March 21, 2013 § 6 Comments
February 28, 2013 § 21 Comments
Ned Stuckey-French, fearless champion of the essay form and friend of Brevity, put together and shared this extremely handy guide to nonfiction-related panels at the upcoming AWP Boston 2013 Conference. This is not to say that we don’t have a lot to learn from the other panels: on poetry, fiction, literary citizenship, editing, politics, gender, teaching, etcetera, but if nonfiction is your chosen bag, this is the perfect way to keep track.
Thursday, March 7
9 – 10:15
|Room 110, Plaza Level||R111. Looking for Real-Life Humberts: The Unreliable Narrator in Creative Nonfiction. (Elizabeth Kadetsky, Tom Larson, Mimi Schwartz, Michael Steinberg, Daniel Stolar) If creative nonfictionists build a persona, can persona-building also become a source of conflict and dynamism in writing? Can building a less-than-reliable persona be a deliberate strategy, much like the use of unreliable narrators in fiction, such as Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert? Or does any kind of unreliability in the narrator undermine the entire premise of creative nonfiction? Five nonfiction writers brainstorm creative ways for writers to make themselves unreliable narrators—no doubt with playful, conflicted, and imaginative results.
|Room 303, Level 3||R122. “The Poem of Creation is Uninterrupted”: Writers Respond to Walden and Walden Pond. (Lindsay Illich, Sandra Castillo, Scott Temple, Kristen Getchell) Readers will present original works of poetry and prose responding to Thoreau’s Walden and to the geographical site of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. From the perspective of ecopoetics,Walden serves as a centrifuge for nature writing, but the readers will also explore more subversive readings of the work and the geographical site through verse and prose.|
10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.
|Room 111, Plaza Level||R137. I Didn’t Know I Had It In Me: When Fiction Writers Turn to Memoir. (Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Joanna Smith Rakoff, Porochista Khakpour, Carlene Bauer) We always thought we would write fiction; we never intended to write memoirs. But here with are with our memoirs. What happened? Was it the money? Was it a newfound sense of political passion? Or did we simply realize that certain stories—our stories—would work better as memoir? Come find out, and you may be surprised to learn that you too have a memoir in you.
|Room 208, Level 2||R145. The Artist as Activist: On Seeing and Saving the Natural World. (Tom Montgomery Fate, Alexis Rizzuto, Jennifer Sahn, Jeffrey S. Cramer, John T. Price) In the 19th century, inspired by Emerson’s essay, Nature, Henry David Thoreau initiated a tradition of the nature writer as observer-artist. Today, that tradition continues, but amid a natural world that has been nearly devastated by our own species. This panel of writers and editors will explore the evolving role of the nature writer as artist and activist—how seeing the world and saving the world are part of the same work.|
12:00 noon to 1:15 p.m.
|Room 109, Plaza Level||R164. Epistolophilia: Using Letters and Diaries in Creative Nonfiction. (Julija Sukys, Elsie K. Neufeld, Gabrielle Burton, Joan Sohn, Shannon McFerran) Each panel participant has used collections of letters and diaries to write nonfiction. Topics for discussion that have arisen for us in our work will include: What are the challenges of having a handful of letters to draw on versus mountains of them? What is the role of chronology in this kind of work? How do we fill in the gaps that personal writings inevitably leave? What is the author’s responsibility to her subject? What possibilities open up when working with such rich visual material?
|Room 209, Level 2||R175. What About Literary Journalism? (Mark Kramer, Clara Germani, Dan Grossman, Ayesha Pande, Robert Stewart) Despite the decline of magazines, newspapers, and book publishers’ budgets, the climate for literary journalism has never been better. Print is trending downwards, yes, but digital is spiking. Book apps, e-books, multimedia—new opportunities for this genre are continually emerging. In this moderated Q&A session, two journalists, two editors, and an agent discuss the possibilities and share ideas about how to develop stories and publish them.
|Room 302/304, Level 3||R177. I Essay to Be. (David Shields, Phillip Lopate, Elena Passarello, Amy Fusselman) This reading traces the lineage of contemporary essay-writing by embodying it: Phillip Lopate reframed and revivified the form decades ago. David Shields looks back to the tradition Lopate articulated and forward to a group of younger literary collagists, including Maggie Nelson and Amy Fusselman. Each generation builds off of and pushes away from the previous one; each of these five essayists finds his or her own way into the form.|
1:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.
|Room 104, Plaza Level||R189. Nothing but the Truth: Perspectives on Creative Nonfiction in the Classroom and Beyond. (Catherine Cortese, Michael Martone, Diane Roberts, Robin Hemley, Debra Monroe) Creative nonfiction continues to grow in popularity among readers and students of writing. The genre, however, lacks a standard definition. Some believe the slippery nature of perception affords writers infinite liberties, while others see the genre as one that artfully deploys stable facts. This disparity makes the genre tricky to write and trickier to teach. The writers on this panel will discuss the freedoms and constraints of the genre in their classrooms, as well as in their own work.
|Room 107, Plaza Level||R191. Five Years of Normal: Anniversary Reading for theNormal School. (Steven Church, Adam Braver, Beth Ann Fennelly, Ann Hood, Joe Bonomo) In 2007, the Normal School published its first issue. In just five years, the magazine has achieved national distribution and a strong reputation for publishing high-quality literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. This reading will celebrate our first five years of publication with readings by the panelists. Moderator and founding editor Steven Church will introduce the readers and moderate discussion afterwards.
|Room 200, Level 2||R196. From Parts to a Whole: Turning a Bunch of Essays into a Unified Book. (David Giffels, Chuck Klosterman, Sean Manning, Chuck Klosterman, Meghan Daum) Why do some books of essays feel like collections of B-sides, outtakes and orphans, while others carry the thematic and narrative satisfaction of a good concept album? Drawing from their own experiences, this panel of successful authors discusses vital techniques for conceiving, organizing, developing, and enhancing a collection of creative nonfiction essays into a unified whole. We will address how to balance recurring themes, maintain voice and tone, how to build bridges, and other topics.|
4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.
|Room 200, Level 3||R255. Thoreau’s Granddaughters: Women Writing the Wild. (Suzanne Roberts, Cheryl Strayed, Pam Houston, Gretchen Legler, Li Miao Lovett) Do women approach writing both the wildness of the land and the wilderness of their own bodies differently from men? Do women have a uniquely feminine vision of what it means to be wild? Are they judged by a different set of aesthetics? These five women panelists, including memoirists, novelists, and poets, will discuss their literary influences, the joys and challenges, and the internal doubts and external criticism they face in writing the wild.
|Room 209, Level 2||R263. Bending Genre. (Margot Singer, Nicole Walker, Robin Hemley, Dave Madden) The hot debate over ethics in creative nonfiction has sidelined important questions of literary form. Hybrid, innovative, and unconventional, nonfiction is arguably the most exciting area on the literary scene today. But how does nonfiction actually work? How does it recombine and transform elements of other genres? What techniques distinguish nonfiction from other kinds of prose? Contributors to a groundbreaking new anthology of critical essays share their perspectives and ideas.|
Friday, March 8, 2013
9:00 a.m. to 10:15 a.m.
|Room 110, Plaza Level||F112. Progression by Digression: Multiple Narrative Lines in Creative Nonfiction. (Deborah Lott, Paul Lisicky, Hope Edelman, and Ned Stuckey-French) Laurence Sterne’s iconoclastic 1760 novelTristram Shandy can be seen as a forebear to contemporary works of creative nonfiction. In this panel, three creative nonfiction writers look at other works that progress via digression, with their main narrative arcs illuminated, enhanced, commented on, and deepened by other threads. The panelists will examine how seemingly digressive narrative lines can open up a work’s temporal frame, enlarge its perspective, provide metaphoric resonance, and add to its intellectual complexity.
|Room 207, Level 2||F119. The Art of the Nonfiction Idea. (Lisa Dierbeck, Pagan Kennedy, Alissa Quart, Katie Orenstein) In this panel, we discuss the anatomy of a successful nonfiction idea. Perfect Storm, Freakonomics, Seabiscuit—each of these books began with a powerful premise. How does an author identify a winning concept? And which ideas are most likely to attract the attention of editors? The session includes an Idea Hospital: audience members will have a chance to pitch their projects to the panelists.|
10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.
|Room 200, Level 2||F142. Essaying the Essay. (David Lazar, Phillip Lopate, David Shields, Lia Purpura, Reda Bensmaïa) This panel will speak to the essentially self-reflective nature of the essay: the ways essays have, historically, insistently talked about themselves. All the panelists have work in the newly released anthology Essaying the Essay, from Welcome Table Press, which presents essays on the essay from Montaigne to the present; they will read portions of their work and reflect/revise ways their views of the essay have modified over time.
|Room 310, Level 3||F158. The Person Behind You: A Reading of Essays in the Second Person. (Kim Dana Kupperman, Michelle Auerbach, Brian Hoover, Dustin Beall Smith, Rachel Yoder) The second-person point of view can be alluring and tricky, confrontational and seductive, confessional and evasive. What impulses compel us to write in second person, and what challenges does it present to the writer and/or reader? This reading, presented by Welcome Table Press, will feature essays that use the second-person point of view as distancing reflection of a past self, instructional voice, invitation to the reader, and epistolary address. An author Q&A will follow the reading.|
12:00 noon to 1:15 p.m.
|Room 110, Plaza Level||F169. Living it Up to Write it Down. (Michael Pearson, Philip Gerard, Joanna Eleftheriou, Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno) For Thoreau, living in his cabin in the woods for two years was an experiment in living. Such experiments are not uncommon for nonfiction writers—who engage in an experience to make a story. James Boswell, E. B. White, Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton, William Least Heat-Moon, Sue Hubbell, Joan Didion, Bill Bryson, David Foster Wallace, Ted Conover, and many others could be part of a long list of writers who at one time or another made an experience in the hopes of shaping a narrative. The writers on this panel—through examples from their own writing—will discuss or dramatize how such experimentations can lead to story.
|Room 210, Level 2||F180. The Urge Toward Memoir. (Elisabeth Schmitz, Jill Kneerim, Michael Thomas, Jeanette Winterson, Lily King) Novelists Jeanette Winterson, Emily Raboteau, Michael Thomas, agent Jill Kneerim, and editor Elisabeth Schmitz discuss the writer’s urge toward memoir. What defines memoir and is it any more “true” or less creative a process than fiction? Panelists will talk about a favorite memoir and the forms they invented for their own.
|Room 105, Plaza Level||F194. Creative Nonfiction Pedagogy: New Findings from the Field. (Suzanne Cope, Christin Geall, Jan Donley, Stuart Horwitz) This panel features a recent study of approaches to teaching CNF in undergraduate, graduate, and community-based classes. Moderated by Dr. Suzanne Cope, lead researcher in the first participant-based study of CNF instruction for adults, panelists will reflect upon their pedagogy and influences. The conversation will revolve around the findings from the study, including the benefit of mentors and communities of practice, and the adaptation of instruction for various groups.
|Room 107, Plaza Level||F195. A Reading by the 2011 AWP Award Series Winners.(Marcia Aldrich, Kirstin Scott, Laura Read, Corinna Vallanatos) A reading featuring AWP’s 2011 Award Series winners Marcia Aldrich, Laura Read, Kirstin Scott, and Corinna Vallianatos.|
1:30 pm to 2:45 pm
|Room 111, Plaza Level||F199. Turning in Their Graves: Researching, Imagining, and Shaping Our Ancestors’ Stories. (Rebecca McClanahan, Lee Martin, Mary Clearman Blew, Suzanne Berne, Sharon DeBartolo Carmack) Five authors, including a Certified Genealogist, share their varied experiences of writing about family and ancestral roots, offering suggestions for every stage of the journey: accessing archival sources; sifting through the facts to discover meaning, theme, and universal truths; deciding if and when to invent or fictionalize; shaping the material into an artful text; and dealing with the consequences of the published work.
