March 16, 2017 § 11 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
I am reviewing a blank book. The pages are entirely empty – not a single word. That makes it nonfiction, yes?
Because there is no fiction printed within.
And the title is Alternative Facts.
Facts are nonfiction, yes?
This is important, because the Brevity blog only reviews books of nonfiction.
So here is my review:
It is an interesting book. A quick read. The paper is nice. The cover feels solid. The entire package fits neatly in your hand.
By the way, royalties from sales of the book are being donated to ProPublica by the publisher, Abrams. ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.
So there we go. More facts. More nonfiction.
I am beginning to feel pretty good about my book review. I might write some of my good feelings down – in the book, on the blank pages (shown to the left).
Something like this:
“I’m feeling very good about my review.”
Except, hold your horses. (Not literally! “Hold your horses” is just a metaphor.)
But it seems I’ve told a lie here.
So is this review now fiction?
Or is it back to nonfiction, as soon as I admit to the lie.
I don’t know. Ask D’Agata.
But there are, after all, words in this book, but only a very few, printed on the very last page:
Two days into the Trump presidency, the thesaurus gained a new synonym for falsehoods, lies, distortion, deception, and total BS (take your pick). The phrase “alternative facts” has sparked laughter at its absurdity, but also disbelief and fear that this administration shows no hesitation in blatantly rewriting the truth to fit its narrative.
In response, this journal offers the opportunity to ground yourself in reality, to collect and record in writing whatever you wish, and to record your own alternative facts.
Pretty cool, huh?
Here’s an Alternative Fact: I am being spied upon, at this very moment, by my microwave. Someone in Russia is watching me write this review. He or she, I can’t be sure, is quite bored by it all.
Dinty W. Moore is founding editor of Brevity magazine and this blog as well. He is being spied upon, at this very moment, by his microwave
July 29, 2016 § 5 Comments
We’ve struggled through the morning trying to come up with a concise summation of Ned Stuckey-French’s discussion of John D’Agata’s latest anthology, The Making of the American Essay, but the truth is that Stuckey-French’s analysis can’t be reduced to a few sentences. He challenges D’Agata’s ideas on the essay and on nonfiction generally, while at the same time giving D’Agata his due for being a provocative thinker and graceful writer. He focuses on the Graywolf anthology trilogy and D’Agata’s outlier theory, but at the same time provides a clear and succinct historical overview of the genre. And he does so with serious thought and consideration, and with wit.
Still and all, we have to give a taste, if only to convince you to click through and read this in its entirety. Here is Stuckey-French on D’Agata’s controversial assertion that facts can and should be be fudged in the literary essay:
The real bogeyman is facts (a.k.a. Truth, or Reality). Here D’Agata’s false either/or, in which facts are pitted against art, raises its ugly head again. “Facts for the sake of facts” is replaced by art for art’s sake. Why must we choose? Like Pooh, when Rabbit asked, “Honey or condensed milk with your bread?” one wants to shout, “Both!”
The full review essay is up at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and it is so worth the reading.
May 18, 2016 § 15 Comments
By Sarah Einstein
The recent New Yorker article, “What Makes An Essay American” by Vinson Cunningham—in which he discusses, and generally dismisses, John D’Agata’s recent The Making of the American Essay, the final installment of D’Agata’s three part series A New History of the Essay from Greywolf—has my part of the Facebook world debating, again, the issue of veracity in genres which call themselves “nonfiction.” What follows is a statement about where I—as a writer of nonfiction who believes in the importance of work that is genuinely nonfictional—come down on the issue. I’m grateful to the others who participated in the Facebook conversation, perhaps most particularly those who vehemently disagree with me. Because that conversation wasn’t held in a public forum, I won’t cite those essayists here, but I do want to acknowledge my debt to them for their influence on the final shape of this consideration.
D’Agata’s project is, in no small part, to trouble the readers’ belief that if a work lays claim to the generic position of “nonfiction,” that means that they can assume that the author of that work is therefore only offering what she believes to be true. In an interview at Essay Daily, he states, “I understand why a reader might get upset when a text that was sold to them as ‘nonfiction’ turns out to be partially not, because while there are lots of nonfiction writers who spend their energy insisting that a nonfiction text is defined by its verifiability, there are many other writers who disagree with that characterization. Unfortunately, those of us who disagree just don’t happen to Tweet or blog or want to wade into the fever swamps of the Internet. So I think the vast majority of readers just don’t know that the very idea of ‘nonfiction’ is itself contested within the nonfiction writing community.”
