernists: first with James, and with Proust, Faulkner, Becket, Woolf, Kafka, and the lavish Joyce of the novels.

Fine writing is energetic, though not precise, dazzling, complex and grand, an edifice that celebrates the beauty of language; it strews metaphors and adjectives about, even adverbs, and “traffics in parallel structures and repetitions.” All modernist fine writing begins in Joyce’s collages, Dillard says. “Fine writing does indeed draw attention to a work’s surface, and in that it furthers modernist aims. But at the same time it is pleasing, emotional, engaging . . . It is literary. It is always vulnerable to the charge of sacrificing accuracy, or even integrity, to the more dubious value, beauty. For these reasons it may be, in the name of purity, jettisoned.”

(Others in Dillard’s modernist fine-writer pantheon: Nabokov and Marquez. Among traditional fine writers she mentions Updike, Gass, Styron.)

Plain writing, like Hemingway’s and Chekhov’s, is a prose “purified by its submission to the world” and represents literature’s “new morality,” says Dillard. This “courteous,” “mature” style emerged with Flaubert, who eschewed verbal dazzle. Clean, sparing in its use of adjectives and adverbs, avoiding relative clauses, fancy punctuation, and metaphor, plain prose can be as taut as lyric poetry. In an extreme form of plain writing (as in Dillard’s own The Maytrees), the simple sentences themselves “become objects which invite inspection and which flaunt their simplicity.” It risks the fatuous: “Hemingway once wrote, and discarded, the sentence ‘Paris is a nice town,’ ” Dillard observes. But plainness helps the writer to honor and to under-write real drama, respecting readers’ intelligence and permitting “scenes to be effective on their narrative virtues, not on the overwrought insistence of their author’s prose.”

Writers like Flaubert, Chekhov, Turgenev, Sherwood Anderson, Anthony Powell, and Wright Morris use this prose for many purposes: not only to control emotion, but also to build an imaginative world whose parts seem solidly actual and lighted, and to name the multiple aspects of experience one by one, with distance, and also with tenderness and respect. In two sentences I heard read aloud many years ago in a large auditorium, Wright Morris introduced me to the virtues of an unadorned prose. The two sentences were these: “The father talks to his son. The son listens and watches his father eat soup.”

(Other modernist plain writers, per Dillard: Borges, Paul Horgan, Henry Green.)

If you’re having trouble placing your favorite author on Dillard’s traditionalist-modernist or plain-fine continuums, remember Dillard’s dictum: most writers work in the middle.

There’s much more in Living By Fiction, especially regarding criticism, which Dillard views as the modern “focusing of the religious impulse.” The making and interpreting of art, she implies, may be our last clear purpose left here on Earth. At least she expresses the view that, of human intellectual activities, art still produces and retains holistic meaning, and she holds faith that we may discern it.

Fiercely intellectual without being pedantic, Dillard also goofs around in her sidelong way and has her quirky fun that’s fun to see. Hers and others’ theories aside, she believes, “Always, if the work is good enough, the writer can get away with anything.”

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Filed under aesthetics, Dillard—Saint Annie, experimental, fiction, journalism, modernism/postmodernism, narrative, REVIEW, structure, style

Real art for our virtual times

David Shields’s audacious Reality Hunger has provoked much discussion and many mixed notices. Thomas Larson, journalist, essayist, and critic, has just weighed in in Agni Online, wittily calling the book “an improvised explosive device applied to the sacred cow of narrative,” his essay as much about today’s cultural sea change as it is an appreciative review.

Larson is author of The Memoir and the Memoirist, reviewed on this blog, and of the forthcoming book The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” Larson has said the latter book was inspired by the same forces Shields explores and calls ita hybrid narrative that cuts back and forth between several different writing styles.”

