Tag Archives: Lee Gutkind

Noted: Gutkind on nonfiction’s truth

Does the nature of narrative complicate his 1-2-3 recipe?

The subject is there only by the grace of the author’s language.

—Joyce Carol Oates

Immersion journalist and nonfiction theorist Lee Gutkind distills his practices in an essay, “Three R’s of Narrative Nonfiction,” in the New York Times’s popular Draft column that deals with writing. Responsible narrative nonfiction writers follow a similar procedure to assure accuracy while recreating events they didn’t see and others’ mental states, asserts Gutkind. Here’s the nut of his essay:

But to reconstruct stories and scenes, nonfiction writers must conduct vigorous and responsible research. In fact, narrative requires more research than traditional reportage, for writers cannot simply tell what they learn and know; rather, they must show it. When I talk with my students, I introduce a process of work I call the three R’s: First comes research, then real world exploration and finally and perhaps most important, a fact-checking review of all that has been written.

The rest of Gutkind’s piece is an elaboration of his three stages. Pretty straightforward and old hat, though useful for students and teachers, his prescription is intended for the powerful literary technique of scenic construction. Gutkind himself is a modest figure in his work, present but impersonal, like John McPhee tends to be, though scene-by-scene construction in journalism is associated with the showy New Journalism of the 1970s.

Gutkind’s essay provoked a thoughtful response from one Hayden White, a retired English professor in California:

All narrative is fictional insofar as the “story” has to be made out of “the facts.” No set of facts adds up to or amounts to a story without the writer’s intervention as the story-teller. Secondly, the relation between factual and fictional writing is not a matter of either-or, but of some kind of mutual implicativeness having to do with the nature of stories themselves. It is impossible to avoid the use of literary devices even in historical writing, which typically aspires to deal in facts alone. Instead of reinforcing the idea that fact and fiction are opposed to one another, such that you have to be doing either one or the other, might it not be better to teach aspiring writers that even the most fact-bound writing cannot avoid “literariness”?

We all know the truth in White’s first assertion: everyone who witnesses an event sees something different and recounts it differently. The storyteller creates the story by imposing meaning and deciding emphasis. Ordinary journalism is maddening in its denial of this truth and in its societally useful but unacknowledged efforts to seek group consensus rather than individual insight. As for the commentator’s second point, that literary devices are essentially indistinguishable in fiction and nonfiction, amen.

White’s trenchant observations become perhaps too compressed and/or simply fail when he continues:

The mistake here is to think that “literature” (or literary writing) is “fictional” and to overlook the fact that not all fictional writing is “literary.” Unfortunately, it is to forget that all too little factual writing either lacks all literariness or is simply bad writing.

When he says in the first sentence that “not all fictional writing is ‘literary,’ ” I presume he’s bashing poor fiction but possibly—because of his first clause—being ironic toward some nonfiction that’s actually fiction. In his second sentence, I wonder if he means “too much” nonfiction lacks literary quality rather than “all too little.” I actually emailed White and asked him to elaborate for Narrative, but he either didn’t get my query or chose to ignore it. Manna in heaven for anyone who can decode his conclusion.

Gutkind makes a big deal of factual accuracy in his essay while emphasizing the use of scenes, the building blocks of dramatized writing, which became associated with fiction. Hence White’s interesting but peevish rejoinder. I presume that in the classroom, Gutkind, like most nonfiction teachers, notes that scenes are used not only to recreate experience but to convey point of view. Literary journalism says, I can show others’ key moments and viewpoints, not just this writer’s. This may indeed be literally impossible, despite cooperative subjects—think of the issues in recreating one’s own subjective experience—but smart readers appreciate and most readers cooperate with a necessary dollop of fiction.

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Filed under fiction, honesty, immersion, journalism, narrative, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, working method

About John D’Agata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John D’Agata: a genre of one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phillip Lopate on literary nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee Gutkind on immersion journalism

From an interview with nonfiction guru Gutkind conducted by Eric Parker for Fresno Famous—

“[I]mmersions are so wonderful in that you walk into an immersion havinggutkind an idea, idea A, but by the time you’ve spent three months or six months, you have a new idea, or a different formulation of your idea. Then, if you spend another year or two, your idea sophisticates and focuses even more. So, it’s a constant balancing challenge to make sure that you are giving the subject the proper attention.”

“Sometimes learning about a subject through the eyes of the writer can work. But more often than not, the most successful immersions are done with writers who are not egocentric. John McPhee, who’s someone I really admire, did this book called The Curve of Binding Energy, and it’s 65,000 words—my book is about 75,000 words [referring to his most recent book, Almost Human: Making Robots Think]—but McPhee always brags that he wrote this 65,000-word book and it took him until his 35,000th word before he used the word ‘I’ in relation to himself. It took that long for him to be important in the story.”

“[G]reatness takes great, massive, continuous failure in order to succeed. So, writing a book for six years is nothing. And even though it’s filled with five and a half years of frustration, you need to continue to apply yourself. I’m not sure I’m an incredibly talented human being, but I think that one of the reasons I’ve been successful is because I just decided to never give up and to always go onward.”

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Filed under creative nonfiction, honesty, immersion, journalism, NOTED, research