First, I’d like to quibble here and say that nobody has ever, in my vast reading on the subject, suggested that all work that claims the label of nonfiction needs to be verifiable There is quite a lot of good nonfiction that is, by the very nature of its subject matter, not verifiable. I think the bar is actually set far lower, and that for most readers and many writers of nonfictions, the understanding is that the author has told the truth to the best of her ability, and not written as true anything which she knows to be, or which is demonstrably, false. The pact that is made with the reader is not that the writer has always gotten things right, only that she has tried her best to get them right, and is offering up that best attempt.
But my real beef with D’Agata’s intellectual project isn’t that I think he overstates the level of veracity expected of nonfiction, but that he acknowledges the audience’s expectation of the genre and then make it his project to defeat it by fouling the waters with works that are not, by that definition, nonfictional. (Though less in these anthologies, where the provenance of the work itself allows the reader to judge whether or not the work is nonfictional, as in his own writing.) If he succeeds, we have lost the credulous reader, who is a necessary partner in the work of any writer who is making the sincere attempt to give as true an account as she can. If the nonfictional nonfiction, and the nonfiction which is not nonfictional, can’t be differentiated, then there ceases to be any such thing as nonfiction as such. We’ve lost the value of artifact; everything must be treated as if it might be artifice.
There are also costs to writing which lays claim to the generic position of nonfiction but which in fact includes elements that the author knows to be wholly untrue, written for an audience that does not know to expect untruths and is offering the writer the gift of their credulity.
Of all the “false” memoirs ever written, Angel at the Fence–for me, and I’m only speaking here for myself–is perhaps the most understandable and forgivable. A man who (verifiably) survived a childhood in a concentration camp wrote about the experience to get himself out of serious financial trouble after he and his family were victims of an armed robbery that left his son disabled and his family in significant debt. He didn’t fabricate the awful bits, but he included a fictional love story in order to, yes, make the work more attractive to publishers, but also, according to him, to interject some joy into something that is otherwise unremittingly grim. I get it, Rosenblat. I, too, wish there had been an angel at your fence. But my research at the moment is taking me into the very dark places on the internet where the neo-Nazis dwell, and there, Angel at the Fence and the many other false holocaust memoirs are frequent fodder for Holocaust deniers. They aren’t discussing the tension between art and veracity. I’m pretty sure that most of them aren’t aware of the conversations happening at places like Essay Daily and The New Yorker. They’re just calling Rosenblat a lying word-I-will-not-type-here, and holding up the demonstrably false account–which he offered as a true on–as evidence that Shoah never happened. (And here I want to take a moment to apologize, because I realize I’m skating dangerously close to Godwin’s Law. My goal here is not to invoke Shoah in all its terrible majesty. It is just what I have on hand this morning to illustrate the point.)
Even if we accept as legitimate D’Agata’s project to train readers not to expect nonfiction to be genuinely nonfictional, I think we have to think about what happens while the audience is learning along with the art-makers not to read nonfiction with an expectation of veracity, whether or not the audience has agreed to do the work of that learning, and what possibilities might be lost if the writer can never lay claim to speaking as truthfully as she is able. Sometimes, art is about itself. Certainly, the essay or memoir that plays with truth in order to explore how the essay or memoir functions is about itself as much as it is about its subject matter. But not all art is about the creation of art. Sometimes art is about exploring social concerns, recovering histories, elevating perspectives not well represented in majority conversations, etc. And sometimes, those explorations require the artist to ask of those who receive her art to accept that that art is made only out of artifact, not artifice.
What change would be rendered, for instance, to the art project of “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic” if it turned out that the suitcases were sculptures created by the artists out of what they imagined they would find instead of being what they actually found? All I’m asking is that we not tell the reader she can never expect that work which claims to be made of artifact is ever actually made of artifact; that we don’t tell her she must always assume sculpture and never see suitcases. Because I think it matters which the audience encounters, even as they know that the experience of the art made out of the suitcases is a mediated experience different from encountering the suitcases themselves in that attic.
Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014), and numerous essays and short stories. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is also the Special Projects editor for Brevity and the prose editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection.
