Let’s Play a Game, Boy and Girls of Nonfiction!

June 20, 2011 § 16 Comments


Here’s the game:  How many untruths, half-truths, misconceptions, or cheap shots can you find in the just the first paragraph of this article from BOOKFORUM?

Adolescent Truth: The incredible Jo Ann Beard makes the leap to fiction

By Francesca Mari

Jo Ann Beard is primarily known as a writer of that somewhat stigmatized genre, creative nonfiction. But what is creative nonfiction? How does it differ from the ineffably hipper “new journalism”? Same reliance on the stylistic techniques of fiction, but no facts, only memories and musings? Is “creative nonfiction” just the academy’s mask for much-maligned memoir? For the fact is, those graduating from an MFA program like the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, as Beard did in 1994, will likely need a day job. Beard, for one, became managing editor of the university’s space-physics quarterly. She liked the comfort of it, and the flexible hours, and then on a day she left the office early, an unhinged Ph.D. student shot and killed the journal’s editor—her close friend—as well as five others.

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§ 16 Responses to Let’s Play a Game, Boy and Girls of Nonfiction!

  • Gary Presley says:

    Let’s stop at “mean-spirit misconceptions” …

  • Matt Tullis says:

    First off, nobody uses the term new journalism anymore. Maybe Tom Wolfe, but that’s about it. Secondly, new journalism IS creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is not just memoir. Christ. Pick up a copy of Esquire Magazine and read Chris Jones or Tom Junod. Or a copy of The Atlantic and read Brian Mockenhaupt. Or Wright Thompson at ESPN.com or Thomas Lake in Sports Illustrated or Erin Sullivan, Michael Kruse, Ben Montgomery or Lane DeGregory in the St. Petersburg Times. There is plenty of CNF out there that is not just memoir, just as there are plenty of memoirs that are not just fuzzy memories without facts.

    • Go get ’em Matt. Sorry that this comment ended up in our Spam folder for a week or so, but we’ve retrieved it now, thank goodness.

      New Journalism! It’s the Groove Thing!

  • I’ve got an even ten, Dinty.

    1. The doubleness of “adolescent” in the headline, which indicates not just the age of the protagonists in Jo Ann’s wonderful new novel, In Zanesville, but also suggests that the “truth” here is also lesser, undeveloped, immature.

    2. Perhaps I’m being defensive, but given the trashing of creative nonfiction that the first paragraph offers, I wonder if “incredible” in the headline doesn’t push incredible toward unbelievable or unreliable, and away from stupendous (which is exactly what Jo Ann is).

    3. “Somewhat stigmatized,” is a misdirection, as in we’re about to stigmatize but maybe you won’t notice that’s what I’m doing if I claim that someone else has already done it.

    4. “New Journalism” is hipper? I am reminded of Eric the Clown in the Seinfeld episode, The Fire, who tells George, “You’re livin’ in the past, man! You’re hung up on some clown from the sixties, man!” Which is not to say New Journalism is a clown or not hip, but just that establishing a hierarchy of genres is an insidious pursuit and that if you’re going to indulge in it, you sure as hell ought to know your history.

    5. “only memories and musings”? only? ONLY? Try it. This memory stuff, this reflecting on the memories. It ain’t so easy and it is IMAGINATIVE. There is no Great Wall of China between memory and imagination. They are the Hanzel and Gretel of what we do.

    6. I hate the term “creative nonfiction” too (as Scott Sanders said it 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.”), but it is ubiquitous and goes beyond the academy. This is more than an ivory tower, egghead debate.

    7. Most writers need a day job, though creative nonfiction writers may actually be a little less above writing on deadlines, writing for money, writing journalism, writing on assignment. Still, as an Iowa Creative Nonfiction grad myself, who is married to an Iowa Writer’s Workshop fiction grad, I can testify to the need for a day job. It’s the poets, of course, who make the big money and don’t need a day job.

    8. “the comfort of it” — Jo Ann’s day job was not comforting exactly. It was tedious and required a lot of attention to detail, and sometimes left her coddling academic prima donnas. It was less uncomfortable than divorce, the dying dog, and the literal squirrels in her attic that at that time constituted the rest of her life.

    9. The insinuation that Jo Ann cut out of work early that day is a cheap shot. She didn’t. As the writer said earlier (but apparently forgot or tried to suggest otherwise), the hours were flexible. She split the job with her friend Mary Allen who came in to the office later. Believe me, there is enough survivor’s guilt. It was hard enough to write about this; don’t cheapen the effort with that kind of insinuation.

    10. Finally, I don’t like the little chicken shit qualifiers and intensifiers: “primarily,” “somewhat,” “ineffably,” and “likely.” They too are lies.

