Tag Archives: Thomas Larson

Your brain on nonfiction vs. fiction

A guest post by Thomas Larson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Noted: Honesty & emotion in memoir

Talk about cold duck. Candyce Canzioneri took this photo on Alum Creek, Westerville, Ohio.

“All memoirs have one thing in common: each book charts the struggle between the subject of the memoir and the self. Almost always the subject is something other than the writer while the self, of course, is the writer.”—Thomas Larson

Tom Larson is an author, essayist, and journalist. He’s a generous writing-world friend, one with slightly different taste in memoirs than mine, neither of which negates the fact that he’s a flat-out brilliant theorist of memoir. I favor narrative-driven memoirs, and I think he prefers more reflective ones. In any case, he knows what makes all successful ones work. His own memoir essays are wonderful; sometimes I have my students read his haunting “The Woman on the Corner.” I previously reviewed his books The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative and The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”

The excerpts below are from his new Kindle e-book, What Exactly Happened: Four Essays on the Craft of Memoir, which is a great teaching resource and stimulating to any memoirist. I was especially struck by his thoughts on what, at base, is happening in an honest, effective personal story.

Truth in memoir refers to an accurate shaping of the writer’s emotions. The truth of one’s feelings, if you will. To get there we wrestle with our memories, for memory comes at us laced with emotions that have minds of their own: self-aggrandizing, defensive, unexamined, even false. The question arises: How do I find the truth of my feelings if I can’t quite trust my memory? What’s worse, those unfinished and less examined emotions in my life keep insisting I attend to them. Something haunts me, continues to form or challenge my character. Its truth—why I feel as I do—still escapes me.

Of my older brother and me, why was I my father’s favorite? Can I ever find the truth of what I believe was factually and emotionally true? Since I cannot know for sure—my father is long since dead—I shape my story to reflect what I feel based on reasonable evidence, evidence with which my brother has often disagreed. He has his side, and he must wrestle with mine.

If I delve deep enough, though, I will find an answer to why this question of favoritism in my family compels my attention. The irony here is that emotional truth is subjective because it is so often factually unknowable and must be got at or got to mostly via emotion and understanding.

Our attentiveness to such bedeviling questions plays itself out personally—the writer considers, analyzes, emotes, makes discoveries, pulls off the mask, is as honest as he can be. Indeed, the memoirist is trying to find and disclose what he doesn’t yet know about the subject or himself: that’s why he’s writing a memoir. The thing in us which resists honesty or disclosure may be a foe that we need to battle but we do not vanquish it as much as we measure its weight and integrate its relational power into our sensibility.


Filed under emotion, honesty, memoir, teaching, education

Review: ‘Saddest Music Ever Written’

The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” by Thomas Larson. Pegasus Books. 262 pages

It’s the soundtrack at the climax of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and was played in countless memorial services for the victims of 9/11. You may not know the title or its composer, but you know—everyone on this planet knows—the pensive, foreboding tune: those ever-rising violins as if a spirit is ascending, the delicate fade into sorrow beyond verbal expression, the feeling of tragic grandeur it evokes. Listen on YouTube if you can’t place it. The last time I looked, the BBC orchestra’s version, conducted by Leonard Slatkin only four days after 9/11, had about four million hits between its two posts.

This “slow, minor-key lament,” writes Thomas Larson , “evokes a deep sadness in those who hear it. . . . Over a near seventy-five year history, the piece has grown in value because of its aesthetic beauty and its pragmatic use. Like the English hymn ‘Amazing Grace,’ the Adagio is an icon of American grief. . . . No sadder music has ever been written.”

Anyone who loves music realizes this work expresses no single thing, no one truth, and yet there’s no mistaking its honesty. What’s more, the work taps undiscovered feelings, feelings we may not know we have until the work unlocks them. If there’s one piece in the American classical canon that lends its voice to help us grieve losses of which we are conflicted or unaware—personal, national, universal—it’s Barber’s Adagio. . . . As you listen, you’ll go down to where the darkest emotions reside. . . .