August 19, 2015 § 4 Comments
The University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and the University of Iowa Press are pleased to announce a new annual prize for literary nonfiction. Submissions will be accepted from October 15, 2015 through December 10, 2015. The announcement of the winner will be made in spring of 2016. Submissions must be book length (at least 40,000 words but no longer than 90,000) and can be either a collection or a long-form manuscript. Both published and previously unpublished authors will be considered, with the winner being awarded a publishing contract with the University of Iowa Press.
The contest will be screened and initially judged by the Iowa Nonfiction Program and its director, John D’Agata, as part of a publishing class taught in conjunction with the University of Iowa Press. Distinguished visiting professor Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone, will be the final judge.
UI Press director, Jim McCoy, noted, “This is an exciting opportunity. We’ve long been committed to the publication of quality literary nonfiction through our Sightline Books series. Literary nonfiction, no matter how you try to define it, is one of the most exciting genres currently being explored by writers. It pushes new boundaries. It reinterprets how we look at a number of issues in the humanities and sciences. We can’t wait to see the variety and quality of the submissions. The fact that we also get to exchange information and engage with students during the publishing process is a bonus.”
“The exciting thing about this class and contest is that it’s going to encourage students to clarify for themselves and their peers how they interpret nonfiction, and what their criteria are for great nonfiction books,” D’Agata offered. “It’ll require them to explain clearly why they feel this manuscript is better than that manuscript. And so at a pedagogical level this will be a priceless experience, because what we’ll ultimately learn is that we’re all very different—both as readers and people—and we therefore have different criteria for what makes something good.”
The Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa is one of the most prestigious MFA programs in existence. In addition to its degree program, it hosts a highly regarded visiting author series, the Overseas Writing Workshop, and the Bedell Nonfiction Now Conference.
The University of Iowa Press publishes more than 40 books a year, including award-winning literary nonfiction, poetry, and fiction. The press already hosts the annual Iowa Poetry Prize and the Iowa Short Fiction Awards. More information about the press and the submission guidelines can be found at uiowapress.org.
October 7, 2014 § 9 Comments
A guest post from Penny Guisinger:
Writers like me know that there’s a certain defensiveness in our genre’s name: creative nonfiction. It’s like we need you to know that what we write is true, but it’s also creative. We want you to know that we’re not writing software manuals.
Further, it’s the genre that defines itself by what it isn’t. Non fiction. What we write is not fiction, because fiction is not true. We write what is not not true. I looked up “double negative” in the dictionary, and read that it’s a “syntactic construction containing two negatives and having a negative meaning.” Our genre has a negative meaning. That’s not easy to live with.
Maybe if our genre had a sexier name, or at least a more accurate one, fewer careers would be ruined, fewer dreams dashed on the jagged rocks of the Oprah show. Maybe that’s why we try to think of something else to call it – reportage, personal narrative, lyric essay – something that doesn’t work so hard to hold our feet to this hot thing people think of as “truth” – for we are not not ever really able to capture what is not not truth. (I don’t even know what that means.)
In October 2013, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and spent a hungry afternoon wandering through an exhibit called “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop.” I was hungry because I couldn’t find the cafeteria, but also for the incredible works of art I was seeing. Images that were made from multiple negatives sandwiched together or transformed through darkroom trickery like dodging and burning, adding and removing light. Photos that were printed, photocopied, photographed again, painted on, then re-photocopied. And I thought, “That’s creative nonfiction.”
One of the earliest photographic prints, made in 1846, is an image of four monks posing on a terrace in Malta. But an examination of the negative shows a fifth monk standing behind the group. The photographer, working undercover in the darkroom, just took that fifth one out. We don’t know why, but we also totally know why. It made a better story, or it fit the rhythm of the piece better, or it made a cleaner composition. The fifth monk was clutter – a distracting, irrelevant detail. His removal made the image more true to that artist’s vision of the world. It was what he wanted us to see in what he was seeing. He made a choice.
Even straight photography has a slippery relationship to the truth. According to the incredibly expensive book I splurged on from the exhibit at the Met, “…there is no such thing as an unmanipulated photograph. The process of making a photograph – of translating the constantly changing, full-color, three-dimensional world into a flat, static, bounded image – involves dozens of conscious and unconscious decisions.” Early prints had no color, and had to be painted by hand to look “real.” Inflexible film emulsions required that land and sky be captured in separate frames then sandwiched together in order to show what the scene really looked like. And I can tell you from my years spent as a wedding photographer that I had to work hard to capture images of the weddings people planned rather than the weddings they actually had. Capturing reality requires acts of omission and other treacheries.