A few highlights of his Agni Online essay:

The old world of print and genre separation is transmogrifying before our eyes, and Shields wants to awaken us to this radical change. An anarchic technology, whose “reality” is sampled and fragmented and mashed-up all at once, is calling the shots, not the artist.  . . . All we media dependents know for sure is that we are too-often engaged with the representational “reality” of TV, film, YouTube, and the Internet. The fact that we increasingly live with what’s on a screen confuses our senses of the real and the artificial. Things get extra messy when walking in a virtual forest and walking in an actual one are equal options. In a society where “real-life” and “reality TV” collide, authorial certainty and narrative suasion are gone. . . .

Writing’s quickening in our culture now feels high-strung, in part because we authors are unsure what the “reality” we live in and should be covering is. How can we, when we skirmish at the borders between fiction and nonfiction, which grow blurrier every day? How can we, when the actual, the mediated, the fantastic, and the false—think media coverage of the Iraq War, before and after the fighting—seem interchangeable? How do we respond to this inalterable rewiring of our culture? As writers, we morally oppose the artificial and yet take advantage of that artificiality. We live in the dizzying live-dormant app-grid, seduced by video, tweet, social media, and phone. It’s all some kind of real.

As for the novel, king of literature for 200 years—before that, poetry and the epic—Larson is sympathetic to Shields’s view that the genre has forever slipped from preeminence:

Such fables may have once provided moral instruction in pre-electric, uni-dimensional cultures. Appositively, Shields seems to argue, the novel is as outmoded as religion. The novel’s classic elements are authorial omniscience, dignified style, and resolute endings; in religion, the tradition is echoed by church doctrine, cathedral splendor, and an absolving heaven.

What’s more, novels carry a “pretense of actuality,” which, Shields says, no longer serves us: with fiction, with “Celebrity Rehab,” with the eco-friendly cartoon simulation of Avatar, we are being fattened, even addled, on artificiality. In an “unbearably artificial world,” Shields believes the novel brings no critical voice to our era the way memoir, essay, documentary film, and hybrid art forms do. The novel is no longer oppositional, no longer dialogical (in the Bakhtinian sense), no longer effective.

My favorite paragraph in his stimulating essay is Larson’s riff on Todd Haynes’s surreal biopic about Bob Dylan. Larson points toward what sort of imaginative nonfiction successors to the novel might appear or are emerging:

In Todd Haynes’s 2007 I’m Not There, we have the cross-border, gender-bending play of Cate Blanchett (a woman) playing Jude Quinn (a man) in a shot-by-shot improvised replication of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, a 1965 cinema verite about a middle-class Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota (Robert Zimmerman) playing/being the world’s greatest self-invented folksinger (Bob Dylan). Jude Quinn is one of six different Dylans depicted by six different actors in the film. With Quinn, Haynes also limns Dylan’s self-destructive tour of England, before which he had abandoned his acoustic and political self for an electric and existentialist one. No novel could ape the self-myths Bob Dylan created and discarded and that Haynes’s film re-fashions, nor could it include actors whom we recognize from roles on screen and in life playing various incarnations of “Napoleon in rags.” Haynes’s homage to Dylan’s self-creation is neither novelistic nor literary, despite the singer’s purloined name. It is the province of live and recorded music, film, and cultural history.

Tom Larson’s complete Agni Online review of Reality Hunger is here.

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‘Reality Hunger’ redux

Wall Street Journal photo

Lincoln Michael at The Rumpus has written one of the most interesting and compelling responses to Reality Hunger, by David Shields, that I’ve come across. And that includes my three blog posts stimulated by the “manifesto.”

Michael writes:

[W]hile Shields praises the same qualities I look for in my art, the book is framed by a somewhat incoherent thesis that fiction is dead, narrative is pointless and the premier literary form of the now is the lyric essay (with memoir, it would seem, being a close second). I cannot be the only one to read a supposedly radical manifesto—the book jacket labels detractors as mere defenders of “the status quo”—and be a little disappointed to learn that the novel is dead (again?) and the literature of our bright, hectic future is the lyric essay and memoir. Even the terms “lyric essay” and “memoir” feel dusty sandwiched between discussions of hip-hop and cell phone stories.

