AWP 2012 — The Hipster Genre and The Inside Joke
March 9, 2012 § 18 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
Paul, I was also at the session and I enjoyed your essay very much-thanks
Great essay! It made me wish I could have been there. I think using your girlfriend to express the distance between those of us who are troubled by the evaporation of factual truth (not only in writing but also in our society) and those who don’t see the importance was very effective. As society become more and more indifferent to the difference, the debate among writers may fade as well, but I hope not!
I agree with Lyn. Your girlfriend’s presence reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s use of “Native Companion” in “Ticket to the Fair,” one of the essays I mentioned in my talk. Good company to run with.
Good job, Paul. Thanks again.
I’m glad you all enjoyed it. It was interesting to me to get an outsider’s point of view on what must seem like a pedantic debate. Then again, I think the machinations behind the writing *should be* invisible to a wide audience. All they need to see (and buy) is the final product. My girlfriend is a voracious reader (and she claims she wasn’t as bored as I made her out to be–fact check!), but to listen to writers debate the ethics of writing must’ve been like hearing chefs debate the best way to grill a steak: Just let me eat the damn thing.
Actually, that debate sounds fascinating. But you get the point. It’s a matter of perspective, and I think we should keep the reader in mind always, which the panel and the questioner were doing by standing up for the product.
Thank you. Excellent coverage. Your girlfriend is right and I think you are too, as are many of the commenters.
Lay readers and the broader public have not weighed in on this discussion: it’s confined to the inside which has vested interests: writers, academics, writing teachers.
That it’s a debate is kind of an interesting and predictable exercise; however, your point about of Rawlings’ struggle is germane: there is absolutely pedagogical vacuum because the genres are artificial.
Rafferty’s comments make sense as well.
To what degree is this debate about survival of a form? To what degree is this about the business — and specifically the academic marketing and teaching business of writing.
Academia’s character and reputation assassinations — in all fields — is insane and expected. How it gets away with it is beyond me. It’s just bad manners. But it is an expectation within the field: it’s how D’Agata can stand up and say he doesn’t think non fiction can be art..(which makes me wonder… to create art, one needs to play with the facts? 😉 ). I think I’ve said this before…D’Agata aping Duchamp (A work called a fountain when it’s utilitarian name is urinal)
At the end of the day, however, the writing industry is both imploding and exploding. New and established writers are challenging the styles and formats and since the early 1990s, even the facts. And if readers buy into it, and think it’s cool, then why not? Of course it becomes a marketing nightmare for publishers and writing schools if there are 1 billion wannabe writers and no genres to hook the target reader.
Perhaps what’s surfaced, besides ego and emotion, is that the social or emotional contract between writers and readers (or readers of a certain generation) is changing. If that’s true, then the paradigms around the genres need to reflect some of that as well. All social contracts are changing in all industries and all arts. If writing is an art that reflects its time, it’s not going to be immune to those pressures.
So…. someone going to do a research project?
eep! missplaced apostrophe: sorry (should read — its utilitarian….)
Super essay–I agree that it makes me wish I had been there. And I hope we never live in a society where no one cares about the difference between truth and fiction, because that’s really what this is about, to me. Not just putting labels on genres or styles, but simply being open and honest about one’s motives. If you change the facts for your art, you have shifted into the realms of fiction. To me, it’s as simple as that.
[…] This begs the question: why get all record store clerk-y and come up with a sub-genre, an inside joke, other than to exclude readers and make those in the know feel more […]
A wonderful essay. I question the person who said the notes in the back of About a Mountain admit every instance of fudging now highlighted in The Lifespan of a Fact.
I sat down and read the notes at the end of the book today. A tedious exercise, and strange and perplexing. I didn’t find at least two items I read about in the excerpt of The Lifespan of a Fact; the notes appear to address the issues D’Agata apparently felt were significant at the time.
The appearance of the notes section itself in the book gives an overwhelmingly sincere impression, that of a very hard working and intellectual reporter. Almost no one would bother to read them in the first place, since they are not flagged in the text, per each item, but done by page number in the back. You wouldn’t think to turn to the back to check something presented as a matter of fact. And, as I say, reading them at once stuns the brain. Maybe that was the joke, or the reward, for anyone dogged or dumb enough to read the notes?
He does finger his characters and trips that were composites, issues that don’t bother me personally since his means (many events over a lot of time) and motives (representative tour guides, for instance) were clear and understandable, but the changes around the boy’s suicide bothered me as much as ever. In the text he says “there is no explanation for the confluence that night” of the Senate vote on Yucca Mountain and the boy’s death, and then reveals in the note that there was no confluence at all. Weird.
Probably the oddest thing I found in the notes is that a congressional act “which is one page long” in the text was “actually only two sentences long,” per its note, and I can’t understand why he changed that in the first place. It seems perverse and almost self destructive of him, given how hard he obviously worked on the book and how beautifully he constructed it.
Thanks, Richard, for the really interesting analysis of the notes section of the book. Those items you point to–the “confluence,” the congressional act–do seem fishy, or at least odd. This definitely informs my opinion of the matter.
Thanks for this.
Yeah this is helpful stuff, Richard.
John D’Agata was one of the first people I thought of when I heard about the fraud scandal at “This American Life,” one of my absolute favorite go-to shows for creative nonfiction. I recognize that “This American Life” is more about making the personal political than it is about hard news reportage, but I think Ira Glass would agree that there’s a certain level of integrity we need to adhere to and I really hope that’s not just a quandary for the hipsters alone.
Good point. Daisey was interviewed here on the CBC in February and while it was very clear that was he was doing was theatre, his presentation to the listening public of what led him to create the work was that he ran into facts, truths and evidence that he said the IPAD and APPLE buying public needed and should know. At no time did he say he stretched a truth, or mashed together a bunch of little facts, or fabricated anything. That would have been helpful to know at any point during the interview. Or anytime thereafter.
Perhaps what he does do is lend credence to D’Agata’s other assertion: that the purpose of art is to trick. Clearly a certain group of artists take it to heart.
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