    Oh, you got me revved up, Dinty. I just read Jo Ann’s novel and it is terrific — funny, unflinching, and tender. Jo Ann is a good friend and one of the hardest working, most serious writers I know. She doesn’t need my help, but there you have it.

  • Elizabeth Hilts says:

    My question is this: “How can such a poorly written piece have been published at all?” Is this about Jo Ann Beard’s writing, the lack of jobs for those with MFAs, or is it about the havoc wrought by an unhinged Ph.D. “student” (I’ve always heard those pursuing a Ph.D. referred to as “candidates”)?

  • Elizabeth Hilts says:

    And I love Ned’s #7—yes, the poets do make the big money (as long as they have a day job in finance).

  • I don’t understand this little snip; it meanders to nowhere–strikes me as whiney and unclear. I’m left wondering, what is this writer’s point? Isn’t it a basic composition rule that one states his/her point in the beginning of an essay? After reading this I’m like, WTF? What is this about??

    Some possibilities of aboutness:

    1. Jo Ann Beard, the incredible-leaping-adolescent-writer

    2. Either the hipper ‘new journalism’ or creative nonfiction (or both) rely on the stylistic techniques of fiction…no facts…only memories and musings.

    3. Your MFA in writing degree (even if from the prestigious Iowa University)–is worthless–perhaps you ought to consider a job at a fast food place.

    4. Jo Ann Beard was an editor because she was lazy and wanted flexible hours and she may have had advanced knowledge of an impending shooting.

  • Valentina says:

    A candidate is someone who has completed their coursework and comprehensive exams but has yet to complete their thesis or dissertation. This is often referred to as ABD “All But Dissertation” or from the sheer exhaustion of it all and the Dissertation yet to come, ABD has come to mean “All But Dead”! xov

  • Sonya Huber says:

    My personal favorite is “no facts.” That’s all I can type without my head exploding, so I’m going to save myself by stopping right there. And that is a FACT.

  • Jo Ann Beard wrote one of my favorite short story collections. Boys of My Youth is worn and dogeared and treasured. I didn’t know she had a novel out and am downloading it right now. As much as I dislike the article, I’m thrilled I stumbled on Dinty’s post, read the comments, and learned about Beard’s new book.

    Ned Stuckey-French, I’m so sorry your friend, a brilliant writer, had to go through such a terrible tragedy.

  • Very informative and interesting, thanks a lot!

  • kerfuffler says:

    I’m a Bookforum subscriber and novelist who didn’t have the pleasure of attending an MFA program, and I’ve got to say, looking at the level of severely nitpicky discourse on this page, that I’m glad I didn’t. Did anyone read past this first paragraph before bringing out the cudgels? It’s a gushing review of Jo Ann Beard’s work — all of it — and a *defense* of creative non-fiction.

    “The essay Beard wrote in the wake of the tragedy, “The Fourth State of Matter,” shows just what creative nonfiction can do. It makes a point of delineating first the quotidian bleakness of her recently separated life, and only then the shooting that bursts in on it. We meet her incontinent collie; then, obliquely, the future victims in her office building: “Space physicists, guys who spend days on end with their heads poked through the fabric of the sky, listening to the sounds of the universe, guys whose own lives are ticking like alarm clocks getting ready to go off, although none of us are aware of it yet.” Visually acute, intensely personal, and all the more affecting for being emotionally muffled, the piece, which was published in the New Yorker in 1996, launched Beard’s career. Her acclaimed and unclassifiable collection of personal essays, The Boys of My Youth, followed two years after.”

  • Yes, I did read the full article, and to be honest, the articulateness of the body of the piece — including the passage you quote here — left me all the more baffled by the inarticulate, sloppy, mistake-riddled opening. Perhaps it was bad editing. But the first paragraph remains, and it is horrible.

  • It is often true that one’s writing is improved by deleting the beginning (graph, page(s), etc). I don’t think this beginning can be saved–I say strike it! Also, if I were reading this as a submission I would have a hard time getting beyond this beginning without rejecting this piece. An editor’s job is to nitpick, no?

  • JL McClure says:

    The chronology is off. It implies that Beard got her MFA in 1994, had to get a day job as editor, and then went through the trauma of the killings. But the killings happened on Nov. 1, 1991, probably Beard’s first semester at the UI. Also, the shooter was a post-doctoral student; he had already written his dissertation and received his PhD; he lost it when his dissertation didn’t receive a prestigious award. (From someone with an MA in creative writing from the UI (a couple of years before it became an MFA) and who was still living in Iowa City at the time.)

  • Jennifer says:

    seems as if Mari is using all those qualifiers in place of ” air quotes “

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