I think he’s right that, essentially, Reality Hunger elevates personal taste to a movement. Something is going on, with communication and culture and all, but something is always going on. Fiction has just as much or more claim on this new reality, it seems to me, as does nonfiction, though creative nonfiction sales and buzz now dominate publishing.

Michael’s complete review is here. Another very interesting essay on Reality Hunger, “Plotting a Revolution: The novel is dead. Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps,” by Sam Sacks, appears here on the Wall Street Journal‘s website.

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Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.2

John D’Agata’s new book About a Mountain portrays Congress deciding 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 skeevy Las Vegas hotel. In an otherwise rave review last February in The New York Times Book Review, Charles Bock took D’Agata to task for changing the date of the boy’s death to better serve his narrative (D’Agata gave the correct date in a footnote). D’Agata is a gifted writer but what he did there does seem, well, weird. Using the actual date surely wouldn’t have undercut his emotionally associating it with another event.

Bock writes of D’Agata’s choice:

In pursuing his moral questions, he plays fast and loose with a verifiable historical date, one involving a kid’s suicide. He does this just for the sake of a tight narrative hook. 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.

Bock is the author of an acclaimed novel, but he’s as offended as some fuddy-duddy journalist defending the franchise against this openly admitted instance of creative license in nonfiction. Many folks are policing the nonfiction genre. There’s no telling who’s going to shout out a rule for practitioners. But does memoir differ from literary journalism like D’Agata’s? What of that memoirist who remembers every facial expression and each slant of light from twenty years before?

I think she’s using both memory and imagination in trying to convey an emotion-laden fragment of personal, otherwise private, and completely subjective experience. For us to feel it, we must share it. And to experience that moment, resonant within a larger, lost world, we must trust and rely upon the writer’s imagination as much as we believe in her core memory. Otherwise, she can only summarize, not convey. But the story must be true, and with as many telling particulars as can be summoned.

Sophisticated readers understand that much fiction is drawn closely from experience, and perhaps we’re coming to understand that successful memoirs contain some fiction—not falsehoods or gross distortions, but the writer’s attempt to feel her way back into the past and to take us with her. I agree with David Shields in Reality Hunger that memoir is literature, not a public record—not reportage. Though it is nonfiction, it’s very different from coverage of a city council meeting or even from a literary journalism participatory account or immersion profile.

Of course, the chief problem of writing about this issue is that it sounds, inescapably, like you are rationalizing deceit. As if you’re approving of those who make up or wildly exaggerate their basic narratives, or that you do it yourself. I imagine this is what keeps more writers from addressing the subtleties of this aspect of memoir. However, in his impressive Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, Sven Birkerts tackles the subject of “what are the limits of invention in memoir,” and he defends Vivian Gornick, who several years ago ignited a flap when she admitted to a roomful of journalists that some incidents in her memoir Fierce Attachments were “composite recreations,” as Birkerts terms it.

He writes:

Common sense tells us that not all so-called nonfiction can be—or needs to be—accountable to the same standards of strictness. Documentary reportage, kin to journalism in its treatment of character and circumstance, is pledged to absolute factual veracity, though I doubt any work in the genre is completely free of grace notes and bits of embroidery. But memoir, a genre that not only depends upon memory, but has the relation of past to present itself as an implicit part of its subject matter, is different. So much of the substance of memoir is not what exactly happened? but, rather, what is the expressive truth of the past, the truth of feeling that answers to the effect of events and relationships on a life? And from this angle, Gornick’s conflations make sense; for she uses them to better, more truthfully (if not more accurately) communicate the essential nature of what she is after. What she is doing—heightening, conferring definition—is in some ways not so different from what writers like Nabokov and Woolf are doing when the zoom in on minute particulars to the exclusion of the more customary narrative proportions. The truth is in the specific psychic residue, not in the faithful mapping of episodes to external events.