For us it’s all about the alphabet and how we stick letters together on the page. Those are our truth-making tools – and sometimes people don’t like how we employ them. Remember all the trouble John D’Agata got himself into back in 2003 when he unapologetically changed some facts to get at his version of an artful truth? Among other things, he described “invisible black mountains” behind the Las Vegas skyline, and the fact checker (because he checked) felt that the mountains would be more accurately described as “brown.” There’s more to the story than just that adjective, and it’s an easy case to make that he changed too much. But at AWP 2012 in Chicago, in a room filled with hundreds of writers just like us, a shouting match broke out over D’Agata’s choices. Or his transgressions. Or his artistic brush strokes. People were actually yelling at each other about this piece of art. There were calls for greater accountability, more truth. I think most of us can get behind that. After all, we’re not writing what’s not true, remember? Yet, it feels impossible for us to hold each other’s feet to the fire in terms of facts when we probably can’t even agree what color the flames are. Are they orange or are they red? If we can’t even ask for hard facts from our cameras, why would we demand it from our writers?
There’s a line from a last year’s NYT review of Scott McClanahan’s book Crappalachia in which the reviewer notes that”…the truth may be unimpeachable, but the facts are up for constant review.” Photographic memories are no better than photographs. Memoirs are just memories. Essays are just attempts. Reportage is not reporting. And have you read a software manual recently? They’re packed with confusion and lies.
Creative nonfiction writers: we are not not the writers of truth that is not not creative. Do you not know what that doesn’t mean? It means we’re not not artists.
Penny Guisinger is an essayist whose work has not not appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Solstice, and other not unamazing places. She isn’t not the founding director of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and she didn’t fail to receive her MFA from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine.
December 7, 2013 § 10 Comments
This blog has been critical of John D’Agata for some of the choices/changes he made in his book About a Mountain and in the subsequent quasi-true, fact-checking opus The Lifespan of a Fact, so it is only fair that we also tip our hat when his writing hits the mark. D’Agata is a smart, sharp student of the essay, of course, whether we agree with where he sets the”truth” line or whether we do not. In any case, here is an excerpt of his Essay Daily post where he talks about the photography of Ansel Adams
April 7, 2013 § 3 Comments
Perhaps Jim Fingal, the fact-checker engaged in the wrestling match with John D’Agata recounted in The Lifespan of a Fact is not so reliable as we assumed. Or at least that’s the conclusion of a few of Clint Barker’s Introduction to Postmodern Literature students who put together a website, The Lifespan of a Lifespan of a Fact, annotating the inconsistencies in the fact-checker’s work.
* Jim says that on the day before Levi died, theLas Vegas Sun published an article that referred to a possible ban against touching strippers, in response to John’s claim that lap dancing was temporarily banned by the city.
* This is incorrect because according to the Las Vegas Sun, it was a ban against the strippers touching the clients, not the other way around.
* Jim confirms that the Stratosphere is the largest building west of the Mississippi River in an 1989 Las Vegas Review-Journal article by John Galtant.
* I can’t get the article itself—the archives for that year only appear to be available on microfilm thousands of miles away—but I was able to find that the journalist is named “John Gallant,” not “John Galtant.”
Will it never end?
Probably only when we stop reading, so let’s hope not.
March 21, 2012 § 4 Comments
Ander Monson, essayist, diagrammatic virtuoso, bearded-one, weighs in on the fact-shifting debate with his customary fresh take and refusal to settle on a binary (true/not true) approach. Well worth the read both for Monson’s views on D’Agata”s choices and possible motives, but also for Monson’s overall discussion of the essay form. Here’s an excerpt, followed by the link:
In an interview, David Foster Wallace makes the argument that “[t]he reader’s pre-suspension of disbelief gives nonfiction a particular kind of power, but it also seems to encumber the nonfiction with a kind of moral obligation fiction doesn’t have.” To me that’s part of the trouble: it seems to me that as readers we do, contra DFW, still get/have to choose to suspend our disbelief in nonfiction — these days at least; or any days, really. Art requires that suspension. That’s the thrill of it. In fact, that’s what we desire most deeply as readers, offering ourselves up, our brains up, as willing vessels for the (simulated) mind (in the case of the essay — which is the closest we can currently get to a simulated brain) of the writer, because we want to be possessed. We need it. Not completely, of course, particularly in texts that aspire to art — we want to do some work as readers, too. We’re not dumb. We tell ourselves we’re not dumb.
