AWP 2012 — The Hipster Genre and The Inside Joke
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