.F208. Editors as Readers as Writers. (Laura Julier, Leonora Smith, Brenda Miller, Richard Hackler, Kimberly Tweedale) As manuscript reviewers for Fourth Genre, we find some essays particularly appealing because they strike a writerly chord, inviting us to read as writers, and to enter into conversations by writing our own creative nonfiction for which these manuscripts are touchstones. Two essayists whose work will appear in Fourth Genre will read; members of Fourth Genre’s editorial board—a faculty member and an undergraduate—will make this conversation visible by reading the pieces that were thus inspired.
3:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.
|Room 108, Plaza Level||F227. Write Short, Think Long: Exploring the Craft of Writing Flash Nonfiction. (Kathleen Rooney, Sue William Silverman, Peggy Shumaker, Judith Kitchen, Ira Sukrungruang) In celebration of this popular emerging genre, as well as the publication of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers, edited by Dinty W. Moore, five of the book’s twenty-six diverse contributors gather to discuss what makes good flash nonfiction memorable and unique, and to offer up ideas and techniques for writing, publishing, and reading the brief essay form well.
|Room 303, Level 3||F242. Making Emerson Matter. (Lowell White, John Domini, Lindsay Illich, Amber Foster) The writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson have been profoundly influential in American literature. But do his words still matter? What does it now mean to be self-reliant? How do we participate in Nature? Is it possible today to transcend anything? On this panel, four writers will discuss Emerson’s 21st-century legacy, and the ways in which his ideas can be used as a springboard for new writing and thinking.
|Room 306, Level 3||F244. The Godzilla of Nonfiction: Has Memoir Swallowed the Essay? (Debra Monroe, Emily Fox Gordon, Meghan Daum, David McGlynn, Madeleine Blais) While creative nonfiction is a growing, vibrant component of most literary journals, most agents and trade presses shy away from essay collections. There is thus a publishing tension between the shorter, not-necessarily chronological, not-necessarily confessional essay and the longer, largely chronological, often confessional memoir. This panel discusses the tension between the short and long forms and offers pragmatic advice for writers working on book-length nonfiction works.|
4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.
|Veterans Memorial Auditorium, Level 2||F250. Alison Bechdel & Jeanette Winterson: A Reading and Conversation, Sponsored by Emerson College MFA.(Alison Bechdel, Jeanette Winterson, Elisabeth Schmitz) Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic memoir Fun Home and the ground-breaking comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, and Jeannette Winterson, author of Written on the Body and the memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, present readings from their work followed by a discussion moderated by Elisabeth Schmitz, Executive Editor at Grove/Atlantic, Inc. The events will be introduced by Emerson College’s Steve Yarbrough, author of the novels Safe from the Neighbors and The End of California.
|Room 110, Plaza Level||F259. What’s That Book About, Anyway? or, The Stealth Memoir in All Its Guises. (Michelle Herman, Scott Raab, Steven Church, Deb Olin Unferth , Joe Mackall) Get out of your own head. Call it a stealth memoir, or memoir-plus—or, as Scott Raab says of his own recent book, The Whore of Akron (about basketball player LeBron James’s defection from Cleveland to Miami), call it a Swiss Army knife of a book: nonfiction with subject matter other than the author’s life that reveals as much as outright memoir can. Five writers who practice the art of the slantwise, roundabout, research-driven, or journalistic approach to memoir talk about how and why.
|Room 207, Level 2||F267. What We Write About When We Write About Music.(Laurie Lindeen, Rick Moody, Will Hermes, Jen Trynin, Jacob Slichter) All art aspires to music because it touches our hearts, souls, senses, and imaginations This panel of writers, musicians, and writing instructors loves, appreciates, knows, and plays music. They have written passionately about music in memoirs, essays, novels, songs, poetry, and blogs. Each individual on this panel would like to share his or her unique path with prose and music, and share their collective beliefs in the emotional, rhythmic importance of musicality when writing and when teaching writing.|
Saturday, March 9, 2013
9:00 a.m. to 10:15 a.m.
|Room 105, Plaza Level||S108. The Truth of Nonfiction: Bringing Students into the Conversation. (Lee Gulyas, Kelly Magee, Rachel Wood, Zackrie Vinczen) The topic of truth in nonfiction is an old one; only the players change. What’s new is asking students what they hear in classes, what they hear in the cultural conversation, and how they make sense of this issue when considering their own ethics, limits, and creative work. Two instructors, one undergraduate student, and two graduate students will consider how the line between fiction and nonfiction informs their classrooms, their writing, and their participation in the larger literary community.
|Room 206, Level 2||S118. Literary Nonfiction and Social Activism. (Helene Atwan, Marianne Leone, David Chura, Courtney Martin, Michael Patrick MacDonald) This panel explores the craft of writing nonfiction that is both literary and socially relevant. Panelists include writers who, while seeking to make significant contributions to the national conversation on the issues they are writing about, are first and foremost writers of literary nonfiction. Writers and editors on the panel discuss ways to balance the political goals of the activist with the aesthetic imperatives of literary writing and the financial demands of trade publishing.
|Room 209, Level 2||S121. What Do You Mean, I Have to Change That? Creative Nonfiction Editors Explain Logistical Challenges Writers Face along the Path to Publication (and Offer Some Tips for Avoiding Common Pitfalls). (Hattie Fletcher, Stephanie G’Schwind, Laura Julier, Andrew Snee) In a perfect world, your essay quotes a song, describes your neighbor’s late-night orgies, or details your sister’s grisly battle with cancer. It’s a terrific essay… but you might not be able to publish it—at least, not as is. Editors discuss their procedures related to creative nonfiction—what and how we fact-check; why you need to get permission, and how we can help; when (if ever) we suggest disguising identities—and offer concrete tips for anticipating and working around such challenges.|
10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.
|Room 111, Plaza Level,……
Room 102, Plaza Level
|S137. The Art and Craft of Short-Form Nonfiction. (Sarah Einstein, Joni Tevis, Brian Oliu, Chelsea Biondolillo) Can you write an essay in 140 characters? In 750 words or fewer? And can you get it published once you have? Join the managing editor of Brevity, two authors of short-form collections, and a graduate student working in this exciting new form as they share techniques and strategies for writing and marketing short-form nonfiction—from the lyric to the expository…
S129. Why Genre Matters. (Dinah Lenney, Sven Birkerts, Judith Kitchen, David Biespiel, Scott Nadelson) Writer Lawrence Weschler once said, “… every narrative voice—and especially every nonfiction narrative voice—is a fiction. And the world of writing and reading is divided into those who know this and those who don’t.” If so, how do we distinguish between memoir and novel, essay and story, poetry and the rest? And why should we care? Panelists will address conflating, compressing, twisting, and embellishing, and the ongoing debate across forms about memory versus imagination and truth versus fact.
12:00 noon to 1:15 p.m.
|Room 108, Plaza Level||S160. Essayists on the Essay. (Ned Stuckey-French, Lynn Bloom, Jenny Spinner, Patrick Madden, Barrie Jean Borich) A new anthology, Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, collects four centuries of commentary, theory, poetics, and celebrations of the essay. Tapping into that resource, this panel explores the form of the essay as described by its practitioners. How have essayists defined the essay? What have they said about what the form allows? What does the essay ask of its writers and readers?
|Room 111, Plaza Level||S163. Memoir Beyond the Self. (Jeffrey Shotts, Leslie Jamison, Brigid Hughes, Benjamin Nugent, Colleen Kinder) This panel will focus on narrative nonfiction that pushes the boundaries of traditional memoir by weaving personal experience into broader explorations of literature, history, and culture. What are the possibilities for a precarious first person, neither oppressively dominant nor entirely dissolved? How can memoir escape the bind of solipsism by looking outward at other people, places, and eras? How can private life become a medium through which the external world is articulated?|
1:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.
|Room 306, Level 3…
.Room 109 Plaza Level
|S204. How to Lose Friends and Alienate Loved Ones: Exploitation vs. Documentation in Creative Nonfiction.(B.J. Hollars, Roxane Gay, Marcia Aldrich, Ryan Van Meter, Bonnie J. Rough) Not every story is flattering, nor is every character. Nevertheless, nonfiction writers continue to document their lives and the lives of others, often at the risk of violating personal relationships. How should writers navigate between revealing the true nature of their subjects without alienating the people themselves? Join four writers as they explore the fine line between documentation and exploitation, among other ethical dilemmas inherent in writing of friends, family, and loved ones..S188. Found in Translation: Great Nonfiction. (Sandi Wisenberg, Faith Adiele, Patrick Madden, Susan Harris, Vijay Seshadri) Much of the creative nonfiction published in literary magazines, anthologies, text, and trade books in this country is written by US writers. We seek to broaden the conversation. We introduce, discuss, and read excerpts from exemplary and significant essays, memoirs, and other nonfictions that excite us—by such writers as Eduardo Galeano, Clarice Lispector, Milena Jesenska, Frantz Fanon, Goli Taraghi, Peter Fröberg Idling, Zbigniew Herbert, Nawal El Saadawi, and more.|
3:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.
|Room 206, Level 2….
.Room 110, Plaza Level
|S224. It’s Complicated: Memoir-Writing in the Political Sphere. (Liza Monroy, Kassi Underwood, Nick Flynn, Anthony Swofford, Matthew Parker) Writers of political memoirs tell personal stories that intersect with issues of social consequence: Abortion. Gay marriage. Torture. How can we avoid accidentally writing a polemic? Are we trying to solve a problem by telling our stories? Can we? We will explore the unique opportunities and challenges of this sub-genre, focusing on how writers can take advantage of the tension that exists when one person’s experience both illuminates and subverts its larger political context..S217. My Son Is Perfect: Writing (Honestly) About Your Own Kids. (Marybeth Holleman, Hope Edelman, Lisa Couturier, Caroline M. Grant, Kate Hopper) As more mothers find time and courage to write about motherhood, we face unique challenges, especially with nonfiction. One that looms large is how to write honestly about our own children, for whom we have unconditional love and no small amount of adoration. How do we find the distance to write more than the idealized version, to portray our children as the complex characters they are? How do we walk the fine line between telling stories honestly and protecting our own very real children?|
4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.
|Hynes Ballroom, Level 3||S235B. Tracy Kidder & Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: A Reading & Conversation, Sponsored by the Pine Manor College Solstice MFA Program. (Tracy Kidder, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Richard Todd) A reading and conversation by two noted literary journalists, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tracy Kidder, author of Strength in What Remains and Mountains Beyond Mountains, and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship recipient and author of Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx. The event will be moderated by magazine and book editor Richard Todd, author of the memoir The Thing Itself, and introduced by Anne-Marie Oomen of the Pine Manor College Solstice MFA Program.|
November 20, 2012 § 8 Comments
This is the second, and last, installment of our roundtable on the essay “The Facts of the Matter” by Anonymous and published in both TriQuarterly and Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. The Anonymous author is joined by author/scholars Sonya Huber, Matt Ferrence, and Ned Stuckey-French. (If you missed the first installment, or the essay in question, you can catch up here.)