It captures the sorrow and pity of tragic death: listening to it, we are Mother Mary, come alive—holding the lifeless Christ on our laps, one arm bracing the slumped head, the other offering him to the ages. The Adagio is a sound shrine to music’s ability to evoke emotion. Its elegiac descent is among the most moving expressions of grief in any art. The snail-like tempo, the constrained melodic line, its rise and fall, the periodic rests, the harmonic repetition, the harmonic color, the uphill slog, the climactic moment of its peaked eruption—all are crafted together into one magnificent effect: listeners, weeping in anguish, bear the glory and gravity of their grief.

A prodigy from small-town Pennsylvania, Samuel Barber was summering in Austria in 1936 with his Italian lover when he created, at age twenty six, the Adagio. As he wrote the music that leaves us “tribally wrung out” he was probably the happiest he would ever be, observes Larson. Though Barber went on to win two Pulitzer prizes and to become wealthy from his operas and classical compositions, his middle age was plagued by depression and alcoholism.

The Saddest Music Ever Written, structured itself like a musical composition—Prelude, Part One, First Interlude, Part Two, Second Interlude, Part Three, Postlude—is intended as an “intimate history” and aspires to a resonance similar to Barber’s Adagio. The book is an intriguing hybrid narrative: an analysis and history of the composition; the story of Barber and his career; and Larson’s memoir of his own depressive family. The eras’ relevant cultural and social histories are interwoven into these strands.

This fusion of unusual content and thematic structure works, a postmodern approach that reflects the pervasiveness of memoir and the growing importance of personal narratives in our otherwise narratively fractured time. Memoir is one human voice speaking, giving its truth. We understand and appreciate that a person wrote the Adagio for Strings, that one of his listeners composed The Saddest Music Ever Written, that the personal restores relevance to history, that a writer’s interest is personal, and that artistic expression is always intensely personal and therefore so must the artist-writer-performer be.

In exploring his family’s history, especially that of his embittered father’s traumatic wartime service and frustrating career, and whom he imagines being touched by the Adagio, Larson depicts the generation that first heard Barber’s lament. (Many of them listened on radio over a long weekend in April 1945 to its first, spontaneous airings—a recording of Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC symphony for its premier—after Franklin Roosevelt’s sudden death near the war’s end.) Arguing for the Greatest Generation’s sadness from various losses, personal and historical, Larson burrows toward the truth of a universal human sorrow that explains the Adagio’s existence and its global reception.

You look forward to Larson’s memoir chapters. Just before you doubt their relevance, or lose the thread, he returns more directly to Barber or his music. And you realize that Larson’s deeply personal stories reflect how humans actually experience art and that they’ve deepened your understanding—of Barber, of the Adagio, and of something about sunny America’s unfathomable sadness, which strains toward expression in this classical masterpiece by a self-destructive genius.

The Saddest Music Ever Written will be read and studied by diverse audiences for years because the book’s underlying concept, its story, and its execution are impressive. Larson is also author of The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative, reviewed earlier.


Filed under creative nonfiction, memoir, modernism/postmodernism, REVIEW, structure

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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Filed under aesthetics, creative nonfiction, experimental, fiction, narrative

The abomination of faked memoir

from “Fiction, Fact, and Faked Memoirs,” by Thomas Larson, author of The Memoir and the Memoirist, in New English Review

“Writing a memoir, one is tormented less by the particular truth of a character’s emotion, as in fiction, and more by the emotional truth of one’s own experience. Both ‘emotional truths’ are valid; both fictionist and nonfictionist are after a similar truth—fully fleshing out the authenticity of the emotion. But now the integrity of the memoirist figures in. He must honor the pact: the emotional truth lies only in what he has experienced and how he has remembered his experience, and not in what an audience or a plot or an imagined reality deems necessary, or targets him, to reveal.”