But that’s what makes us angry when we hear about confabulation in works of apparent nonfiction, even as the deep satisfaction we may take in the artifice of the book (until it is exposed) moves us greatly. It’s as if we are angry in proportion to how deeply we allowed ourselves to be possessed by a book or an essay. We are angry at ourselves, and we project this onto the author.
Maybe instead of ceding to the anger, let’s try not to be so utterly credulous and admit that there’s some space between these two positions — true believer and total skeptic — that we’ve been offered.
March 20, 2012 § 4 Comments
Creative Nonfiction magazine editor and longtime proponent of the form Lee Gutkind weighs in on John D’Agata over at the LA Review of Books, offering another example of why truth matters and the damage that can result from fact-shifting.
Here is an excerpt, but if you want a comprehensive account of both contested books and the resultant discussion, click through for the entire essay:
But there is a big difference between not trying strenuously to get facts right — that’s just shirking responsibility and hoping no one notices — and actively changing them, as D’Agata does, to suit his own needs. You don’t achieve a larger truth by changing statistics or the names of places or people. Doing so makes you dishonest and unethical. It might be easier and more poetic to write this review, for example, if I changed the name of the writer to Don’tgotta or D’Errata. But, alas, that’s just not the guy’s name.
When people read nonfiction they expect it to be as accurate and as true as possible. That’s the promise that nonfiction always makes: that the writing and reporting are as faithful as possible to fact, that truth and accuracy make a difference.
The writer, through history, has tried to make a difference, to touch readers, to make them aware of what’s going on around them. We have learned that information, enhanced by story, can be ammunition, our weapon for change. In 2009, President Obama made his entire staff read a New Yorker essay by Atul Gawande about ways to control the rising costs of health care. Gawande spotlighted the health-care system in McAllen, Texas, where patients suffer through twice as many cardiac surgeries than the national average, four times the ambulance spending, and eight times the end-of-life home health-care costs; Gawande compares health-care costs in similarly sized towns in order to spotlight unnecessary waste and mismanagement. Some of the ideas from Gawande’s piece ended up in the Obama health-care package, and so the consequences of misreporting — or inaccuracy for any reason — could have been profound.
March 8, 2012 § 50 Comments
I’m afraid it’s over between us.
You know how important you’ve been to me. I’ve adopted The Next American Essay for classes. I reviewed The Lost Origins of the Essay and sang its praises. Carl Klaus and I have included your 2003 headnote about lyric essays, the one that introduced Jenny Boully to the world, in our new anthology, Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. I admire you, John, but admiration isn’t enough, and now you’ve even undercut some of that admiration. It’s over, John.
But, nevertheless, we should talk. I owe it to you to tell you what I really think.
What I think, John, is that you’ve fallen between two stools. You have, but the essay hasn’t. Let me explain. When Karen Rosica called you a “journalist poet,” indeed a “passionate journalist poet,” you should have just gone with it. You should have thank her and moved on. I know the word “journalist” bugs you. Don’t let it. That’s the way it is with our genre – by which I mean, the essay, not the lyric essay, but of that, more in a minute. The essay has always been about facts and literature, about memory and imagination, about journalism and literature, about plain old truth (aka accuracy) and Truth with a capital T. But when she said “journalist poet,” you apparently got your dander up. The adjective and the noun seem like they’re in contradiction. So what? Contradict yourself, be large, contain multitudes.
Instead, you’ve turned it into a false either/or, John – Fish Wrap journalism versus Pure Poetry. It doesn’t have to be that way. And I think you know it. That’s why you went looking for an adjective yourself. How about ‘lyric essay’?” you said. And you were right and I like that about you, John. I really do. You and Deborah were out ahead of us all, giving a name to those beautiful essays that weren’t afraid to be beautiful, essays we were already reading and teaching – “Living Like Weasels,” “The White Album,” “Delft” – but not yet calling lyric. And then you went further/ You went looking for new ones and found them – “The Body” and “Ticket to the Fair.” Thank you for that. You gave those essays a name, you collected them in one place, you re-imagined anthologies, making them almost essays themselves by writing your headnotes as one long narrative essay (yeah, a little self-satisfied sometimes and show-offy, but hey, that’s you, John, and that’s okay – the book worked, it really did).