Last Roundtable Question:
Moderator: In “The Facts of the Matter,”Anonymous writes, “It is interesting that writers of creative nonfiction have become so at ease with lying, so uninterested in truth, at a time when our government is obsessed with obtaining the truth through increased surveillance, interrogation of suspects, data mining.” I’d like to close by asking you all to engage with this larger question of the argument about fact in nonfiction. Do the choices we make as artists (and consumers of art) influence or intersect with larger societal issues such as those cited by anonymous? Does the comic notion of “truthiness” attach to both John D’Agata’s About a Mountain and to the Bush administration’s misleading information on WMDs in Iraq, or is that just a hyper-hysteric exaggeration? Is there more at stake here than a genre of writing privileged in the academy but not so much on the radar of the average American or international citizen, or are we jousting at windmills that don’t really matter in the larger scale of humanity? Finally, where are we as a genre? Are we really comfortable with lying, or have most of us come down pretty squarely on the side of truth–not truthiness–in creative nonfiction?
SH: Well, I guess I’ll start this off… I’m going to take on the quote at the beginning in conjunction with the last question; I have more to say about “truthiness,” which I think is an important and dangerous gray area. I want to start with an honest question for my esteemed table mates. The quote at the beginning of the question posits “many” nonfiction liars. In the piece Anonymous implicates three by name: John D’Agata, David Shields, and Robert Atwan. Shields first: I’m actually not 100% sure that Shields’ position is represented clearly in the piece; the quote included seems to be observation misinterpreted in the piece as edict. Second: as far as John D’Agata goes, Ned already broke up with him. A major move! Tears were shed! Many of us talked and talked, were sick to our stomachs about someone treading all over a genre we care about, and we mulled it over and gnashed our teeth in continuous conversations and panels.Yes, this stuff will sell books, but that’s beyond our control. Just about anything flashy sells a book. Third: as for Robert Atwan, if he made a troubling comment, someone should ask him to clarify and respond directly. Are there many more? The numbers might be more obvious to someone like Ned who screens submissions at a major nonfiction journal. There’s much lumping of like and unlike here (rape vs. lying, D’Agata and Shields and Atwan vs. “many”), and I need to first understand what is actually being asserted. I did not understand why all these wrenching machinations were necessary to get to a point that seems so obvious; for me, the ends did not justify the means. Lying is wrong in our genre. Either I am missing a raft of semi-fake meta-essays (thankfully), or this piece is saying something that many people in the nonfiction community already know and believe. Or are we also to revisit the well-trod ground of faked memoirs? Let’s not. Liars will continue to get tons of attention, then will get praise for being “bold” and “controversial,” and the rest of us will just have to continue doing our work and calling them out on it. Or?… Enlighten me.
ANONYMOUS: Despite its dismissal as mere entertainment, it seems to me that art is still the compass of culture, so David Shields’ glib claim that “facts are irrelevant” in creative nonfiction seems to me gravely consequential (not surprisingly his assertion arises roughly coincident with a shift in our political discourse from disagreeing over interpretations of facts to a disagreement about what the facts are…not to mention fictional WMDs, Jayson Blair scandal, etc.). I think the fashionable disregard for “the facts” in nonfiction reflects a broader willingness within our culture to disregard inconvenient facts–whether for political advantage or for the so-called sake of art or to meet a newspaper deadline.
I wish this were limited to a few flamboyant rhetorical works by Shields or D’Agata or a single speech by Mr. Atwan, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Viz Pam Houston’s introductory remarks to Jill Talbot’s anthology, in which Houston argues–as many recent graduate and undergraduate students of mine have done–that, given the subjective nature of perception, it’s meaningless to talk about facts in nonfiction, since it’s all interpreted anyway (such illogic has, alas, become a commonplace): http://www.hungermtn.org/corn-maze/ . One might hope that my essay’s point were as obvious as Sonya suggests, but sadly we seem to have lost our collective conviction regarding facts, and whether they matter. Hence, this piece.
But for me, the heart of “The Facts of the Matter” is not its account of a sexual assault or its invented persona but its summary of the 18th-century Stamp Act–which distinguished fact from fiction about forty years before democratic revolutions flourished. That historical fact is not one that we talk enough about, as far as I’m concerned, or think enough about. I believe that what we do narratively does inform what we do actually (neuroscience increasingly suggests this is so): which is why I’m grateful to the thoughtful commentators whose effort to meaningfully parse this question gives me hope.
MF: I’m going to address the elephant in the room, instant replay in sports. This, perhaps more than anything else, is the larger cultural impulse that best intersects with our own artistic considerations of truth, fact, creative nonfiction, memoir, essays, composite characters, artful bending, and all of that. As anyone with even casual experience in televised sports viewing knows, instant replay offers a constant interruption to the flow of games, with the presumed benefit of objective truth.
In football: the head referee goes under the black hood to parse an apparently infinite number of variables (did the ground cause the fumble or was the hand moving forward and does the plane of the endzone extend infinitely skyward even as it is contained within the framework of blaze orange pylons?).
In baseball: line calls can be reviewed, to know whether the triple just inside the bag is actually a foul ball just outside the bag.
In basketball: exciting “buzzer beater” shots are automatically reviewed, holding the frenzied masses in a state of suspended animation — did we win, did we lose? — until the swish can be corroborated with the hundredth-of-the-second.
In tennis: the technological Hawk-Eye camera/computer wizardry (fascinating article here) extrapolates ball trajectory to create a definitive call of in or out and, apparently, make it clear which player tirades are justified and which aren’t.
In cricket (shit, cricket, has instant replay): various incomprehensible things are made clear through the intervention of technology. If you clicked the link above you know that Hawk-eye, in fact, was designed for a fairly specific problem in cricket that I will not pretend to understand.
I hate instant replay or, rather, the impulse that makes instant replay a desirable (even if detested) aspect of contemporary sports. We demand instant replay because we favor the concrete over the ambiguous, wish to pretend that subjectivity is non-existent, remain steadfast in a commitment to a delusion of the absolute. Instant replay exploits our discomfort with judgment, valuation, and nuance. Instant replay makes us feel like truth has been served, because we have verifiable technological proof that something happened in a precise way.
But, let us then ignore for a moment that the very act of measuring something affects its outcome (so sayeth Heisenberg, who might not actually have been talking about the infamous NFL “tuck rule” but might as well have done so). And let us also ignore the prevailing wisdom of beloved post-structuralist French theorists like Derrida and Foucault and Althusser and, my personal favorite, Baudrillard, who all rise up to more or less say, truth is not true. Or knowable. Or is always in negotiation. Or something like that.
Thus I find it completely unsurprising that the growing use of instant replay coincides with a growing clamor for the “absolute” knowledge that a college football playoff will bring coincides with the use of remote-controlled drone strikes in Afghanistan that appear simultaneously true and video gamey coincides with the strategic disinformation of WMDs and the invasion of privacies under various un-truthfully named artifacts like the Patriot Act coincides with the rabid de-truthification of presidential campaigns coincides with the growth industry of on-line fact-checking sites coincides with our own conversation about how sacrosanct the Truth is when writing creative nonfiction.
Goodness, even rodeo uses instant replay.
“It’s a category mistake to think of memoir as belonging to journalism; it belongs to literature,” David Shields writes in “What We’re All Looking For: Notes On Our Reality Hunger”. “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.”
I wonder if part of the reason that the contemporary creative nonfiction of right now keeps circling around the limits and validity of truth-fidelity correlates precisely to the growing lack of clarity we experience in our world. Ours is a regrettable time of fundamentalism, when the discomfort of an ambiguous world blows so many toward the rigidity of dogma and the drawing of lines in the sand. Indeed, creative nonfiction is a genre that relies very much on the usage of truth, but I think we’re disingenuous at best when we pretend that truth is something we ever quite fully understand. In fact, since I think most people really do understand how untenable truth is (has always been, will always be), many turn to nonfiction as a quiet refuge away from the storms of postmodern confusion.
To me, fundamentalism marks one of the chief problems of the current state of creative nonfiction, which frequently seems to be almost indistinguishable from the notion of the memoir, even though the latter is a certain subset of the former. Instead, because popular nonfiction has been dominated for a decade or so with the kinds of memoirs that Shields identifies as “a summing up of life,” we have come too quick to think of that mode as a preferred aesthetic of the genre. But I consider the memoir (as most know it) to be the least interesting of the nonfiction out there, or at least the most limited. The memoir seeks to recount or reconstruct some aspect of life that was lived, and in practice that often results in a preference for memoirs of interesting lives that have been lived. So when we limit ourselves to a genre of memoir, we limit ourselves to a genre of gossip: consider how much memoir relies on the melodramatic, on essentially the same kind of subject matter that has long been fodder for supermarket paperback romances and mysteries and thrillers. I fear that a rigid desire for a certain kind of (falsely) absolute truth supports a vision of our genre as one predicated on hyper-dramatic subject matter. Melodrama is not known for nuance. A lack of nuance can too easily appear to be Truth, nuance too easily considered misleading.
Art, of course, is the desire to press against the thick skin of life. Art is the line call. Art enters when we can’t quite make heads nor tails of the situation (What? Now even competitive coin-flipping has instant replay!?). Art revels in ambiguity, and I think we do a disservice to the artistic potentials of creative nonfiction when we are too quick, as Shields argues, to epistemologize ourselves as journalists who write with a bit more flair, use the first person a lot, maybe get a little crazy from time to time and write in the second person.
One of the horrific consequences of our contemporary spin toward a world defined by technology and economy is the marginalization of art. I fear that when we become too absolute about truth and do not acknowledge the potential truth of truthiness, when we do not recognize the fluidity of our genre and how the motion between the real and the twisted is, often, hard to know (like, what did I have for lunch yesterday? And if I write that it was tuna fish when, in fact, it was lutefisk, have I committed a sin against truth that both disqualifies me from the genre of creative nonfiction and links me irrevocably with depraved and wanton liars?), we are committing a blow against literature. Creative nonfiction is not about the telling of facts. It is about the shaping of facts in a quest to probe the questions that lead us to truth. No, it’s not the same thing as fiction, even if it sometimes appears on the page as a similar animal. But neither does slippage in “factuality” immediately disqualify something as nonfiction. As with so much (everything) in the world, there are gradients and spectrums and matrices and complicated venn diagrams to nonfiction. Instant replay is only one sort of truth, and it’s not the truth I believe lies at the heart of creative nonfiction.
SH: Good points, Matt. I think the two questions of most consequence for our genres and for the question of truth in literary writing–as you point out–are not the absolute decision on “truth vs. lying” but the question of humility (having your limitations be blind spots or explicit and acknowledged) and the question of motive. We can tend toward truth; that’s the best we can do, if truth is something we care about. We are limited by our humanity and our subjectivity. I think John D’Agata in his D’Agata-way loves truth enough to rumple it, though I personally don’t think it should be rumpled. I believe in having every sentence aim for a truth that is a communication between the reader and the writer. That might be a high standard to hold, but it is mine. At the same time, we have to be humbled by truth, by the unknowability of the universe. I can barely get a handle on where I left my car keys. Keeping multiple fake universes running is not one of my gifts.
At the same time, one key political point is that “truthiness” matters in different ways depending on the voice and the aims. Motive is key. In politics, for example: Propaganda is lying or exaggerating for the sake of trying to make change in the world through a somewhat despotic manipulation in order to coerce an audience to believe something you believe. It’s often done for fervently noble reasons. Propaganda can even be aesthetically brilliant in a Leni Riefenstahl way, but it is usually dangerous and it hurts people. What’s more, it robs them of their dignity through stirring up emotions and then using the power of those emotions as a stand-in for rational thought. Hence the WMD fervor, the blind spots, and the unknowable question of whether those people believed what they wanted to believe or whether it was calculated manipulate, or both. This is part of what riled me up about the Anonymous piece; in one sense, it’s literary propaganda, designed to make a noble point–but those are practices and an entire genre I ran from and I want no part of. The distinction between propaganda and polemic, I believe, is the distinction between engagement of the animal-guts and the mind.