 

I offer this knowing that there will be many people who disagree. But it seems to me that memoir, unlike reportage, serves the spirit of the past, not the letter. Indeed, no one who reads memoir believes—how could they?—that exchanges happened exactly as set down, or that key events have not been inflected to achieve the necessary effect. The question is only how much departure is tolerable, and at what point does the modified recollection turn into fiction?

The grayness of his position—regarding honesty as a private, individual burden—won’t satisfy rule-makers. My provisional stance is that memoir must be honest not in the micro-ethics way reportage is, because of superficial facts (“true” even if they create the wrong impression), but in the macro-ethics sense of writing, in which the challenge is for the writing to be true in the deepest and widest sense and for the writer to become ever more human through its practice. Memoir reflects the reality that our memories are sifted and tumbled and recreated, rather than being fixed in an unchanging inner transcript. The memoirist melds discovered inner truths and feelings with fragments of memory into art that conveys lived reality. A simple statement at the front of a memoir I read recently pretty much gets it: “This is a true story. Some names and details have been changed.”

Those details! Since the writer is never the same person who experienced those details in the first place, isn’t his selection itself a form of fiction? And the person being portrayed perhaps wasn’t consciously aware at the time of those details, or he was focused on others, or saw them gradually, in memory. So what is true? In an interview about The Men in My Country, her spare, elegiac memoir about her affairs with three men during the time she spent teaching school in Japan, former journalist Marilyn Abildskov argues for the word “authenticity” for memoir rather than “truth.”

I get frustrated with the whole debate about accuracy and whether or not the memoirist can make something up because I don’t think it’s the right question or the most interesting question or the most useful question. When you write, you’re making something up. It’s that simple.  You’re putting words onto the page; creating something you hope seems whole.  You’re using your imagination.  Even if you’re writing from memory—maybe especially—you’re using your imagination. You’re trying to create this thing that’s alive. And you’re doing what a novelist does only instead of asking that age-old question that prompts fiction—What if? —you’re turning to your past, asking:  “What was that?  Who were those people?”  So maybe literary memoirs should be called memory-novels.

In this interview, with Jennie Durrant for Mary: A Journal of New Writing, Abildskov said she consulted her notebooks, which were sometimes useful, and added about memory:

There are things that you just don’t forget.  These things are imprinted onto you.  And the job writing-wise becomes making meaning out of that that someone else will understand. That’s why I don’t think the issue of accuracy is as important as authenticity. And I don’t know how else to say it except that there is something incredibly authentic about the personal essays and memoirs that have meant the most to me, some trueness of voice . . .

 

I remember a friend reading the manuscript in an early form and saying there was way too much logistical information about getting from A to B. Which I think comes from a desire to be accurate. And then what I had to do was shed that desire and go deeper, find a more purposeful interiority, the voice of vulnerability, and rely on that, hope that the emotional truth could rise from that. But you’re figuring all that out along the way. You, too, as a writer, have to go from A to B, boring as that may sound, and make all these mistakes, the ones everyone makes, in order to figure out the more important stuff. . . . And there’s something to be said for the imagination of the memory. We all embroider, and isn’t that a wonderful thing? The minute we tell a story, we’re going to add some details, because that’s the nature of storytelling: it’s the nature of reinventing.

I think I’m going to steal her word, authenticity, so rich and nuanced compared with the reductive “truth” or the slippery “honesty.”

(Abildskov’s complete interview with Durrant is here on the Mary site.)

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Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.1

After reading David Shields’s anti-narrative yawp Reality Hunger, I happened to be rereading Vivian Gornick’s influential treatise on nonfiction, The Situation and the Story, and saw that she holds a far different view of the reason for the memoir explosion of our time—and she holds as well a different prescription: not more voice, the talking heads Shields loves, but more of that damned story apparatus that he hates. Gornick believes modernist writers’ turn from narrative is a reason many readers have turned to memoir. She writes:

To begin with, modernism has run its course and left us stripped of the pleasures of narrative: a state of reading affairs that has grown oppressive. For many years now our novels have been all voice: a voice speaking to us from inside its own emotional space, anchored neither in plot nor in circumstance. To be sure, this voice has spoken the history of our time—of lives ungrounded, trapped in interiority—well enough to impose meaning and create literature. It has also driven the storytelling impulse underground. That impulse—to tell a tale rich in context, alive to situation, shot through with event and perspective—is as strong in human beings as the need to eat food and breathe air: it may be suppressed but it can never be destroyed.

