Tag Archives: David Shields

Honesty and chronology, part one

Truth is a disputatious concept in memoir. I’ve said that nonfiction shouldn’t involve invented characters or scenes, unless the author cues the reader to such imaginings, because readers understand the implicit promise in the genre to abjure sleight of hand. But “memory has its own story to tell,” Tobias Wolff argues in introducing This Boy’s Life, meaning that the subjective memories of which memoir is made are the truth. And memories are tumbled in our minds into creative reconstructions to make emotional and symbolic truth of life.

What this means is that, at the least, memories have scant respect for chronology. Chronology may be the most “natural” way to narrate a memoir (or essay), yet anyone trying to do it realizes how difficult it is and how artificial in its own way. In order to furnish narrative drama in a memoir, actual timelines must be chipped free of the sense the mind has made of its own experience. And vexing minor issues arise: if the writer remembers something happened at one point, because in his honest recollection that’s when it occurred, is he bound to adjust when he realizes, during his fifth draft, that it happened a year later? Or does he decide the significance of the mind’s creations on a case-by-case basis?

Some of those who argue for memoir as literature, as an artful construct, think this issue is ridiculous: of course you goBookForum with the inner truth!

I’m torn about this. Rigorous inquiry into events can help both insight and narrative. Yet a writer might become boring or ineffectual—few can write about childhood, for instance, without accepting childhood’s truth, which makes a Jungian hash of chronology. In memoir, is chronology an exception to the public’s putative desire for literal truth, or is it the canary in the coal mine of Truth? This issue is at the heart of a debate among memoirists about whether memoir must be driven by narrative, must “read like a novel” as most readers and publishers wish, or whether it should be more honestly discursive, intellectual, probing.

It’s bracing to realize, as I sweat such stuff, the contempt some fiction writers have for memoir, or at least for memoir’s claim to truth because it’s real or factual. The clinging to exterior rules appears to signify to these critics a lesser art form, however popular it may be. Of course rules don’t hinder art, quite the contrary, but fiction writers and poets are free to choose their own rules on a case-by-case basis. If a poet’s writing a sonnet, there he goes. Once a novelist chooses her point of view, she’s usually committed herself to play the story a certain way. (My view of forms is of course traditional; the avant-garde—more on this, below—hates the tired tools that only underscore craft’s artificiality.)

I thought of this reading an interview in the current BookForum (Summer 2009) with acclaimed Bosnian novelist Aleksandar Hemon, who said, “Stories, whether they’re told or written, document human experience, and that is different from documenting fact. If I try to tell you what happened to me in ’91, I’ll have to guess about certain things, I’ll have to make up certain things, because I can’t remember everything. . . . To tell a story, you have to—not falsify—but you have to assemble and disassemble. Memories are creative. To treat memory as fact is nonsense. It’s inescapably fiction.”

He goes deeper into his view of memoir’s aesthetic failure:

“Literature, to my mind, starts from some sort of personal space—and then it has to go beyond that. Whatever experience you may have had, whatever stories you might have to tell about yourself, they have to be transformed into something that’s meaningful beyond yourself. And because it’s transformed at some point, it stops being about you. The person in my fiction is not my life, so we can talk about it. If it were my life, what would we have to say about it? Memoir is not subject to interpretation. That is antithetical to literature. Confessional space is solipsistic: I’m the only one here, you don’t get to enter. You can watch from the outside and as a voyeur, and that appalls me.”

Novelist and memoirist David Shields is similarly testy about anything that would “misposition memoir as failed journalism”—though he admires memoir, as he defines it. Amidst a fun diatribe he made against narrative at Ohio University’s literary festival in 2009 (see “Against Narrative” on this blog, May 12, 2009) was his argument for memoir as a form of “poetry”—that is, as a species of imaginative literature:

“When a lyric poet uses, characteristically, the first-person voice, we don’t say accusingly, ‘But did this really happen the way you say it did?’ We accept the honest and probably inevitable mixture of mind and spirit.  I think the reason we don’t interrogate poetry as we do memoir is that we have a long and sophisticated history of how to read the poetic voice. We accept that its task is to find emotional truth within experience, so we aren’t all worked up about the literal.

“We don’t yet have that history or tradition with the memoir. We persist in seeing the genre as a summing up of life, even though that’s not typically how the genre is used in the great rash of memoirs that have been published in the past twenty years or so. When we house memoir under the umbrella of nonfiction, we take the word ‘nonfiction’ very seriously.  We act astonished, even dismayed when we find out the memoiristic voice is doing something other than putting down facts. We know that memoirists reimagine the past, but we’re constantly struggling with this inevitability as if with the transgressions of a recidivist pedophile. I think we need to see the genre in poetic terms. The memoir rightly belongs to the imaginative world, and I think once writers and readers make their peace with this fact, there will be less argument over the ethical question about the memoir’s relation to the ‘facts’ and ‘truth.’ . . .

“Memory is a dream-machine, a de facto fiction-making operation. . . . We want work to be equal to the complexity of experience, memory, and thought, not flattening it out with either linear narrative (traditional novel) or smooth recount (standard memoir). We have no memories from our childhood, only memories that pertain to our childhood.”

He’s got his answer, a desire for unfettered nonfiction. Hemon has his, a disdain for the banality of memoir’s mundane promises. And I’m struggling, awkwardly in the middle with questions and partial answers. In part two, I’ll try to find a middle way between literal and impressionistic approaches to memoir, focusing more tightly on the narrow issue of honesty and chronology in memoir.