The good news is that there is nothing new about propaganda. It’s something that has been long discussed and analyzed. Truthiness in politics is kin to propaganda. The only antidote is a fearless recording of our actual minds, our real lives, our less-than-magical daily details. In essays, I believe you can fearlessly imagine, and it’s easy to do so. All you have to do is to start with “I imagine” and then to share your brain. Then tell the reader why that was relevant to your real life. That’s my suspicion even with the aesthetic use of “improvement” of truth without the vulnerability of “showing your work” (I stole that from Bob Cowser, who I think was quoting someone else): it’s the loss of contact with our messy reality. But the opposite challenge is the inherently impossible nature of portraying messy reality through a single subjectivity. Those are two very different “truth” challenges. They should not both be simply put under the umbrella of lying.
I’m a current and former political activist. Anyone with strong political passions who also writes has to admit that they have contemplated using their writing skill to write the heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative tearjerkers or brain-bakers. As a journalist, I’ve done that. And I’ve been asked to do that and refused. Over time, my moral compass developed to the point that when I was treading anywhere close to that territory, I got a little queasy. I don’t do much journalism anymore because some of what I was asked to do (particularly as a freelancer) tread into those accepted categories of sensationalism: Generate Shock! Outrage! Sadness! Joy! It’s funny that we think of journalism as somehow immune from those propagandistic templates.
I’m essaying toward my point here, which is that genre doesn’t give us a corner on truth. We can’t protect ourselves from the lying that surrounds us except on a case-by-case basis. Whenever something outrages our senses of decency, we have to speak out. We also have to speak out in a grounded way that risks something: our real identities, our reputations and our jobs, our lives and our friendship networks, even our “likes” on the Internet. If we don’t have real people willing to stand up for even a limited and local form of truth, we have lost the main strand in our genre that matters to me, which is the confrontation with what is beyond and around us.
ANONYMOUS: It’s false to oppose truth and fact, or journalism and literature, distinct as each is (Didion’s Salvador, for one, encompasses all of the above). The whole point of CNF is to acknowledge the writer as lens, to render the actual through a particular mind, and many of the best memoirs (as well as literary journalism and essays) make use of the gap between what happened and what is recalled (McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, for one). The problem arises when we pretend to render facts when we’re writing fiction–not recording memory’s delightful mishaps or employing invention for meaningful effect (and signaling reader of same as Hong Kingston and Slater and Ondaatje, among many others, do) but lying to the reader because it’s easier or more expedient or from laziness or a desire not to consider the facts too closely.
I, for one, love to invent and do: in fiction. When claiming the heft of fact, I stick as close as I can to same, while acknowledging slippage, memory’s gaps, signaling where certainty fails and guesswork or invention of necessity begin, as I work my way toward understanding. It’s silly to pretend that personal truth is at odds with facts: think of Hong Kingston’s brilliant rendering of whole scenes she had no part in to convey the “truth” of her childhood ! But she levels with the reader and let’s us know what is invented. Not to do so is to lie. And should disturb the reader as my bit of invention in “The Facts of the Matter” has done.
To suggest that we ought to let the reader know when we embark on invention in nonfiction is hardly fundamentalism; it’s common sense. That it’s necessary to have this conversation at such length suggests to me how uncommon such sense has become.
NED S-F: I like “truthiness” and don’t like “trickiness”; that is, I like truthiness as practiced by Stephen Colbert when he, as “Stephen Colbert,” uses the concept to undo the trickiness (aka the “truthiness”) of George Bush or James Frey or David Shields, all of whom he has exposed on his show.
Maybe I’m feeling too damn sunnyside-up because of the results of the recent election, but I don’t agree with Anonymous’s assertion that “writers of creative nonfiction have become…at ease with lying” and “uninterested in truth.” Why else would so many of us have been so up in arms about A Million Little Pieces? And in response to Sarah’s final question, I would say that no we are not “really comfortable with lying” and “most of us come down pretty squarely on the side of truth–not truthiness–in creative nonfiction.”
Which means that we understand what Stephen Colbert means when he talks about truthiness and that finally we don’t fall for the trickiness of Bush, Frey, Shields, and D’Agata. Or, if we do fall for it, we get as mad as Oprah when we find out that we were tricked. Or, as mad as I was at Anonymous when I found out that I had been tricked and that he was a she and not a rapist.
(Which is not all that mad. Indeed, I hope to give my old friend Anonymous a hug, buy her a beer, and have a chat when next I see her, which I suspect will be at AWP in Boston. I will not be mad at her, just as I was not really mad at John D’Agata when I “broke up with him” at the last AWP.)
I agree with Anonymous when she says that we can make shit up as long as we signal that we are making shit up. But I don’t think James Frey signaled that he was (as Colbert put it) “making up his past,” or that Bush signaled when he sent Colin Powell to the UN with all those charts, or that D’Agata signaled when he played the asshole to Fingal’s overly earnest fact-checker, but neither do I think Anonymous signaled when she pretended she was a rapist and I don’t think she’s signaling now when she insists that she must still be anonymous (though you can be in on the joke if you buy Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, edited by Jill Talbot (University Of Iowa Press) 242 pages, $39.95). I know, I know, she’ll say she signaled after the fact, but to me that just puts the piece in that particular subgenre of trickiness called gotcha.
And I think that Sonya is absolutely right when she suggests that distinction between “truthiness” and “trickiness” has to do with the humility. LIke Sonya, “I believe in having every sentence aim for a truth that is a communication between the reader and the writer,” and that motive and humility make such communication possible. Humility comes from recognizing that we often lie to ourselves in our writing, or to put it another way, we don’t always signal to ourselves when we are making shit up. Part of my quarrel with both The Lifespan of a Fact and “The Facts of the Matter” is that while I think they are both smart, I also think they are too clever by half. It is easy, indeed inevitable, to screw up, lie to ourselves, slip into denial, lose our humility, posture toward our readers, and as a consequence, not get it right. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is very hard to come by. Reality is sly, people are complicated, and truth is slippery, or as Matt nicely put it, instant replay isn’t enough. I think Montaigne had it right when he recognized that you get it right by recognizing that you can’t get it right, even if life consists of trying to get it right. You keep listening to yourself and your reader. You keep revising by only adding, never subtracting, and you doubt everything, even yourself, especially yourself, in that never-ending attempt to answer the question “Que sais-je?”
But hey, what do I know?
As a Matter of Fact: A Roundtable Discussion about Anonymous’ “The Facts of the Matter” and Truth and Craft in Nonfiction
November 5, 2012 § 31 Comments
Recently, the journal TriQuarterly (re)published the anonymous essay The Facts of the Matter. The piece troubles many of the conventions of creative nonfiction–including the obligation to be factual–in service of the argument for factualness in nonfiction. Brevity is pleased to host this roundtable conversation with the Anonymous author and three leading writers/scholars in creative nonfiction. Thank you to everyone who participated.
This will be a two part discussion, with the next round of questions coming largely from reader response (posted in the comments section below). –Sarah Einstein, Managing Editor
1. Would each participant in the discussion introduce themselves, please, with an emphasis on why you are a stakeholder in the conversation?
SH: I’m Sonya Huber, a writer of creative nonfiction and an assistant professor at Fairfield University. I’m the author of three books: Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and The Backwards Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration. Before entering academia, I worked as a journalist and as an organizer for various social justice causes. I suppose I am particularly interested in this conversation because I believe personal narrative can reveal surprising and necessary truths that can give people the power to change the world or small pieces of it.
MF: This is Matthew Ferrence, essayist and assistant professor of creative writing at Allegheny College in Northwestern Pennsylvania. To this conversation, I bring a growing interest in the potential of fractured narratives, experimental structures, and other busting-ups of expected form. But, I’m still also a fan of the straight-ahead (such as it is, y’know, with all the meanders) Montaignian essay. My other stake here is my commitment to nonfiction as artful truth, with all of the messiness that brings to the table.
NS-F: I’m Ned Stuckey-French, an associate professor at Florida State University, where I teach classes in creative nonfiction, modern American literature, and our Editing, Writing, and Media Program, which focuses on writing and new media (or as we tag it, “Writing for the 21st Century). I’m the author of The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri Press, 2011), co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time (University of Iowa Press, 2012), and coauthor (with Janet Burroway and my wife Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Longman, 8th edition). My articles and essays have appeared in journals and magazines such as In These Times, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Walking Magazine, culturefront, Pinch, middlebrow, New South, TriQuarterly Online, Guernica, and American Literature, and have been listed four times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays. I am the book review editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. I’m the father of two daughters — one of whom is a high school senior about to go off to college.
Anonymous: Perhaps it would be best if I introduced the essay, which was written in response to an invitation that I received to write a “meta-nonfiction” for an anthology that was published earlier this year; I was delighted by the prospect, as meta-narrative offers a chance to at once compose a piece and comment on its form (in this case, to write an essay and contemplate the troubling fashion for passing off fiction off as fact in contemporary creative nonfiction). As for myself, the usual applies: I’m a writer and professor whose work has received a Pushcart Prize and been published in Best American Essays, The New York Times, and the like.
2. As a reader, I left my first reading of this essay very angry. I felt that I had to constantly extend myself to the author in order to accept that the work was a work of nonfiction because I found the narrator difficult to believe. When it was eventually revealed that I should not have been so generous, I felt betrayed. To quote from the essay, “A lie can be a violation, a forced entry, a kind of rape.” While it would be a gross exaggeration to say that I felt raped, I did most certainly feel that my trust had been violated. Could you describe your own reaction, as readers, to the essay and it’s central conceit?
SH: My reading experience definitely affected my reaction to this piece. A colleague and writer friend–Ioanna Opidee–forwarded me the link via email in the middle of a rushed and busy day. I could see based on the content of her email that she was clearly upset by what she’d been able to read up to that point.
Out of concern, I opened the link on my phone. Like Ioanna, I didn’t have either time or mental space to read the entire piece–which I took to be an essay. The content was so difficult that it felt impossible to read this all at once, to force myself through the paragraphs when each sentence was astounding. TQ had inserted a hint in the intro about how to read the piece; I would argue the lack of such a nod toward an honest or even complex contract with the reader within the piece itself represents one of the essay’s failures. In my experience, the brief “how-to” from the editors of TQ were blasted away by the narrator’s sentences.
As I drove between appointments, my mind was thrown into turmoil. It was not the turmoil of a discussion about the nature of truth. It was a turmoil about the meaning of rape and rape narratives. I drove and sat in meetings, mulling over the presence of this real rapist. I am a busy woman and a mother with a full-time job and several extra obligations, and I did not have time to read the whole essay on my phone that afternoon.
You could say I read the essay “wrong.” Instead, I would argue that this is how we read now–especially online. I would argue that a piece of writing that asks me to sit down and finish it in entirety in order to understand any of it is asking for a privileged reader, one with as much time and silence as Montaigne in his tower, one that has the ability to shut out the world when he wants to. And this piece–like those containers with compressed spring-snakes inside–demands you read this all at once.
That day, I was not that reader.
