Michael Martone on “the fabrication business”
August 26, 2008 § 5 Comments
From Dinty W. Moore, BREVITY EDITOR:
I am a staunch fan of Michael Martone — love his writing, love the way that he pushes the envelope for all of us. At the same time, I still think that genre — is this fiction or nonfiction — does matter, and I sink dejectedly into my seat every time Martone (pictured on the right, at a recent AWP Conference) suggests it does not. So he makes me uncomfortable, which, since we are in the business of making art, is actually a decidedly good thing.
So to keep the discomfort going, here’s an excerpt from a fascinating interview with Martone, wherein he makes some strong points suggesting that genre-conservatives like myself are all wrong-headed about this insistence on the ‘truth’ distinction:
“I want to think of what I do as writing and let the speciation to others. Many artists draw, use watercolor, paint in oils, sculpt, construct, assemble, paste. They mix their media but it is all seen as art, and issues of its fact or fiction seem beside the point to me. Well at least beside the point when the thing is in the making. I am in the fabrication business and there are different gradients on that scale of fiction and non-, I suppose, but none I worry about as I am doing them. I have a fiction in the voice of Dan Quayle who is writing an essay; a book about Michael Martone written by Michael Martone in the voice and form of his, Michael Martone’s, biographer; I have an essay in the voice of Michael Martone on the fictional creation of a character named Bobby Knight. To me the differences are in the details at a microscopic scale, not at the much larger one of genre.”
Read the rest of the interesting interview over at THE QUARTERLY CONVERSATION.
I think the problem (of lying “nonfiction”) is at root one of marketing. Even us literary folk love a good story, which means we love drama, which means we buy books with exotic and extraordinary plots. And if they’re “true stories,” we salivate even more! Some writers and publishers realize that they’ll sell a hell of a lot more books if something way-out-freaky happened to the author/protagonist. This gives a tremendous incentive to the less-scrupulous among us to fudge the facts, to make themselves out to be more of a victim or hero. Frankly, I’m tired of sensationalist memoirs, books that try to keep readers turning the pages, half in fascination, half in revulsion. I want to summon David Shields here: “The world exists. Why recreate it? I want to think about it, try to understand it.…I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation.…The real story isn’t the drama of what happens; it’s what we’re thinking about while nothing, or very little, is happening.”
I note that the essay form has remained–as far as I can tell, and I do study essays for a living–above this argument. For one example: Ian Frazier’s latest book, Lamentations of the Father, says right there on the cover “Essays,” yet the contents are not entirely nonfictional. Was he really married to Liz Taylor for a brief period? Do aptitude tests really suggest that kids become murders? Did the Pope send a thank you note to Martin Luther? Did he get Russell Crowe to make an uncredited cameo in the book? I think this is because 1) the essay doesn’t sell; 2) essay writers tend to make their fictionizing obvious; 3) essay readers tend to realize when their essayist is pulling their leg. This stuff goes back long centuries, even to one of our most famous essayists, Charles Lamb, who was not really an Italian immigrant named Elia.
I want to insert here that I do believe that nonfictional forms (essay, memoir, travel) ought to be nonfictional. I write my own work with that guiding principle. But a deft essayist can use fiction without lying.
I’ve not read all of Michael Martone’s work, but I’ve read a good bit, and I’ve never found him aggrandizing and vainglorying. He stays put in the literary camp, playing with genre expectations, which is far different from pumping up his image to sell more books.
But a deft essayist can use fiction without lying.
I found everything Patrick wrote really eloquent and to-the-point, but wanted to draw particular attention to the truth of this statement. I feel like this is a sentiment I’ve tried to express to students in the past, but never so succinctly.
There are countless examples of the use of fiction in essays, a practice that to me seems legitimate: the writer telegraphs (directly or even obliquely) that he’s using fiction, and the careful reader (and who but a careful reader is interested in essays?) understands and agrees to go along. Why? Because fiction is sometimes the most resonating way to get to a truth.
And by truth I don’t mean a thing (like it seems we’re talking about in memoir) but a value: something that changes the way we see the world around us, or even the one inside us. This type of truth, of course, is hard to legislate, and I almost want to say that a good essay has more in common with fiction than with other types of nonfiction.
Yikes, is that heresy?
On a side note, a lot of people hate the term ‘creative nonfiction’ but what about the equally bad ‘nonfiction’? Anything named with a word that translates as ‘not something else’ is bound to have identity problems.
It’s probably a crime (or at least a sin) to say you don’t like something and not offer a suggestion for improving it, but I don’t know that any one answer would satisfy writers, readers, publishers, and bookstores. When friends ask what I write, I usually say ‘personal essays’ and then do a little song and dance trying to explain it. But when I’m alone, sitting at the computer? I’m just writing a story.
Another Amen, Patrick.
Also, Lorri, I think you make an interesting point about the word “nonfiction.” To me “nonfiction” connotes a just-the-facts-ma’am form in which little or no imagination informs the form itself, a form in which presenting information for consumption is the primary goal. And marketers labeling a collection of essays as nonfiction may lead readers to assume essays are essentially information dumps, places where imagination/creativity are suspect.
Freelance journalist, and advocate of narrative journalism, Bill Marvel recently wrote that writing is probably not one of the best ways to convey information, at least not as good as charts or graphs or lists. “Writing,” he writes, “best conveys something else: Thought and experience.” At the heart of his argument is the defense of story, of thought and experience shaped through story, using language as a medium.
That’s not a picture of Michael Martone — or was that your point?