Creative Nonfiction as Cultural Cosmetic Surgery

October 22, 2012 § 4 Comments

Triquarterly has reprinted a peculiar, disturbing, not-what-it-seems-at-first essay that uses the account of a sexual assault to interrogate recent discussions about the importance of fact in nonfiction. We at Brevity imagine there will be some shouting before this one is concluded, and we are fully intrigued.

S. L. Wisenberg’s editor’s note at the very end invites folks to weigh in, and we agree. Weigh in here, weigh in there, weigh in both places. Here’s a taste of the essay for you, and a link to the full work below.

It’s become fashionable lately to question the importance of facts in works of creative nonfiction. “In our hunger for all things true,” David Shields says in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, “we make facts irrelevant.” Given that any narrative involves a selection of details and thus a distortion of sorts, facts—so the argument goes—aren’t important. As long as an account tells the truth—psychologically, emotionally—facts aren’t required.

The thoughtful, erudite writer Robert Atwan, series editor of the Best American Essays, recently questioned the necessity of facts to creative nonfiction at a conference in Manhattan, where he spoke in praise of “the literary art of fabrication” … Atwan asked his audience, “Is it possible that a piece of personal writing can be grounded in fiction and still be considered an essay? If some determined graduate student conclusively discovered that [E .B.] White never owned a pig, should we consider [White’s essay] ‘Death of a Pig’ a short story?. . . Is all that separates an autobiographical essay from a story fidelity to fact?” …


I wonder if Shields and Atwan would be so cheerfully flexible about the facts if the nonfictions were of another kind, if it were their doctor’s unfactual diagnosis (appendicitis, say) that led to an unnecessary surgery. Would they be as easygoing were it an unfactual accusation that prompted their incarceration for an indefinite period in an undisclosed location by means of extreme rendition? … How about an insurance adjustment that insouciantly undervalued a home destroyed in an all too factual fire?

And if they would not find such nonfictions acceptable, I wonder why they (and we) tolerate the unfactual passed off as fact in our nonfiction art. Is it because we believe that art—that compass of the culture—doesn’t matter as much as medicine or insurance? Or is it because we—like the powerful in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who couldn’t bear to read a frank assessment of their failings, prompting social critics to couch critiques in fictive terms—cannot bear to face the facts, to look in the literary mirror and behold ourselves honestly, truthfully, portrayed? Has creative nonfiction become a form of cultural cosmetic surgery, helping us hide our flaws from ourselves, convincing us that the facts don’t count?


Does it matter, in an account such as mine, who was raped, under what circumstances? Does it matter if there was a girl, a couch, if there could have been? Would it change things to know that the girl on that couch got pregnant that night (a fact I would only learn years later from her close friend)? Would it matter if in fact the girl was conscious; if when she woke, he finished and left her there and never spoke of it? Would it matter if I were that girl?


Read the entire Essay:

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§ 4 Responses to Creative Nonfiction as Cultural Cosmetic Surgery

  • “Do facts matter or don’t they” is not the right question. The better question is when do facts matter and when is it more appropriate and effective to get at a truth through another means? Context matters.

  • I concur with the author’s stance on adhering to facts, though of course something can be factual and completely untrue—as well as untrue in other ways. Like the odious overarching message of this essay itself.

    I began to despair when the author began to present himself as unrepentant in middle age about having raped a drunk, passed-out girl, albeit while drunk himself. While the rape as presented is believable, the perpetrator’s perspective is not. He is meant to be typical, a typical male, that is, as evidenced by statistics about many males’ desire to rape and by the crude comments they supposedly make to each other routinely in private about women. In other words, this essay is deeply flawed by its real agenda, showing how bad, at their core, are men.

    Yet the fictional narrator of this piece is not a typical male but a sociopath. No shame, guilt, remorse? Not believable. Unless you believe that men, or a sizable percentage of them, are this soulless. I know NO men, let alone college professors, who speak like this fantasy projection and his buddies. Sure they exist, but this essay’s message about men distorts reality.

    Imagine the response if anyone—that is, a male or posing as one—wrote an essay this hateful about women.

  • Nonfiction, by its definition, is nonfiction. I’m an adherent of the rules of the School of Truth. My truth. My nonfiction writing needs to be a product of my perspective, which is by definition unique and peculiar only to me. The original essay, while interesting, betrays some basic trust that is established between the writer and the reader, and although it does so with a purpose— to evoke a thoughtful response from the reader regarding the meaning of truth— for me, it wasn’t particularly effective. I felt manipulated and confused by the postscript.

    Certainly a woman can rape another woman, but the basic premise of the essay also rested on the shockingly casual reaction of the perpetrator toward his (or her) actions, and that reaction was exacerbated by the casually dropped assertion that the victim became pregnant from the rape. Notwithstanding immaculate conception in a dorm room, the gender of the rapist seemed unquestionable. By confusing me as a reader, the writer didn’t fulfill her contract with me as a reader, and I don’t understand the reason for the obfuscation and sleight of hand at that juncture in the essay.

    Truth is so relative, but we can smell its absence. I knew, instinctively, reading the essay, that the situation was a contrived one, although I couldn’t articulate how or when I knew that. Perhaps it was the romanticism of the rape itself, the attention to narrative nuance (the not-mentioning of the poster above the woman’s head, the not-mentioning of the large arching window looking out to the green), the bag of writers’ tricks employed too self-consciously. Perhaps it was the intense self-awareness of the author describing emotions that reflect the antithesis of that self-awareness. But I knew it wasn’t true, and that final confusion–a woman wrote this, the victim became pregnant–only drew away from the writer’s valid and honorable position: telling the truth in nonfiction is more important than art. Telling the truth in nonfiction is the only thing that keeps the reader questioning exactly what is truth, and what is not.

  • Cathryn says:

    The first thing thought of when I read this was something that is written on the literary magazine site of “Glimmer Train.” It is a guideline for entering their “Family Matters” contest:

    “We are looking for stories about families of all configurations. It’s fine to draw heavily on real life experiences, but the work must read like fiction and all stories accepted for publication will be presented as fiction.”

    It goes on to say:

    “Remember that sticking too tightly to “fact” can limit the larger truth that fiction is able to reveal. Give your story the leeway it needs in order to find its own life. And, if your story is closely related to your actual experience, it is wise to change details that would allow the real-life people to say, Hey, that’s me!”

    Fiction “finds its own life.” Nonfiction expands on a truth. Creative nonfiction is the risk to try both genres in one place.

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