I used all the tools I had to read “The Facts of the Matter,” and apparently I did it wrong. I read further, picking through the paragraphs in parking lots, in a doctor’s waiting room. I slowly digested each paragraph as it unfolded. This writing wanted to break my heart, and I would let it.
In some way, though, am I not the ideal reader, the thoughtful reader? Instead of devouring the piece as a math quiz with a solution, I slowed down to consider each sentence. In between reading those paragraphs, I drove and I mulled.
The worst experience was that I made a list. I made the horrible list it asked me to make: the list of male older tenured nonfiction writers in the Midwest. Dear god. My mentors. I knew him. I had to, you see. Because our creative nonfiction community–especially in the Midwest, where I am from, home ground–is that small, still that close.
I picked up my son from school and stood in the kitchen talking to my husband as we cooked dinner.
“There’s a rapist,” I said. “Someone in the nonfiction community. Someone in the Midwest. Someone who said they’re not even sorry about what they did.”
I ate dinner with the presence of that rapist in my mind. I mulled over very different truths than the story-problem the writer intended. I mulled over this story of the rapist. In a way, I knew right away that the ghost-essay (the one that would soon not exist) was horrible but necessary. I thought it was a kind of evil bravery to admit this: there are rapists in our midst. I thought about the reckoning that would happen, the backlash in creative writing programs, the necessary examination of continued sexism, the complication of close mentoring friendships, the relationships between men and women in the larger creative writing community and in academia.
I was ready to engage in that challenge, to see the world. To see the true world, which seems like always the point.
Then after that evening of mulling during dish-washing and laundry and putting my son to bed, I went back to the piece of writing and read the postscript, saw a slim justification–”Would it change things if I were a woman?”
I’ve met liars of both genders. So–no. There are women rapists. Now the only thing I know is that I believe nothing else the narrator said.
The writer assumed that gender would provide justification for the experience s/he had put me through; this makes sense, as the piece of writing provides an example of the ends justifying the means. The writer seemed to assume that being a woman would be a situation I would never consider. The piece of writing seemed to tell me that its ideal audience was a man who needed to be shocked. I, a woman, felt condescended to as I read the final move of the piece, an argument not meant for me at all, but meant for someone who disagreed with the writer’s position regarding truth in nonfiction. The narrator seems never to have considered that it might affect a woman in this way.
What’s sad is that the writer and I had been on the same side: we agreed about the dangers of playing “fast and loose” with the truth. We had both apparently shared the trauma of assault—and that was a central reason, from life experience, for why I simply could not read this essay like a math problem. Its content is the opposite of a math problem. “The Facts of the Matter” presented a flesh-and-blood experience as an abstract falsehood. It’s not even fiction, because fiction is an attempt to tell a version of the world’s truth, packaged as a story. This was a made-up story packaged as true, which makes it a lie. The brief closing, its presence as an afterthought, apart from the narrator’s voice throughout the piece, seemed to leave me only with a question about the “truth” contained on that page, a doubt which echoes so much of what is uttered to degrade women’s experiences: rape is a lie. She’s making it up.
So I wish the essay had been about making cheese or stealing apples. The choice of a shocking image was unfortunate, as violent as the violence against truth it wants (rightly) to protest.
MF: Certainly, the subject matter of the essay struck hard. Shock is an accurate descriptor, since what I was reading was so abhorrent. My reading was also shaped by my purpose as reader: I hadn’t read the essay when I was asked to take part in this roundtable, so I first entered into the text with the knowledge that it was somehow “about” truth in nonfiction. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting to engage a pseudo-confessional of sexual abuse, and certainly wasn’t expecting to find an essay that aligned a story of such abuse with a defense of the necessity of factuality in nonfiction.
And part of my initial reaction was to ask myself, What’s so crazy about this piece? Keep in mind, this is because I was thinking about reading this in the context of the larger question of truth in nonfiction, and in many ways I found this particular essay utterly unsurprising on that matter. Shocking, yes, because of subject matter, but not really engaging in any particularly deep way the sorts of truthy questions that interest me.
The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve considered the way that the deceit or misdirection or identity shift functions in a piece that is, at heart, a polemic. The author-we’ve-agreed-to-call-anonymous has written an argument, not so much an essay. It’s a bit more Bacon than Montaigne, and certainly far more pointed than the artistic round-a-bout that I think of (and prefer) when I think of an essay. It is, at heart, an article, something Cynthia Ozick warns is “guaranteed not to wear well,” and part of the reason that the rhetorical deception of the piece is jarring and, I think, hard to justify.
NS-F: Sarah’s question and Sonya’s and Matthew’s responses pushed me to think about about how and when I read this piece, what my first reading was like, and what colored that reading. I read this essay after a male ex-student of mine sent me the link via Facebook, suggesting that I might want to read it because I’d written a piece about John D’Agata, titled “Dear John, I’m afraid it’s over…,” which appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog and in which I’d challenged John’s approach to “truth” in nonfiction. The fact that my student had referenced this piece was, of course, a tip off and affected my reading. The next day before I had had a chance to get to the piece, a current student of mine, a young woman who is pursuing an MFA and is an excellent essayist, asked me in class if I’d read it. I said I hadn’t but would. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but something in the way she inquired suggested that she found the piece disturbing and confusing, and again, I figured something was up.
My truth antennae fully at attention, I read the piece and, like all of us, found it disturbing, troubling, confusing, and intriguing, but finally, mainly, ultimately manipulative. As a father, son and husband whose own family has been personally and forever affected by rape and as a social activist who came of age during the second wave of feminism, I was disgusted and outraged by the events depicted in the piece. But, (and with this piece it seems there is always a “but”), I felt cheated and expected to read the piece in a way that didn’t feel quite right. The overabundance of detail (beginning with the reference to Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa as viewed that week in Vince Scully’s art history class), the doth-protest-too much assertions of truth (beginning with the title and the opening line), and the narrator’s flat affect and cerebral analysis left me wondering, though again, the seed of my skepticism had been planted by the way my students had recommended the piece as well as Sandi Wisenberg’s cautionary introduction.
Then came the punch-line postscript, which brings us in turn to question 3.
ANONYMOUS: I’m grateful to know that the piece was shocking–it’s meant to be. Not for the sake of mere frisson, which would be cheap, but to underscore a serious problem with contemporary American creative nonfiction and to remind us that we should be shocked whenever fictions are passed off as facts, whether in the political realm (fictional WMDs) or the poetical (David Shields and John D’Agata’s recent arguments to that effect).
Sonya Huber’s point that the writer’s contract is not an honest one is, I would say, mistaken, given that the piece has never appeared without an editorial frame to point up its meta-narrative nature (it was originally written, as I said, for an anthology of meta-narrative, and was reprinted by TriQuarterly with the editorial commentary Sonya notes). Moreover, it reveals by its second crot that it is assaying the question of fact and fiction, which is a pretty clear contract with the reader (experimental narratives often take a few pages to establish their terms, since a single crot often will not serve–as when Joan Didion shifts narrative points of view in Salvador–it’s not a false contract with reader, but a complex one).
I didn’t imagine that one would read the whole of it through, but I did hope that it would provoke thought and conversation among readers, whatever portions they read, and ideally inspire outrage about the blurring of fact and fiction in “creative nonfiction” when the reader is not clearly signalled. That practice should piss us off; I’m grateful that this smart panel of readers takes art seriously enough to GET angry about this. We should. Not about my piece, I’d argue, but about the increasingly glib disregard for fact in CNF.
It’s worth noting that when TriQuarterly staff read this, some wanted to call the cops and report a crime: I could not have hoped for a better response. That is a sane and humane response to awful facts–to take action–and the real problem with blurring the line between fact and fiction in CNF is that it confuses us about how to respond, whether to respond, and encourages paralysis. We should be shocked by that.
As to the notion that “the writer assumed that gender would provide justification for the experience s/he had put me through,” it is simply inaccurate–this isn’t a question of justification; my gender arises in the piece only as a means of triggering the vertiginous horror we experience when that trapdoor opens in nonfiction and we find out that we’ve been lied to.
As to my not having considered a reader’s possible response, Sonya’s right: I didn’t, and I’d say moreover that I shouldn’t: that’s not the artist’s business–calculating audience response is the work of advertising, not art. (Had it been about cheese or apples, I doubt we’d be having this conversation–it’s about a shocking subject precisely because playing fast and loose with the facts is a shocking subject. Form and content relate to each other, as they should.)
As this is an essay, my job was to consider the question from as many angles as I could, to weigh the matter of fact and fiction in CNF, to consider it in the light of history, personal experience, news reportage, the borrowed authority of quotation, as any good essayist will do.
The essay is not alas “an abstract falsehood”; I would that it were fiction: but save for the rapist’s persona (which is, as in all nonfiction, an invention), it’s all too true. All of it. The things nice male academics of a certain age say of their students. The post-party rape on a couch. The pregnancy. The stats. The DRC rapes. The legal case in Israel. The quotes. Save for a few intimate details, which are not lodged in any public ledger but are nonetheless true, you can look up the facts of the matter.
Finally, as to Matthew’s claim that this is polemic not essay, I’d note that some of my very favorite essays are polemical, so the adjective hardly disqualifies the noun: think of Joy William’s delightful “The Case Against Babies” or Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasures of Hating,” both of which have worn quite well. Bacon’s essays seem to me narrowly didactic, not really my taste, but the comparison is not unflattering: still, my piece weighs a question, offers evidence, and ultimately aims to provide the reader with an experience of the horror of deceit, so as to show how forced entrance into imagination or body are each profound violations.
It’s my hope that the outrage inspired by the piece will be put to good use and spur us to be equally outraged by the glib disregard of facts in contemporary CNF.
3. On Anonymity: What does authorial anonymity allow in this work, and what is the cost of it? What can we learn from this experiment about the relationship between authorial voice and creative nonfiction?
SH: This is a huge question, and not one that I’m sure I have an answer to. The one thought I had is that the reader doesn’t actually become attached to a name. Sentence by sentence, the reader becomes attached to a narrator as he or she is built and presented on the page. I believe the reader has every right to assume that the narrator in nonfiction is the central guiding presence in the work. In fiction, we are on guard for “character,” so our trust level is theoretical, not freighted with reality-testing and trust. In nonfiction, we contemplate our real relationship with the narrator as he or she presents himself–very intimately–as a real person. While we all write in personas which are versions of ourselves, the signal of anonymity increases the reader’s assumption in nonfiction that the narrator’s truths are weighty and offered at great risk to reputation. I believe the “anonymous” byline on this piece made me even more drawn into this narrative than I would have been if the name given were simply false and seemingly gender-neutral.
MF: I don’t have much to say about the anonymity. In general, I’d argue that nonfiction should be signed: what we do relies on the tension of a real author opening the self up. Without a listed author, there is no self.
NS-F: My friend, mentor and collaborator, Carl Klaus, recently published The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, the best book we have on the problem of the narrator in the personal essay. Of the contradiction that creates this problem, Carl writes that the essay puts “one more directly in contact with the thought and feeling of its author than do other forms of literature” while cautioning us that at the same time “the ‘person’ in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts.” Shortly thereafter, in support of his claim about the constructedness of persona, Carl quotes Scott Russell Sanders’ great essay on the essay, “The Singular First Person”: “What we meet on the page is not the flesh and blood author, but a simulacrum, a character who wears the label I.”