Larson1“The real tyranny of the faked memoir is not that one has factually lied. That’s bad enough—stupid, really—in an age of Internet searches and viral circulation when anyone can be found out and quickly shamed. No, the faked memoir is an abomination because of its intentional ‘goodness’ as literature and of its wrongfully elevating dramatic truth over experiential truth, the esthetic over the ethical.”

“Since drama and truth are both elements in fiction and nonfiction, it’s best to simplify these terms first. By drama I mean narrative; by truth I mean analysis. The showing and the telling. True, some memoirs do read like novels: enraptured scenes, revelatory dialogue, “real” characters drawn and destined like those in fiction. But in memoir one gets to show and tell. And it is by telling the truth—the struggle to find what the truth is and then to tell it honestly—that distinguishes the memoir from its narrative competitors. Put another way, the reason the memoir exists is to give the writer a vehicle for telling the truth, for unlocking the meaning of personal experience through memory, whether shaped by narrative or analysis.”

“Which, at last, brings me to the label many of us labor under. Nonfiction. As memoirists, as writers memoir-izing nonfiction, we’re ambivalent about the word (forget, for now, it’s further confusing creative tag) not only because the word is defined negatively but also because it’s an apt label: what the non-ness in nonfiction is telling us is to seize the identity of memoir and other narrative forms from fiction. That memoir is not fiction. But it’s too easy to say this. Nonfiction writers can easily succumb in a world of movie-tie-in’s to the culture’s desire for another love story or hero’s journey. It’s a tendency we must resist and reveal in our writing why we are resisting it. This struggle comes with the territory: to seize life-writing back from its fictionalizing sensibility where the culture and the media and Oprah keep steering it.”

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Filed under fiction, honesty, journalism, memoir, narrative, NOTED

Review: ‘Memoir and the Memoirist’

The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative by Thomas Larson. Swallow Press. 211 pp. $11.53

As one who loves narrative (reading two essay collections in a row without discernable narrative makes me crazy for story) I found Larson’s chapter “The Trouble with Narrative” fascinating and instructive. Larson casts a gimlet eye on the “crutch” of narrative for memoirists; for one thing, strict adherence to narrative can lead authors into playing with timeline and outright embellishing for dramatic effect. His main complaint is that emphasizing story almost inevitably reduces self-disclosure, which he believes is memoir’s reason for being.

Many readers, and writers, seem to assume at least parts of all memoirs are fabricated. This isn’t true, and Larson argues that memoir’s typology isn’t yet fixed. But narrative inclines writers to fudge in order to foreshadow and for dramatic effect: when, really, did you know that crucial thing? When does clinging to literal truth become just nasty neat and misleading? What do you do when you discover that your memory itself is fictional or contains fictional elements? The mind makes sense of things at a deeper level than mere timeline—so is it the timeline that’s honest and true or is truth the emotional sense your mind has made of it?

I think Larson would say that honest memoirs explore that gray area. In other words, our shifting perspective is what’s true and interesting: “there is no as it was; there is only our perspective now, interlocking with the past.” So he argues for subverting narrative expectations, for departing from fiction’s narrative presentation of character and moving closer to a reflective presentation of self. In other words, memoir is developing its own literary form, and its purpose may be the larger, neglected arena of adult growth as a means of sustaining culture.

“Some argue that to write memoir or to seek individuation (a la Jung’s practice) is a purely selfish enterprise,” Larson writes. “Hardly. Personal fulfillment and the longevity of life are evolutionary imperatives. If you look at any index of human development . . . you find that social and personal betterment are mutually dependent. It may be that the desire for individual fulfillment is what predominately drives a society to evolve.”

Larson’s discussion of writers, especially his astute discussion of Virginia Woolf, illuminates where the memoir came from, where it is now, and where it may be going. He does more to explain memoir as a new genre than anything I’ve seen.


Filed under evolutionary psychology, fiction, honesty, memoir, narrative, REVIEW