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Filed under aesthetics, creative nonfiction, fiction, honesty, memoir

Against narrative

In the About section of this blog devoted to narrative, I used to fret that narrative seems to inhibit reflection, or at least is in tension with other ways of exploring meaning: I’d noticed in writing a memoir the pressure of the constant “and then” of the story. But a friend questioned what I meant and I couldn’t defend my tentative insight. So it was exciting to see a writer boldly go there—in fact he mounted a sustained attack on narrative—in an address at last week’s Ohio University Spring Literary Festival sponsored by the English department’s creative writers.

David Shields made clear he was also fretting, and speaking for himself, before confessing to an auditorium of writers that he’s sick of seeing the creaky techniques of narrative coming at him. Deeply read and the author of nine books, an English professor at the University of Washington, Shields gave an erudite talk that made me feel uneducated, timid, and very traditional. His books include an acclaimed novel, Dead Languages, and a bestselling new work of nonfiction, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll be Dead. He based his talk on his book forthcoming in 2010 from Knopf, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.

For Shields, the nontraditional lyric and collage essay forms have David Shieldssupplanted the traditional novel as a means of knowing and investigating the world. “The motor of the novel is story; the motor of the essay is thought,” he said. “I’m not drawn to literature because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. Making up a story or characters feels, to me, like driving a car in a clown suit.”

He came to this epiphany in the mid-1990s while working on his fourth novel, which collapsed—he couldn’t commit himself to working out its plot and character—and in its wreckage emerged his first nonfiction book, Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity. Shields wants to eliminate the “delusion and contrivance” of fictional characterization. “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art,” he said. “I and like-minded writers and artists want the veil of ‘let’s pretend’ out.”

Some of his other assertions:

• “Although great novels—novelly novels—are still being written, a lot of the most interesting things are happening on the fringes of several forms. I write stuff one inch from life, but all the art is in that inch. Tell the Truth but tell it slant. Genre is a minimum-security prison. All great works found a genre or dissolve one.”

• “The world exists. Why recreate it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Nonfiction is a framing device to foreground contemplation. Fiction is ‘Once upon a time.” Essay is ‘I have an idea.’ I don’t seek to narrate time but to investigate existence. Time must die.”

• “Serious plumbing of consciousness, not flashing of narrative legerdemain, helps us understand another human being. I have a strong reality gene. I don’t have a huge pyrotechnic imagination that luxuriates in other worlds. People will say, ‘It was so fascinating to read this novel that took place in Greenland. I just loved living inside another world for two weeks.’ That doesn’t, I must say, interest me that much.”

• “The play Hamlet is, more than anything else, the person Hamlet talking about a multitude of different topics. I find myself wanting to ditch the tired old plot altogether and just harness the voice, which is a processing machine, taking input and spitting out perspective—a lens, a distortion effect. He would keep riffing forever if it weren’t for the fact that the plot needs to kill him.”

• “The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems. One could say that fiction, indirectly, is a pursuit of knowledge, but the essay and the poem more urgently attempt to figure something out about the world.”

• “A conversational dynamic is built into the essay form: the writer argues with himself; the writer argues with the reader. The essay enacts doubt; it embodies it as a genre. First person is where you can be more interesting; you don’t have to have to be much but a stumbling fool. The wisdom here is more precious than in the sage overview, which in many writers makes me nearly puke. No more masters, no more masterpieces. What I want (instead of God the novelist) is self-portrait in a convex mirror.”

• “When the mimetic function is replaced by manipulation of the original, we’ve arrived at collage. The very nature of collage demands fragmented materials, or at least materials yanked out of context. Collage is, in a way, only an accentuated act of editing: picking through options and presenting a new arrangement . . . The act of editing may be the key postmodern artistic instrument. Our lives aren’t prepackaged along narrative lines and, therefore, by its very nature, ‘reality’-based art—unprocessed, uncut, underproduced—splinters and explodes.”

• “Collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled; it’s an evolution beyond narrative. The novel is dead. Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps. Absence of plot gives the reader the chance to think about something other than turning pages. In collage, we read for penetration of the material rather than elaboration of story. I like work that’s focused page by page, line by line, on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative.”

• “Collage implies brevity. You don’t need a story. The question is how long you don’t need a story. Omission is a form of creation. Cut to the chase. My ambition is to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book—what everyone else does not say in a book.  I remember in grad school telling my girlfriend that I wanted to forge a form that would house only epiphanies—such presumption—but now, twenty-five ears later, I feel as if I’ve stumbled into something approximating that. I want the overt meditation that yields (at least an attempt at) understanding, as opposed to a lengthy narrative that yields—what?—I suppose a sort of extended readerly interest in what happens next.”

It seems to me that a writer wants to tell a story and wonders if he can in the form he envisions. Next he doubts his chosen form, its conventions and constraints. Next he examines the cultural grab-bag from which he borrowed. Finally, to greater or lesser degree, he begins to consciously work out his own aesthetic.

Shields is out on the bleeding edge of artistic desire.

The mass of readers will always want narrative, but a growing minority will respond to innovative forms. To me, narrative does seem necessary for greatest emotional resonance. Truly the delivery system is gooey: narrative is as humble as our flesh. But stories affect us because when a writer shows us things happening we decode them in our very bones. Actions speak, in our own interpretations, as in life: the partial answers narratives contain are your own answers, however inarticulate. 

After graciously emailing me a copy of his talk, Shields and I corresponded briefly and I asked him about my narrative-is-necessary theory. He said he’s interested in stories but believes most narrative doesn’t serve a larger theme or contribute to emotional resonance. Ninety-nine percent of narrative, he told me, is “pure machinery.”

Alas, a postscript: It was clear at the conference that Shields’s sally upset some people—a prominent poet pointedly described his work from the podium as narrative—but later I learned how upset a widely published fiction writer was. And a professor who teaches doctoral writing students said they analyzed Shields’s tract and declared that it formed a . . . narrative of his discontent.

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Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, essay-collage, essay-lyric, evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, narrative, poetry, theme