As the twentieth century wore on, and the sound of voice alone grew less compelling—its insights repetitive, its wisdom wearisome—the longing for narration rose up again, asserting the oldest claim on the reading heart . . . the literalism of the newly returned ‘tale.’ What, after all, could be more literal than The Story of My Life now being told by Everywoman and Everyman?

Shields and Gornick are both guessing about what’s going on, of course, she less insistently than he. Where these theorists stand together is in their view that memoir is literature, and subject to the rules of literary art, not journalism. My basic reason for agreeing has to do not only with belief in fidelity to personal truth but also to adherence to the imperatives of narrative storytelling that Shields decries. Gornick offers an elegant definition of her vision of artistic memoir:

A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an 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 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.”

Memoirs attempt to let readers share an experience so that they might understand it. And scenes, the way to render experience, demand lots of details. When recreating something, I’ve told nonfiction writing students, let the reader know that you “imagine” if there are things you can’t remember clearly. And I mention how nonfiction’s art often flows into and out of ragged holes in narrative that the writer refuses to close with details conveniently invented but, rather, that he enters into and explores.

Yet as a reader, I’ve realized recently, I’m seldom bothered by memoirists who don’t flag their imaginings—as long as I believe their essential stories. I saw that, unconsciously, I’ll grant a writer quite a bit of license—I suspend disbelief—if I believe her essential truthfulness.

For instance, in a scene involving a writer recreating a key moment—a line of dialogue or a particular action—there’s additional setting and details to show how things looked and felt. As the writer fleshes out this scene, is there any way she remembers—from twenty years ago— how someone’s fingers trembled against his red ceramic mug as an errant breeze lifted his dark, center-parted hair off his pale forehead, so that for an instant it appeared that two wings had flexed from his brow to carry him away before falling back, as if discouraged?

Unlikely, to say the least. But she’s imagining herself back into the past and taking the reader with her, seeking her story’s essential truth. Anyone who doesn’t know that this is how memoir differs from journalism, but is still nonfiction, hasn’t written a memoir, or has written an untrue or unreadable one, or hasn’t really read a successful one. The photographic level of detail in Angela’s Ashes, anyone?

And the alternative to accepting that memoirs recreate and that that takes imagination is the madness of splitting hairs and trying to find gottcha rules. Does it matter whether something is portrayed as “remembered” instead of as it “actually” happened—as if that can even be distinguished in most cases? And should it be a concern—memory vs. some record, if it exists—ethical concerns regarding real people aside? Does it matter whether a composite or typical action is employed to epitomize something the writer’s trying hard to convey? Such niggling is why some novelists express contempt for memoir—not because it’s falsified but because it’s insufficiently transformed into a truthful representation of reality by a writer who’s instead preoccupied by straining at gnats.

Bottom line: Memoirs are just like novels, except the writer has to stick to his memory of actual events—and can’t pretend that what’s portrayed didn’t happen to him. Yep, it was you your mother beat, not a little Hispanic girl. In a recent New Yorker (April 5, 2010) Thomas Mallon quotes from Murial Spark’s 1981 novel Loitering with Intent, about a writer hired by the director of a autobiography association to help its members craft their memoirs:

What is truth? I could have realized these people with my fun and games with their real-life stories, while Sir Quentin was destroying them with his needling after frankness. When people say that nothing happens in their lives I believe them. But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.

Each memoirist and nonfiction writer should ponder what honesty actually means. In any case, this issue won’t die as memoir ascends as a genre. Much of what honesty means in memoir is a writer’s ability and willingness to give the low-down on himself.