The day I read “The Facts of the Matter” was Sanders’ birthday and on the birthdays of essayists I often post a picture of them and a quote by them on Facebook. I opted that day for a different passage from “The Singular First Person”: “You may speak without disguise of what moves and worries and excites you. In fact, you had better speak from a region pretty close to the heart, or the reader will detect the wind of phoniness whistling through your hollow phrases. In the essay you may be caught with your pants down, your ignorance and sentimentality showing, while you trot recklessly about on one of your hobbyhorses. You cannot stand back from the action, as Joyce instructed us to do, and pare your fingernails. You cannot palm off your cockamamie notions on some hapless character. If the words you put down are foolish, everyone knows precisely who the fool is.”
So, you see the problem — a slippery, constructed, postmodern subjectivity and my own foolish self. In “The Facts of the Matter,” the narrator is first a man, a man who is professor and an unapologetic rapist, and then a woman, a woman who is a feminist and a writer of “meta-nonfiction” attempting to skewer the fast-and-loose use of “facts” advocated by writers such as David Shields, John D’Agata, and, according to the author (incorrectly, I think, because she is misreading his rhetorical questions), Robert Atwan. In both cases, the narrator is cloaked in anonymity, but in the first instance, we come to see that “anonymous” means only that the character is unnamed, while in the second case it means that the author is protected. But protected from what? The outrage of readers? The responsibility of defending her position publicly and as herself? Or, more charitably, is she protecting the friends and the sisters of her friends who were actually raped? Or again, less charitably perhaps, is she protecting (inadvertently perhaps) the actual “male professors” whose “by and large verbatim” quotes she puts in the mouth of her rapist-narrator?
By raising these questions I don’t mean to suggest that the author is not speaking “from a region pretty close to the heart” or that I “detect the wind of phoniness.” I don’t. I believe that the author cares deeply about rape and that the piece is an honest attempt to confront the horror of rape and show how rape is about power rather than sex. An essay, however, can be honest, but not successful, or not as successful as it might potentially be. The anonymity is also part and parcel of the attempt to write what the author calls “meta-nonfiction.” I think that the attempt to write “meta nonfiction” is misguided because personal essays are always, in a sense, “meta nonfiction” because they are always (or almost always) include reflection and so are the story of a mind thinking, a writer writing. By pushing this further (e.g., by dividing the piece in two, by employing anonymity, by withholding information, by pushing irony to the point that it becomes an inside joke, etc.) the author becomes distant and controlling. At first I was reading a fictional short story, but I didn’t know it was a short story, for I thought (was supposed to think) it was a personal essay. This short story only became a personal essay when I got to the postscript and was now required to reconsider my reading of the essay that was all along a short story, but only a short story for the author, and not for me. (Got that?) For me at least, all this layering and rethinking and distance makes the personal essay less personal, something more akin to a thought experiment being orchestrated by a wizard (a very bright wizard) behind a screen. So, finally, I felt manipulated and perhaps because I felt manipulated, all that much more put out that “the flesh and blood author” got to claim anonymity.
And now, gentle reader, I feel I should tell you that the anonymous author authorized Sarah to tell us who she is (and she’s someone I already knew). It’s not my role to out her and as I tried to suggest above, I think I understand some of why she adopted anonymity, but now I wish she’d come out from behind the curtain.
ANONYMOUS: As I stated above, the only “invention” in this piece is the conventional one in memoir and essay, that of a “persona,” which here is a stew of several parts Evelyn Waugh and a dash of Nabokov.
The rationale for Anonymity is simple: the piece requires uncertainty about the author’s identity to have its effect. There’s no effort to protect myself in this: my identity is clearly stated at the end of the lengthy interview that appears in the anthology for which the piece was written (Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, edited by Jill Talbot), should anyone care to know. But my identity is irrelevant. (The wonderful writing teacher Bill Roorbach used to say that you knew when you had stopped reading a piece and it had begun to “read you”–by which he meant that it had triggered some personal emotional reflex–when you stopped talking about the words on the page and started to talk about the writer. I wonder if perhaps that applies here.)
The essayist is often effaced in the essay–where subject takes precedence over personal biography: we know an essayist’s thoughts, not his or her dining habits (unless they are the subject of the essay). Fretting about my identity is a distraction. The essay is not about me; it’s about a shocking contemporary practice: not sexual assault, but our all too convenient disregard of facts.
As to Ned’s claim that I am “misreading” Atwan’s public speech, for which I was present, as he was not, I must admit that I find suspect any literary criticism that would claim to have the corner on truth in such matters–interpretation is not monotheism after all; there is no single truth here; to claim one is in possession of that would seem a lie.
Finally, as to whether the piece succeeds, the fact that David Ulin in the LA Times considered it worthy of his smart and admiring exegesis, and that many other publications (from Manhattan to Spokane to Kentucky to South Carolina to Kansas City) have picked it up; the fact that we’re discussing this here and that I’ve heard from several readers of the anthology that they consider the essay “one of the ten pieces every CNF student should read”; and the fact that it’s being taught and discussed in classrooms, would all seem to me to suggest that it has succeeded in provoking the conversation it sought to inspire.
4. On Falseness in Nonfiction: This essay purports to argue against lying in creative nonfiction, and yet it relies on a number of lies–from the conceit of its narrative voice to the fact that we, as a panel, are only pretending not to know the identity of its author–to function. Ultimately, does the essay function better as an argument for the possibility of falsity in nonfiction rather than against it? Or does it succeed in spite of the fact that it seems to argue against its own validity?
SH: I think this piece of writing functions as an example of what happens when you cling too tightly to being right: you pull out every big gun possible to win against what you see as wrong or bad. In this case, the enemy is the position of purposely falsifying information for the sake of art. “The Facts of the Matter” purposely falsifies against art instead of falsifying for art. In a way, it sets itself on fire to protest artful falsification. As such, it is an essay on fire, an essay in flames, an essay that is not actually an essay at all. I think it is tragic, and it is performance, but I don’t think it’s possible to talk about it as creative nonfiction.
We know there are several kinds of “true” and several kinds of lying. One test of truth in nonfiction, for me, is the question of whether I would give this piece of writing to my mom, my non-writer and non-professor friends to read, whether I would give it to my sister. The question of truth in that case circles around the goal of offering something to add to someone’s life—even if it is a difficult and hard-won truth. There isn’t that nugget of accessible truth that I could share with people outside that limited world of people who discuss John D’Agata or even know who he is.
MF: Anonymous her/his-self writes in the Postscript that the “piece is meant to be shocking, in hopes that it will shock us into thinking harder about what we’re accepting when we say that facts no longer matter in CNF, or to us” and that it is “intended to point up the absurdity and real horror of playing with facts in nonfictional where there are stakes…, as there always should be in art, we cannot afford to be glib about claiming fictions are facts…”
It is in this shock that the article/polemic/I’ll-call-it-an-essay commits a foul against not essaying nor creative nonfiction but, in fact, rhetoric. It relies on a combo Slippery Slope and Strawman strategy, where the stakes are raised by the direct content of the piece (the sexual assault) and not by the supposed intent of the argument (engaging the necessity of truth in nonfiction). In that sense, the piece fails to persuade me of the dangers of D’Agata, Shields et al, very much because the sensationalized conceit of the article/polemic/I’ll-call-it-an-essay takes to the point of absurdity the fluidity and flexibility other writers call for.
So, thinking about Sonya’s response to her initial reading, a response driven in part by the temporally fractured way she read the piece in our digital world, I agree that as an article it fails to play by the rules of our reading. The shocking subject matter incites fury, sadness, and pain because the lede of the article conceals itself within the extended metaphorical non non-fiction.
Yet at the same time, if I consider the piece an essay, then I disagree that an author should need to consider the manner of reading. An essay is a full thing, must be read in total to be understood. Thinking of the piece fully (and by “fully” I include the way I first read the piece, Postcript, author notes, header and all), I find myself defending the authorial choices this way: it doesn’t lie or deceive at all, in full. The deception is revealed, and the effect on the reader is to confront them with the shock and anger that comes about from that deception. Thus it pinches the technique of the lie as a means to argue against the lie.
But it’s still a polemic, and that part of it I find harder to defend, since nuance is necessarily left out, and with it the artistic potential of artful misdirection and textual prestidigitation
NS-F: I very much like the ways Sonya and Matthew have approached this question. I too think this piece is a “polemic” that shows “what happens when you cling too tightly to being right.” As Matthew suggests, this polemic has two targets — rape and a particular kind of nonfiction. The problem, I think, is that the targets get confused and the issue of rape gets subsumed by the issue of truth in nonfiction. We are, I believe, supposed to see the narrator above the postscript is someone whose sexism has led him to lie, become dissociated from himself, objectify women, and rationalize his cruel and violent attack. And I do. But don’t we know that already about rapists? Or, as Matthew put it, isn’t that fictional rapist a strawman? Or as Sonya suggests, the rape has, in a sense, become “a big gun” pointed at John D’Agata and David Shields, or at least at John and David’s understanding of the role of truth in creative nonfiction.
The same day I was reading “The Facts of the Matter” I finished a review of Randi Saloman’s excellent book, Virginia Woolf’s Essayism, and it suggested to me another approach. Saloman distinguishes between the essay and fiction (mainly Woolf’s novels) by looking at our experience reading the two genres. A longheld trope for the essay is that it is a conversation. For Saloman, this means that the reader is on more even terms with the author, engaged and responding to the author within a digressive, recirculating, meandering form. With a work of fiction, she argues, we are more passive and give ourselves up to the author’s imagined world following a plot determined by probability and some kind of logic. When Woolf mixes the two — in A Room of One’s Own, for instance — she creates what Saloman calls a “counter-factual” or “speculative” essay. To create this essay she uses fictional elements, most notably the character of Judith Shakespeare, but we know the character is fictional and participate with Woolf in speculating on the what that Judith’s life might have been like. Judith is fictional but we know she’s fictional. She allows us to imagine an alternative history and an alternative future. She’s a fictional character within an essay that we know from the start is an essay. She is not a trick and if A Room of One’s Own is a polemic against sexism, it is a kind of non-polemical polemic.
ANONYMOUS: I love this question, Sarah: it’s very smart (and one raised by David Ulin in the LA Times, as Sonya helpfully pointed out in a separate exchange). In writing this essay, I aimed to do precisely two things: 1) ponder whether facts do matter in creative nonfiction by weighing the evidence at hand, and 2) more significantly, I wanted to give the reader a visceral experience of fiction passed off as fact–I wanted us to register the real horror of that. We talk a lot about this question as writers, readers, students, and professors, but it seems to me that the conversation has been largely theoretical. I wanted us to have a visceral experience, a bodily sense of the awfulness of a narrative (and a society) where the line between fact and fiction have become blurred, uncertain. So I’d strongly disagree with those who would say that this essay affirms lying in CNF, the blurring of those lines; judging by the panelists’ reactions, I’d say it enacts a pretty strong argument against that practice, which was my aim. I hope the piece tests the proposition that “facts are irrelevant” in nonfiction, as Shields has claimed, and finds to the contrary.
That’s also why I strongly disagree with Ned’s claim that my essay is somehow a “big gun” held to D’Agata’s head or Shields’. That metaphor misses my point by a mile: this essay is more like a trap-door that opens beneath us all (as, I believe, is the popular disregard for fact in nonfiction). Ned’s reading would try to make the essay a personal matter, when it’s not: it’s a formal one–a problem with form that we are all having now.
As for the essay’s form, Ned suggests that I might have done better by borrowing Woolf’s methods, but I’d note that her speech was written almost a hundred years ago and that each artist creates the form necessary to her or his time: Woolf needed to argue for women’s capacity for greatness, so invented Shakespeare’s sister; in the 21st century, we need to be reminded of the horrors of passing off fiction as fact, so I invented a narrator (at least in part.)
