AWP 2014: When Book Reviews Also Tell Stories

March 18, 2014 § 5 Comments

awp manGuest blog post by Leslie Salas on the AWP Panel, “All This and More: What Form of Creative Nonfiction is the Essay/Review?”

These four distinguished panelists had a lively conversation about the essay/review. Some of them read from academic-style papers with “finger quotes” while others spoke more serendipitously—but the exchange was still rich and informed by their scholarship and experiences as editors and/or writers of book reviews.

Mary Rockcastle defined the essay/review as part book review, part literary essay—well accepted, but hardly every taught. The essay/review, she claimed, should be strong, original, and artfully written, clearly communicating to the reader whether they should spend their time and/or money on the book or not. But, she said, the essay/review should also serve as a springboard for reflection on the personal life of the reviewer—it strives for objectivity, but is continually subjective. The essay/review sets itself apart from other reviews because of the strong personal presence felt behind them, and how they take the reader deep inside a journey of thought. The essay/review is an art form in and of itself, Rockcastle argued, and functions as a way to prompt further conversation about books from people who want to learn how to read differently.

Jocelyn Bartkevicius then addressed the role of the essay/reviewer, and “who [was] this person, anyway?” She used an anecdote of an author’s reaction to a review she had written as a catalyst for thought—who is the speaker giving the review, and how does the reviewer effect the review itself? In an effort to understand the essay/review better, Bartkevicius noted that essays (the “normal” kind), are grounded on their intimacy, their complex narration that is sometimes contradictory, and their focus on discovery, “like looking at diamond from all angles.” She noted that essays from forbearers such as Woolf and Montaigne were also essay/reviews and identified that the best essay/reviews simultaneously engaged in a three-part conversation:

1)      with the reader,

2)      with the editor or writer in consideration, and

3)      with the material that the book or books address.

Bartkevicius also addressed the negative review, and put it into conversation with positive reviews, observing that the traditional “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” approach to reviewing books does not leave enough space to put the reviewer into proper context—it is just concerned about whether or not the reader should buy the book. Rather than struggle with the issues of too little space and the expectation and pressure to be a critic, Bartkevicius argued that we should not be ignorant of history (the concerns about the shortcomings of traditional book reviews are not new) and should rescue the essay/review.

David Ingle spoke from his fifteen years of experience as an essay/review editor with Georgia Review. He noted the three different types of essay/reviews Georgia Review publishes:

  • multi-title essay/reviews (15-20 pages)
  • single-title reviews (4-5 pages)
  • book briefs (like single-title reviews—but brief!)

Ingle identified the book briefs as the most demanding to write, but not to edit. In comparing the book brief and the multi-title essay/reviews, he noted that the essay/reviews the reviewer has to write about four or five books at a time, but he wasn’t sure about the process for the writers. He just knew that he gave them choices, and in a few months, he’d get an essay/review back. Ingle noted that essay/reviews put the reviewer in conversation with both the reader and the writer. He identified the best essay/review as putting the books in conversation with one another—but recognized that this is impossible, but getting close would be nice. From an editor’s perspective, Ingle stated that he always makes sure that the essay/review “works” before they go to press. Ideally the overarching concepts should seem natural and organic rather than forced, and this, more often than not, is a result of the reviewer’s personal experience. When he reads essay/reviews, the aesthetic he is looking for is an essay/review that is equally a review as it is an essay. If it’s too much of a review—it’s just that. A book review. If it is more a personal essay—than why is it in the review section? They’re called the Georgia Review for a reason. Ingle also spoke at length about an experiment he wanted to complete that reminded me of an Oulipo challenge—where instead of giving his essay/reviewers a choice between twenty or so possible books to review, he would give the reviewer five—and only those five—books, and trust that the reviewer would find a way to make the essays interconnected. It wouldn’t necessarily need to be the “right” five books, but something in the zeitgeist that ties them all together—only the reviewer can make that connection transparent.

Stan Sanvel Rubin used his sense of humor to relay his understanding of essay/reviews from his previous experience as an essay/reviewer. He noted that many traditional book reviews are searching for one-liners—like the famous, “The trouble with the book is the covers are too far apart.” That’s not our job, Rubin said, and he dove into the process of writing the essay/review. Like an essayist—first establish context with an opening question to clarify and reveal meaning. The reviewer may have intuited what he or she wants to write about, but they may not be sure yet. Once the first draft is written, the reviewer can play with structure and balance in revision. This is where some of the deeper discovery occurs. The reviewer creates common context by thoroughly reading individual volumes. Then reviews what he or she has read, with value added. The essay/reviewer has the space for freedom and play. They have a voice, but no confession. Above all, they must have a strong sense of their audience, deadline, and clarity—which usually means heavy editing to get it just right. Balance matters—the essay/review must add up to something thoughtful and appreciative to the audience.

The Q&A was brief, but covered a few important topics, such as what to do when a review so comprehensively summarizes a book that it functions as a Cliffsnotes version of the book(s) (it’s up to you), which literary magazines publish the best essay/reviews (all of the literary magazines represented on the panel), how scholarly/academic reviews differ from essay/reviews (tone and word choice).

Leslie Salas is an Associate Course Director in the English Department at Full Sail University. She also serves as Assistant Editor for The Florida Review, Assistant Graphic Narrative Editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection, and as a nonfiction reader for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. Leslie writes in multiple modes—prose, screenplay, & comics—and frequently contributes to The Gloria Sirens, The Drunken Odyssey, and Leslie Learns Lines. Her work has been published in The Southeast Review, Sphere, and others.

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

Brevity’s AWP Nonfiction Cheat Sheet: Saturday

January 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

And finally ….

Saturday 9 to 10:15 am

Wilson A, B, & C Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

S116. Moving Pictures, Moving Words: Essays in the Digital Age. (Ned Stuckey-French, Marcia Aldrich, Rebecca Faery, Doug Hesse, Philip Metres, Wendy Sumner-Winter) This panel will examine the impact of the digital revolution on the essay. We will address the following questions: How are the new media changing the ways we write, read, and teach essays? What can essayists learn from poets, novelists, filmmakers, bloggers, web designers, and hackers about what the digital future may hold? What problems and possibilities do these new essays present to magazine editors, anthologists, and book publishers?

Saturday 3 to 4:15 pm

Diplomat Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

S201. Shaping a Life: Voice, Structure, and Craft in Memoir. (Janice Gary, E. Ethelbert Miller, Ben Yagoda, Dustin Beall Smith, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, Michael Downs) While fiction writers create entire worlds from scratch, those working in the nonfiction genre of memoir must struggle with the bulky material of an existing life. Like a sculptor working with a block of stone, the memoirist’s task is to shape and reveal, fashioning a well-formed text out of a lifetime of experiences. In this session, writers of memoir will discuss the challenges of the form including where to begin, structure and voice, material selection, and other craft considerations.

Saturday 4:30 to 5:45 pm

Executive Room
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

S222. The Unfolding Story: Narrative Possibilities in Creative Nonfiction. (Steven Harvey, Joe Mackall, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Bob Cowser, Michael Steinberg) Stories emerge in works of creative nonfiction in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are told in a straightforward manner, but often they are truncated, muted, or implied—and each choice has consequences. What are the possibilities for storytelling available to the writer of nonfiction? What effects do these choices create? Does the genre place any limits on narrative possibilities? A panel of writers and editors will examine these questions about the tales we tell in creative nonfiction.

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