Next: Macro- vs. micro-ethics in writing, and a memoirist argues for “authenticity” rather than “truth.”

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Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.0

The etymology of fiction is from fingere (participle fictum), meaning “to shape, fashion, form, or mold.” Any verbal account is a fashioning or shaping of events.

Remembering and fiction-making are virtually indistinguishable.

The memoir rightly belongs to the imaginative world, and once writers and readers make their peace with this, there will be less argument over questions regarding the memoir’s relation to the “facts” and “truth.”

—David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

A year ago I aired David Shields’s original Port Huron Statement (apologies to The Dude) in my post “Against Narrative,” based on his speech, at a writer’s conference, that is the core of his cri de coeur, Reality Hunger. (Or maybe not a cry from the heart—Shields is an academic intellectual—but he’s incredibly passionate.) Now his book has the buzz and the mo. His broadside against tradition has its readers stimulated and annoyed, which surely was his aim. His preference for avant-garde forms reflects his sensibility but is an astute documenting of the continuing sea change wrought in postmodern life, especially by technology.

I found Reality Hunger highly entertaining but its particulars somewhat forgettable—what’s brilliant is the concept. What’s controversial is its theme: traditional storytelling’s meaning-making apparatus is passé. Mired in our manufactured and mediated and fractured environments, but equipped with recording devices, Shields says we hunger not for artificially cohesive narrative but for raw chunks of “reality.” (An interesting exception in the book’s nonlinear, though themed, format is his straightforward account of his own writing history.) His prescription is for art that’s contemplative, collaged, lyric, and documentary, for fiction in nonfiction, for any clever genre smashup.

David Shields, author provocateur.

As the Oklahoma side of my family would say, Shields is peeing up a rope regarding narrative: he might as well inveigh against human sexuality: narrative is intrinsic to Homo sapiens. Non-narrative presentation is not only an advanced technique, it’s for a discerning audience. I learned this when I tried to teach some mulish college juniors—alas, not even English majors—to read and write lyric and collage essays. They were hardened criminals, that group. But still. They would have responded to narrative, and did when I finally recast the class in midstream.

No, narrative’s not particularly intellectual, but it is satisfying because it conveys and shares subjective experience. As I’ve argued here, humans filter everything through the scrim of emotion—an essential part of our existential tool kit—so we’re curious about what another slob feels as he slogs through this valley of tears. Bringing us this news is what artists have always done.

On the journalistic front, many traditional gatekeepers have abandoned news narratives that tried to be fair and balanced. Media firms are under pressure from cable and web and talk radio (or simply swamped by those competing voices as they attempt reasonable readings of events and information). The result is a serve-yourself buffet of kooky theories (don’t vaccinate!) and a smorgasbord of ideology-driven screeds (i.e. FOX; see also demagogue Lou Dobbs, late of CNN) that have stoked the partisan political rage we suffer. I never thought I’d defend mainstream journalism’s “objective” format, but there you go. (See True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo.)

Interestingly, Shields is the son of journalists who wrote for crusading liberal magazines but who admired “real writers,” novelists. This unusually sophisticated intellectual household drove him toward the desire to be an artist. After serving as editor of his junior high and high school newspapers, he was fired from his college newspaper for making up stuff (a brave admission, though he’s wily enough to have invented the transgression as a land mine for the literal-minded). A manifesto seems to have been inevitable. And his Reality Hunger is fun, and in its way important.

I got annoyed only when Shields attacked Tobias Wolff’s bestselling narrative memoir This Boy’s Life for being “naively straightforward” and for challenging it as nonfiction (a position inconsistent with Shields’s own tract) because the boy narrator is a “pathological liar.” So Shields says, glibly misrepresenting. As it happens, This Boy’s Life is preceded by an elegant statement about how, when Wolff’s memory of events clashed with his family’s, he sometimes “corrected” his account to agree and sometimes not. Wolff’s note reads in part, “[T]his is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.”