But I worry that the panel seems to be largely missing those points here–both formal and substantive. So rather than continue to respond to their claims point by point, as I’ve tried to do above, I would simply direct them and readers of the essay to the wonderful and insightful exegesis of “The Facts of the Matter” by David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times:
Despite the unanimity of this panel, happily a diverse array of responses to it can be found on line; a few of these are below:
I hope, for all our sakes, we will continue to speak ardently about why the facts matter.
Moderator’s Note: Responses from SH and Anonymous were stricken from the roundtable discussion because of confusion among the participants about whether or not there would be opportunities to reply to one another. The intention had been that there would be this opportunity, but Anonymous asked that we limit each respondent to one initial statement. Because I believe that I wasn’t adequately clear in my initial directions to the panel and to Anonymous, I have agreed to strike this response, but in the next round we will not redact anyone’s comments and cannot guarantee that any person will have the final say on a specific question.
June 25, 2012 § 1 Comment
A dispatch from Brevity’s managing editor, Sarah Einstein:
While we here at the Brevity offices spend our summer lounging by the rooftop corporate pool, drinking pawpaw daiquiris, and reading trash novels, Ned Stuckey-French—longtime friend of Brevity and director of the publishing and editing program at Florida State University—has been fighting the good fight. Since the May 24 announcement by Tim Wolfe, the new president of the University of Missouri, that he would be closing the University’s press, Ned has spearheaded a national campaign to raise awareness of the issue and convince President Wolfe to reconsider his decision.
Stuckey-French’s own book, The American Essay in the American Century, was published by the press last year. In the 54 years since the press was founded, it has published almost 2,000 books, including such important series as the Collected Works of Langston Hughes, The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Southern Women. In addition, the press serves its local community through series such as the Missouri Heritage Readers and the Missouri Biography Series.
President Wolfe has stated that one of his reasons for closing the press so that its $400,000 a year subsidy can be spent to further President Wolfe’s strategic priorities, which includes “building a stronger communication plan to convey the system’s value to Missouri residents and legislators.” Even in our daiquiri-induced haze, we can see that what President Wolfe seems to essentially be doing here is cutting the actual value of the University to Missouri residents and the larger academic community in order to spend the money on marketing and lobbying to increase the perceived value of the system. Isn’t it great when business leaders bring business values to academia?
The national media has picked up on the outrage over the closing of the press. You can find insightful articles at Publisher’s Weekly, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Columbia Missourian, and a particularly trenchant piece at the Columbia Tribune. But, if you only have time to read one, make it Katha Pollit’s piece at The Nation. Then, when you—like us—are moved to get up from your poolside lounge chair and make your voice heard, head over to the “Save the University of Missouri Press” Facebook page and/or sign the petition to keep the press alive.
Ned is doing yeoman’s work, but he can’t do it alone.
April 14, 2012 § 3 Comments
March 28, 2012 § 1 Comment
Over at Writerhead, Kristin Bair O’Keeffe interviews Ned Stuckey-French about the inner workings of an essayist ‘s brain:
Much of the time, however, my writerhead is trying to think about what I really think, what I really believe. I am an essayist and so skepticism is where I live. I turn things over constantly. I am constantly watching myself, listening to myself. A part of me is always sitting in the press box of my own game, doing play-by-play and color commentary. It started when I was a kid shooting baskets in the driveway. 3 – 2 – 1… French stops, pops. It’s good!
But if am skeptical and questioning, I am also hopeful. I’m a very political person and believe in possibility of progress …. So, in my writerhead, I’m constantly refining my position, questioning myself, and others, and trying to figure out what makes sense and is convincing. Is that fair? Is this what I think? I am always, always turning such questions over in my head. They are my version of Montaigne’s Que sais-je?, or What do I know?
March 9, 2012 § 16 Comments
By Paul Haney
Chicago 2012 was my first AWP, and as such, by week’s end, I was pooped. All those panels, all them booths, all that cold Chicago out there to mess around in. But as one who check-boxed all the nonfiction-themed panels on the schedule, I had one more to attend in the last slot on Saturday evening: “Lyric Essay: A Collapse of Forms, or a Form of Collapse.” It turned out to be the most contentious panel of the week.
My girlfriend, though professedly not a writer (I would argue, Who isn’t?), came with me to the panel as it fit in our schedule between seeing the jellyfish at the Shedd aquarium and meeting friends for dinner over a Chicago deep dish pizza. As the discussion got underway, she slouched down and stared at the laces on her boots. I sat up and got out my notebook.
Wendy Rawlings posed the issue for the panel, a certain “pedagogical vacuum” she had found between narrative nonfiction and the lyric essay in which she struggled to articulate and define for her students the rules and allowances for truth, fact, and art within that spectrum.
Jocelyn Bartkevicius addressed the matter first, speaking at length about Virginia Woolf’s wandering, narrative “I,” and the slipperiness caused by allowing writers to stretch the truth, play with details, and force the reader to discern fact from fantasy. Memory is the essential self, Bartkevicius seemed to say, and the essay should mirror actual memory, like Woolf’s essays, and not fabricate details. It’s the image of the mind we’re after, not perfect prose and narrative arc.
After Bartkevicius’ scholarly approach, Steven Church drew a humorous analogy between the lyric essay, a genre that has come to be defined as a compromise between poetry and prose, both lyric and narrative, and the contemporary stereotype of the hipster. The lyric essay’s cooler than everyone, above reproach because it knows more than everybody else, like an inside joke. According to Church, at its worst, the lyric essay “dances in sequined pants” without having anything to say. At its best, it preferences subjective perception over collective, and respects the “writer-reader relationship that makes nonfiction special.”
I thought Church was forceful and funny. My girlfriend studied her fingernails.
Next Colin Rafferty spoke from personal experience as the first faculty ever hired as an essayist at the University of Mary Washington. Rafferty said that nonfiction is becoming more prevalent in creative writing departments across the country, and with the essay grabbing a place in the university, nonfictionists are having to grapple over a definition of who they are and what exactly their genre does. This is a good and necessary thing, he said. He also asserted that once an essay privileges fact and truth, it can get as lyrical as the author would like.
There seemed to be an implicit reference in Rafferty’s concluding remarks to the recent hubbub over John D’Agata’s blatant dismissal of absolute fact. Earlier, Bartkevicius had ostensibly thrown D’Agata with James Frey in the bucket of writers who fib and betray.
The final speaker, Ned Stuckey-French, directed his comments straight at D’Agata in a “Dear John letter.” “It’s over, John,” he repeated, deadpan, and used the form and tone to admonish D’Agata’s fact-stretching, adherence to the label “creative nonfiction” (“‘creative’ as opposed to what,” Stuckey-French asked, “‘destructive’”?), and deracination of essays from their original context in anthologies without acknowledging the interpretative effects of such an act. The audience chuckled throughout. My girlfriend crossed her arms.
And then it happened. In the Q&A, the first questioner spoke with such vehemence and conviction in defense of John D’Agata that the room broke into a free-for-all, the panelists scrambled to shield themselves from AWP field guides-turned-projectiles, and audience members dove into the fracas in the name of nonfiction.
Okay, so it wasn’t that intense.
But the questioner did say that to put D’Agata in the same sentence with James Frey was inane and ingenuous because the book itself, About a Mountain, points out every instance of fudging with the facts in a special notes section in the back. She accused the panel at hand, as well as all the other panels that weekend who took up the D’Agata controversy, of character assassination, of making the issue personal, of seeking to ruin a man’s reputation because of some set of arbitrary, nebulous, incipient, prescriptive rules of composition. When she finished making her objection, the questioner received a few smatters of applause from around the room.
It was a question that ended with a period.
And was followed by an awkward silence. The panel leaned forward on their elbows.
“Is there a question?” Rawlings said.
Rafferty was the first to respond and attempted an informative, cogent answer that would also pacify tempers. When he was done, others audience members from the D’Agata camp demanded more answers.
“Look,” Stuckey-French said, pulling the microphone close. “I’m not really breaking up with John D’Agata.” It seemed to me that the rhetorical moves made in the panel’s presentations—Bartkevicius’ bucket of betrayal; Stuckey-French’s breakup letter—hit a sore spot that had reached its pain threshold. But I wondered, wasn’t the panel somewhat playing devil’s advocate? Weren’t they using D’Agata not as a punching bag, but as a learning moment, a launching pad for an important discussion in a nascent genre?
As we left, I looked to my girlfriend for answers. “What’d you think?”
“It was like a giant inside joke I wasn’t let in on.”
“What about the disagreement at the end?”
“I don’t know why people care so much.”
Maybe that’s the question we should be asking.
Paul Haney is soon to receive his Master’s in Literature from Florida State University. His has a nonfiction piece forthcoming in Redividerand shudders to think of the angry horde of fact checkers waiting to dismantle it. He is originally from Orlando
March 8, 2012 § 44 Comments
I’m afraid it’s over between us.
You know how important you’ve been to me. I’ve adopted The Next American Essay for classes. I reviewed The Lost Origins of the Essay and sang its praises. Carl Klaus and I have included your 2003 headnote about lyric essays, the one that introduced Jenny Boully to the world, in our new anthology, Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. I admire you, John, but admiration isn’t enough, and now you’ve even undercut some of that admiration. It’s over, John.
But, nevertheless, we should talk. I owe it to you to tell you what I really think.
What I think, John, is that you’ve fallen between two stools. You have, but the essay hasn’t. Let me explain. When Karen Rosica called you a “journalist poet,” indeed a “passionate journalist poet,” you should have just gone with it. You should have thank her and moved on. I know the word “journalist” bugs you. Don’t let it. That’s the way it is with our genre – by which I mean, the essay, not the lyric essay, but of that, more in a minute. The essay has always been about facts and literature, about memory and imagination, about journalism and literature, about plain old truth (aka accuracy) and Truth with a capital T. But when she said “journalist poet,” you apparently got your dander up. The adjective and the noun seem like they’re in contradiction. So what? Contradict yourself, be large, contain multitudes.
Instead, you’ve turned it into a false either/or, John – Fish Wrap journalism versus Pure Poetry. It doesn’t have to be that way. And I think you know it. That’s why you went looking for an adjective yourself. How about ‘lyric essay’?” you said. And you were right and I like that about you, John. I really do. You and Deborah were out ahead of us all, giving a name to those beautiful essays that weren’t afraid to be beautiful, essays we were already reading and teaching – “Living Like Weasels,” “The White Album,” “Delft” – but not yet calling lyric. And then you went further/ You went looking for new ones and found them – “The Body” and “Ticket to the Fair.” Thank you for that. You gave those essays a name, you collected them in one place, you re-imagined anthologies, making them almost essays themselves by writing your headnotes as one long narrative essay (yeah, a little self-satisfied sometimes and show-offy, but hey, that’s you, John, and that’s okay – the book worked, it really did).
You kept going and I was still with you when The Lost Origins of the Essay came out. Sometimes, it did feel like you were pushing too far, but hey, that’s what you do and we’ve all got to do. I understand. You’re shaking things up. And even then, some of it made perfect sense, right from the start. When you put it in this new context, “On Some Verses of Virgil” was immediately transformed into a lyric essay for me. Of course, I thought – it’s not about Virgil and hexameters, it never was – it’s about sex and lyrical digressions. I even liked, as a kind of thought experiment, the idea of reading “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” as a lyric essays, though I finally decided that the one is a prose poem and the other is a short story.