You kept going and I was still with you when The Lost Origins of the Essay came out. Sometimes, it did feel like you were pushing too far, but hey, that’s what you do and we’ve all got to do. I understand. You’re shaking things up. And even then, some of it made perfect sense, right from the start. When you put it in this new context, “On Some Verses of Virgil” was immediately transformed into a lyric essay for me. Of course, I thought – it’s not about Virgil and hexameters, it never was – it’s about sex and lyrical digressions. I even liked, as a kind of thought experiment, the idea of reading “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” as a lyric essays, though I finally decided that the one is a prose poem and the other is a short story.
I have to say, John, you’re an 8-hour day. You’re learned and heavy. You really are. It’s a lot of what drew me to you originally – all that learning, all that classical learning. I mean you translated your own Latin and Greek in The Lost Origins of the Essay. The trip back to Mesopotamia and Heraclitus, the willingness to range across Europe and Asia in search of lyric essays was …well…a trip. Mind-boggling really. Thank you. The book Carl Klaus and I edited is the better for it. You got us searching outside the Anglo-American tradition, and that improved our book, for we found new essays about the essay – lots of them – by Latin Americans, French Canadians, Germans, even an Australian. I don’t think we’d have done that if you hadn’t gone there first.
I understand why you went in search of an adjective to put in front of “essay.” People have looked for adjectives for centuries. Before we had lyric essays, we had periodical essays, formal essays, informal essays, review essays, romantic essays, and, of course, personal essays. And, with your classical background, I know that you know that what that word “lyric” can bring is its classical Greek connotations – a solitary song, not a chorus, sung by a single musing singer to the accompaniment of a lyre (pronounced liar).
Well, we’ve ditched the lyre, but I know what you’re going for with the term – the poetic, the densely figurative, the brief exploration of a mood or idea, and yes, a little looser connection to facts. It’s reaction maybe to that ugly, ugly term “creative nonfiction.” Or as Scott Sanders so nicely put it, creative nonfiction 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.”
So yeah, I understand, John. “Nonfiction” as a term sucks and you’ve got to dress it up with an adjective, but “creative” isn’t much help. Creative as opposed to what? Destructive? And if “essay” as a term is pulled toward nonfiction and journalism, I can understand wanting to dress up “essay” with an adjective. But, you’ve got to be careful, John. In your hurry to get away from journalism and to get some of the cachet of poetry, you can go too far.
I like lyric essays but I don’t think there is such a thing as pure poetry, at least not on this earth. Which is not to say pure poetry is not a worthy goal. It’s a fine, but tricky, goal. Seeking after pure poetry can lead one to beautiful flights of language and high lyricism, indeed some of the best essays we have, but it can also lead to disengagement, solipsism and art-for-art’s-sake. I think investigative reporting, the slick paper of commercialism, the hurry-up of deadlines, and the political engagement of journalism can be good things for an essay, even a lyric essay.
Look at your own anthologies, John. Take John McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” which is the first essay in The Next American Essay. I’m glad it’s there in your anthology, but as Lynn Bloom has pointed out, “All anthologies…deracinate their material—old or new—from its original context and replant it in the anthologist’s soil.” McPhee’s essay appeared originally in the September 9, 1972 issue of The New Yorker (though you messed up, John, and said 1975 – probably could have used a good copy editor or fact-checker). I love McPhee’s essay – its braided narratives, its history of the Gilded Age, its ongoing Monopoly game, and its walking tour of Atlantic City in 1972 when racial strife, economic decay, and rampant drug use have made it a bombed out shell of its former self. But, the essay is also a comment on The New Yorker, the magazine that is its and McPhee’s home. The essay’s irony, indeed its lyricism, rings with a new sound when you read it next to the ads for Sony, Estée Lauder, Lord & Taylor, and L. L. Bean that surrounded it when it was in The New Yorker.