Shields’s lapse in this case aside, in the year since first hearing him argue that memoir isn’t journalism but literature—hence subject to latitude regarding literal truth in order to achieve Truth—I’ve come to agree with him (and Wolff, who makes the same point, if you think about it, with far less sweat). I hasten to add that I’m not condoning what James Frey did in A Million Little Pieces, a dishonest memoir that he’d tried to sell as a novel. His publisher wanted a memoir for sales reasons. There’s plenty of blame to go around. And yet much of the criticism from journalists was self-righteous or smacked of hypocritically protecting the nonfiction franchise.

Anyway, hard at work on my own memoir in the intervening year, I’ve noticed how my memory actually works, how it melds events like dreams do. I’ve wondered how best to convey lived experience in order to honor the remembered, emotional truth of that experience. And I’ve read more acclaimed memoirs and, in re-reading the ones that really grabbed me, I’ve noticed how the writers have recreated experience. In the midst of this struggle I’ve also read more of what other writers have had to say.

The most interesting and subtle thinking I’ve found was published by the travel-story site WorldHum, a 7,500-word essay on the “inevitability of fictionalizing in some forms of nonfiction” by magazine journalist and book author Tom Bissell. In “Truth in Oxiana” Bissell points out that there’s a difference within nonfiction genres regarding writerly authority. Think of a newspaper’s bare-bones yet subjectively selected details in its report of a public meeting vs. a magazine essay set on a typical day (that’s actually a composite of many days) vs. a memoir recreating someone’s internal reality and external experiences.

“[W]e read a newspaper differently from a magazine, and we read a magazine differently from a book,” Bissell writes. “Our anticipation of the truth, and the many forms it takes, alters in regard to the conduit through which it reaches us.” But, for writers, he says, “the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable in nonfiction writing is clear and obvious” even as the “rigors of factual accountability shift subtly but undeniably from nonfiction genre to nonfiction genre. . . .

“The writer of literary nonfiction earns a reader’s trust with his or her vision, generosity, and relentless self-questioning; the writer of ‘Property Sale Raises Questions Amid Ethics Inquiry’ operates with the understanding that his trust is pre-earned by the gothic lettering of the newspaper for which he writes. Both kinds of trust are important, certainly, but only one opens us to the enlarging possibilities of art.”

Bissell continues:

Let us be straight about this. There is no such thing in the brute, unfeeling world as a story. Stories do not exist until some vessel of consciousness comes along and decides where it begins and ends, what to stress, and what to neglect. Story, then, is the most subjective force in the world—but . . . I believe fervently in truth, particularly literary truth, and great nonfiction writers are men and women who work to find that truth and, through the force of their argument and their use of detail, convince us that truth exists. Great nonfiction writers are priests of truth, who, moreover, have to struggle to find it, because truth is often frightening or upsetting; it is almost always surprising.

Journalists such as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair believe they already know the truth, and write accordingly. They cynically manufacture detail to tell us what they already believe. A great nonfiction writer takes the lumpen stuff of human experience and transforms it into a truthful story that may not cohere exactly to what happened, because what literally happened is not always the best illustration of the truth. For instance, a newspaper writer tells us that two psychopaths murdered a family in Kansas. Is that the truth? Yes, but truth is many fathoms deep. Truman Capote, on the other hand, takes us into the lives of the murderers and the murdered, leaving readers flayed by the mysteries of human morality and existence. May I remind you that Capote’s In Cold Blood . . . was attacked for its numerous and, now, well-documented “mistakes”? . . .

It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand. I would widen the lens even further to include much, but not all, of “literary journalism,” for literary journalism—the kind, at least, with aspirations toward art—relies not only on memoir but the protean fibers of experience as it is seen, heard, and felt. Experience can never be felt or described in the same way by two people. It is these human gaps that literature fills.

Next: More on Reality Hunger, and how memoirists imagine themselves and their readers into the past.

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