I have to say, John, you’re an 8-hour day. You’re learned and heavy. You really are. It’s a lot of what drew me to you originally – all that learning, all that classical learning. I mean you translated your own Latin and Greek in The Lost Origins of the Essay. The trip back to Mesopotamia and Heraclitus, the willingness to range across Europe and Asia in search of lyric essays was …well…a trip. Mind-boggling really. Thank you. The book Carl Klaus and I edited is the better for it. You got us searching outside the Anglo-American tradition, and that improved our book, for we found new essays about the essay – lots of them – by Latin Americans, French Canadians, Germans, even an Australian. I don’t think we’d have done that if you hadn’t gone there first.
I understand why you went in search of an adjective to put in front of “essay.” People have looked for adjectives for centuries. Before we had lyric essays, we had periodical essays, formal essays, informal essays, review essays, romantic essays, and, of course, personal essays. And, with your classical background, I know that you know that what that word “lyric” can bring is its classical Greek connotations – a solitary song, not a chorus, sung by a single musing singer to the accompaniment of a lyre (pronounced liar).
Well, we’ve ditched the lyre, but I know what you’re going for with the term – the poetic, the densely figurative, the brief exploration of a mood or idea, and yes, a little looser connection to facts. It’s reaction maybe to that ugly, ugly term “creative nonfiction.” Or as Scott Sanders so nicely put it, creative nonfiction is “an exceedingly vague term, taking in everything from telephone books to Walden, and it’s negative, implying that fiction is the norm against which everything else must be measured. It’s as though, instead of calling an apple a fruit, we called it a non-meat.”
So yeah, I understand, John. “Nonfiction” as a term sucks and you’ve got to dress it up with an adjective, but “creative” isn’t much help. Creative as opposed to what? Destructive? And if “essay” as a term is pulled toward nonfiction and journalism, I can understand wanting to dress up “essay” with an adjective. But, you’ve got to be careful, John. In your hurry to get away from journalism and to get some of the cachet of poetry, you can go too far.
I like lyric essays but I don’t think there is such a thing as pure poetry, at least not on this earth. Which is not to say pure poetry is not a worthy goal. It’s a fine, but tricky, goal. Seeking after pure poetry can lead one to beautiful flights of language and high lyricism, indeed some of the best essays we have, but it can also lead to disengagement, solipsism and art-for-art’s-sake. I think investigative reporting, the slick paper of commercialism, the hurry-up of deadlines, and the political engagement of journalism can be good things for an essay, even a lyric essay.
Look at your own anthologies, John. Take John McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” which is the first essay in The Next American Essay. I’m glad it’s there in your anthology, but as Lynn Bloom has pointed out, “All anthologies…deracinate their material—old or new—from its original context and replant it in the anthologist’s soil.” McPhee’s essay appeared originally in the September 9, 1972 issue of The New Yorker (though you messed up, John, and said 1975 – probably could have used a good copy editor or fact-checker). I love McPhee’s essay – its braided narratives, its history of the Gilded Age, its ongoing Monopoly game, and its walking tour of Atlantic City in 1972 when racial strife, economic decay, and rampant drug use have made it a bombed out shell of its former self. But, the essay is also a comment on The New Yorker, the magazine that is its and McPhee’s home. The essay’s irony, indeed its lyricism, rings with a new sound when you read it next to the ads for Sony, Estée Lauder, Lord & Taylor, and L. L. Bean that surrounded it when it was in The New Yorker.
Or look at another one of your selections, another one of your lyric essays: Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” her famous disjunctive and helter-skelter good-bye to Sixties. Three sections of this essay appeared originally as installments of her “Points West” column in The Saturday Evening Post. The Saturday Evening Post, John! The Saturday Evening Fucking Post! Norman Rockwell’s magazine. Didion discussed the context of these pieces in Paris Review interview, in which she recalled how she and her husband John Gregory Dunne moved to California in June of 1964. “I started doing pieces for The Saturday Evening Post,” she said. “We needed the money because neither one of us was working.” The Post, she explained, was “on the verge of folding” and so “would let you do whatever you wanted.” What had once been the magazine of Norman Rockwell, now was trying unsuccessfully to rebrand itself as some weird combination of Esquire and Cosmopolitan. The section of “The White Album” on Huey Newton and the Black Panthers appeared in an issue the cover of which promised to explain “How Barney Rosset Publishes ‘Dirty Books’ for Fun & Profit.” The section about Jim Morrison and The Doors was illustrated with a photograph of Lizard King without a shirt and had a cover that featured a teaser in which Vanessa Redgrave announced, “I’ve Always Known I Was Sexy.”
Even lyric essays, even your lyric essays, were published first in general magazines, middlebrow magazines, political magazines, women’s magazines, and even, heaven forbid, commercial or mass-market magazines. Writing to make a point or a buck certainly has its dangers, but it does not necessarily preclude one from writing lyrically or creating something of lasting literary merit.
John, you’ve ignored where at least some of your lyric essays came from and you’ve begun to draw too sharp a distinction between journalism and the lyric essay. And, as a consequence, you’ve ended up arguing too strenuously against facts and prose and journalism and mass culture and commerce. On the first page of The Next American Essay, you announced, “I want you preoccupied with art in this book, not with facts for the sake of facts.” And in the opening of The Lost Origins of the Essay, you wrote, “I am here in search of art. I am here to track the origins of an alternative to commerce.”
Well, all and good, John, but you’ve gotten carried away, and I’m starting to distrust your motives. Don’t write essays just so you can be a poet, John. Don’t write essays just so you can wear a beret. Maybe it’s time for you to come home to America, maybe it’s time for you to stop being quite so high faltutin’. I worry that you’ve gone so Continental, so post-modern, so highbrow, so, dare I say, lyrical because you’re running away from journalism.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not running to journalism and mass culture exactly, just not away from it. And neither am I arguing that Hollywood, television, slick magazines, and the lure of big book deals have not been treacherous in their own ways. Nor am I arguing that little magazines and alternative presses do not play a role, an important role, in the struggle against monopoly capitalism and for art. What I am arguing is that this is the way it is. We live in a world in which commerce touches everything and art is never pure. All of these things – slick magazines and little magazines, blogs and books, high culture and mass culture – make up the terrain in which art is made and read. I am arguing that we must proceed on all fronts and that there is also a role to be played by those who publish in mainstream magazines and get paid in cash rather than copies.
There’s an American essayist on the essay I think you should read – Berton Braley. He’s a funny guy who wrote a piece, called “On Being an Essayist” for The Bookman back in 1920. In it he said that the “elect” had become too protective of the essay, and literature more generally. The essay, he said, was possessed of a “Little Lord Fauntleroy complex.” It was too intent on being literary and had become “a precious, precious thing.” The essay needed, said Braley, to romp around again and get “all mussed up with the butcher’s boy and the rest of the crowd in Dugan’s back lot,” it needed “to play with the rough common boys of Popularity and Commercialism.”
I know you’d like to do that too, John, and that a respect for, or at least attraction to, journalism is some of why you wrote About a Mountain and let Norton bill it as “an investigation of Yucca Mountain and human destruction in Las Vegas,” a “[b]earing witness to the parade of scientific, cultural, and political facts that give shape to Yucca’s story.” “Facts,” John? “Facts”? I’m for facts. You’re not for facts. I understand there’s a gray area. I understand memory must be supplemented by imagination. I understand we need, sometimes, to compress time and accelerate a narrative. I understand that the stage can get too crowded and we might need to delete a character or fold some others into a composite character. I’m not a dodo, and I love the idea at least of writing a book about the gamble that is Yucca Mountain and the pit of poison that is Las Vegas, about your mother’s life and Levi Presley’s death, but geesh, changing the timing of that poor dead boy’s death. Necessary? I don’t think so.
John, I don’t think I’ve changed. I think you’ve changed. I still love lyric essays. But I don’t love you anymore. I do hope we can still be friends.
Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is book review editor of Fourth Genre. He is the author of The American Essay in the American Century, coauthor (with Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, and co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of the just-released Essayists on the Essay. The two previous sentences are true, but he does not always tell the truth.
December 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
Review of Ned Stuckey-French’s The American Essay in the American Century
University of Missouri 2011
By Cassandra Kircher
The first time I read E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” it seduced me. I was in graduate school when a professor assigned it, and the essay brought back scenes from all the years I had once spent at a lake in northern Wisconsin. The same lake my father had gone to as a boy. The one where I hoped to take my own future daughter or son. A place where swim trunks always hung drying on clotheslines and the long station-wagon ride to get there was as anticipatory as foreplay. Where all three of us kids slept in the cottage’s screened-in porch and fishermen waited hours before pull-starting their motors and heading in. Where thunderstorms kicked up white waves and we watched blueberries turn navy, though we never saved enough for a pie. Those summers were the season in my childhood, when my soul was steeped in nature, the lake around us one big womb, the blue heron an acquaintance decorating Boathouse Bay, the neighbor—Colonel Finn—sitting on his porch most days as if he were asleep. The newspaper over his chest, his head tipped way back waiting for a shave.
“Once More to the Lake” nudged me into what White calls “the grooves that lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing.” The same essay, indeed all of White’s work, helped lead Ned Stuckey-French back in time, though in a less personal and sentimental way, to an understanding of White’s place in the essay’s development, especially in America from 1880 to 1940. In The American Essay in the American Century, Stuckey-French places the essay in history and uses what essayists themselves say about the form to show how the genteel essay, grounded in highbrow culture and practiced by writers such as Matthew Arnold, Leslie Stephen, Charles Lamb, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, was being threatened to “death.” What follows is a fascinating whodunit, wherein Stuckey-French posits the Ford Model T, the suburban living room, consumer society, popular magazines, and a fast-paced modern life as possible murder suspects. As Stephen put it in 1881, “we are too distracted, too hurried” for the personal essay. By the turn of the century, magazine articles—dubbed “light essays” by Christopher Morley—all but choked out the genteel essay. A hybrid of literature and journalism, light essays were shorter and more ironic than their predecessors. Often structured with a clear beginning, middle, and end (not the rambling quality of the genteel essay), they reached the middle-class and middle-brow at the breakfast table and helped readers understand modern life. Arguably, the light essay lacked style. Decidedly, Stuckey-French’s sleuthing helps readers map the personal essay during a transitional period of literary history.
E. B. White is Stuckey-French’s hero, and in many ways, he is mine—not only did I swoon over “Once More to the Lake” all those years ago, but White’s work, as much as any other essayist’s, also attracted me to a genre that I hardly knew existed. In The American Essay in the American Century, Stuckey-French makes White pivotal, featuring him in the last two chapters and arguing that he is the “greatest American essayist of the first half of the twentieth century,” a writer who gave birth to “a new kind of American essay—one that was awake and engaged, that could talk about Hitler and hogs, and still be enchanting.” By connecting the personal essay to American political and cultural history, Stuckey-French untangles literary history to reveal an artist finding his own voice and experimenting with form yet still reaching a large audience and remaining political. In short, an artist who rescues the essay.
Stuckey-French uses White not only to help defend the personal essay, but also to defend teaching it in undergraduate writing courses by placing it in its historical circumstances. The American Essay in the American Century ends with a rereading of “Once More to the Lake” that sets it beside the world war during which it was written. It’s a reading that Stuckey-French claims “opens [White’s essay] up in new ways. It becomes larger.” And it does—even for readers who already value its power.
Cassandra Kircher teaches nonfiction at Elon University. Her personal essays have appeared in Cold Mountain Review, Flyway: A Journal of Writing and Environment, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, among others.