Or look at another one of your selections, another one of your lyric essays: Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” her famous disjunctive and helter-skelter good-bye to Sixties. Three sections of this essay appeared originally as installments of her “Points West” column in The Saturday Evening Post. The Saturday Evening Post, John! The Saturday Evening Fucking Post! Norman Rockwell’s magazine. Didion discussed the context of these pieces in Paris Review interview, in which she recalled how she and her husband John Gregory Dunne moved to California in June of 1964. “I started doing pieces for The Saturday Evening Post,” she said. “We needed the money because neither one of us was working.” The Post, she explained, was “on the verge of folding” and so “would let you do whatever you wanted.” What had once been the magazine of Norman Rockwell, now was trying unsuccessfully to rebrand itself as some weird combination of Esquire and Cosmopolitan. The section of “The White Album” on Huey Newton and the Black Panthers appeared in an issue the cover of which promised to explain “How Barney Rosset Publishes ‘Dirty Books’ for Fun & Profit.” The section about Jim Morrison and The Doors was illustrated with a photograph of Lizard King without a shirt and had a cover that featured a teaser in which Vanessa Redgrave announced, “I’ve Always Known I Was Sexy.”
Even lyric essays, even your lyric essays, were published first in general magazines, middlebrow magazines, political magazines, women’s magazines, and even, heaven forbid, commercial or mass-market magazines. Writing to make a point or a buck certainly has its dangers, but it does not necessarily preclude one from writing lyrically or creating something of lasting literary merit.
John, you’ve ignored where at least some of your lyric essays came from and you’ve begun to draw too sharp a distinction between journalism and the lyric essay. And, as a consequence, you’ve ended up arguing too strenuously against facts and prose and journalism and mass culture and commerce. On the first page of The Next American Essay, you announced, “I want you preoccupied with art in this book, not with facts for the sake of facts.” And in the opening of The Lost Origins of the Essay, you wrote, “I am here in search of art. I am here to track the origins of an alternative to commerce.”
Well, all and good, John, but you’ve gotten carried away, and I’m starting to distrust your motives. Don’t write essays just so you can be a poet, John. Don’t write essays just so you can wear a beret. Maybe it’s time for you to come home to America, maybe it’s time for you to stop being quite so high faltutin’. I worry that you’ve gone so Continental, so post-modern, so highbrow, so, dare I say, lyrical because you’re running away from journalism.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not running to journalism and mass culture exactly, just not away from it. And neither am I arguing that Hollywood, television, slick magazines, and the lure of big book deals have not been treacherous in their own ways. Nor am I arguing that little magazines and alternative presses do not play a role, an important role, in the struggle against monopoly capitalism and for art. What I am arguing is that this is the way it is. We live in a world in which commerce touches everything and art is never pure. All of these things – slick magazines and little magazines, blogs and books, high culture and mass culture – make up the terrain in which art is made and read. I am arguing that we must proceed on all fronts and that there is also a role to be played by those who publish in mainstream magazines and get paid in cash rather than copies.
There’s an American essayist on the essay I think you should read – Berton Braley. He’s a funny guy who wrote a piece, called “On Being an Essayist” for The Bookman back in 1920. In it he said that the “elect” had become too protective of the essay, and literature more generally. The essay, he said, was possessed of a “Little Lord Fauntleroy complex.” It was too intent on being literary and had become “a precious, precious thing.” The essay needed, said Braley, to romp around again and get “all mussed up with the butcher’s boy and the rest of the crowd in Dugan’s back lot,” it needed “to play with the rough common boys of Popularity and Commercialism.”
I know you’d like to do that too, John, and that a respect for, or at least attraction to, journalism is some of why you wrote About a Mountain and let Norton bill it as “an investigation of Yucca Mountain and human destruction in Las Vegas,” a “[b]earing witness to the parade of scientific, cultural, and political facts that give shape to Yucca’s story.” “Facts,” John? “Facts”? I’m for facts. You’re not for facts. I understand there’s a gray area. I understand memory must be supplemented by imagination. I understand we need, sometimes, to compress time and accelerate a narrative. I understand that the stage can get too crowded and we might need to delete a character or fold some others into a composite character. I’m not a dodo, and I love the idea at least of writing a book about the gamble that is Yucca Mountain and the pit of poison that is Las Vegas, about your mother’s life and Levi Presley’s death, but geesh, changing the timing of that poor dead boy’s death. Necessary? I don’t think so.
John, I don’t think I’ve changed. I think you’ve changed. I still love lyric essays. But I don’t love you anymore. I do hope we can still be friends.
Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is book review editor of Fourth Genre. He is the author of The American Essay in the American Century, coauthor (with Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, and co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of the just-released Essayists on the Essay. The two previous sentences are true, but he does not always tell the truth.