The World Is Not Tidy: Liz Stephens on the D’Agata Dust-Up

February 16, 2012 § 12 Comments

Former Brevity Managing Editor Liz Stephens weighs in with her thoughts on fact and nonfiction:

I am a person who would not cheat at solitaire if it were the Apocalypse. Even as the light lowered, I would either see the win coming or just have to take the lesson in the loss at light speed. To cheat, even if I were the last person in the world, would be – who cares? Shuffling the cards after the tidy inevitable ending, I would feel as if I cheated myself. We all know anybody can win, by pretending the eight is a seven.

I’m not saying I’m holier than anybody. But I like a challenge.

Now, to play solitaire at the same time as I played canasta, with a side game of Mexican Train, and to make up a set of rules I’d laid for myself in joining the three of them together – this game I could play. Even if it was a new game, and I alone held the cards and dominoes and the key to the pattern of winning.

So which of these is John D’Agata doing?

In a recent dust-up over fact checking, John D’Agata’s response to being confronted with his own potential misuse of facts in About a Mountain, he released a whole text of the debate he and the fact checker had over the information as its own book, The Lifespan of a Fact. I love this in-your-face rebuttal, for the same reasons I love nonfiction itself. Transparency, full-on fact-grappling truth, is fascinating, and challenging by its very nature, untidy and discomfiting; social media, the malleability of screen saves of text, twitters from the front, all thrill me in their ubiquity of personal expression, their squirrelly irrepressible human warmth, and possibilities of the possibility of even more challenging conversations. As such, I adore the meta-ness of the very premise of The Lifespan of a Fact. I love, and am induced to consider from all angles, the title itself. I even think the cover is cool, very cool. But D’Agata, no matter how eloquent the rebuttal, could be perceived as on the defensive here.

I believe that D’Agata is articulate, and interesting. His comments on his work, if not his more journalistic work itself, have made me think about the facts in nonfiction in yet another new way. Listening to him riff on nonfiction is to hear or read the kinetic thinking of a well-educated zealot, the kind of energy newly religious people bring to the table; I think when he is in that mode, his out-of-the-box thinking serves him, and us, well. But his narrative nonfiction itself has lost my trust. In all the ways in which D’Agata’s theories of nonfiction are illuminated by being read in conjunction with examples by other writers, his own narrative nonfiction, in this category of truthiness, suffers at the comparison. By way of just two examples, I look here at David Shields’s Reality Hunger, and Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life.”

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, as many of you know, is a massive work of collage, a repurposing of the works of others into a new monstrous Frankenstein of meaning. In Reality Hunger, we saw truth strong-armed, manipulated top to bottom for the (new) author’s intention, and yet, even still, every word was true. We were forced to think about truth in its meta-narrative sense; we were pushed straight out of the narrative itself by it’s shape, and its opacity of intention. We are generally forced to read the work for its effect on us, and for its future purpose, to make us think. We are occasionally lulled by it into experiencing it as a present reading, but never do we forget it is constructed. And regardless of how any of the words were used in this massive work of collage, it was all true. Because if any word in it were found to be untrue, it’s postmodern shape has already given us the wink on that. We have already signed on for that possibility. This way, if the pieces have a narrative frisson, so be it; if they resist meaning next to each other, that’s true too. This work of making meaning from true things becomes, accrues, into Shields’ whole point.

Conversely, Cheryl Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life,” is a more linear, traditionally shaped narrative than Shields’. Here, every bit is true as well, and it certainly fulfilled D’Agata’s expressed mission statement of making a reader uncomfortable, and furthermore, in a more experimental way that’s relevant here, we were in some ways led to be confused by the story’s intention, just as D’Agata has implied serves as a higher purpose in art.  Its higher purpose is muddied by sleeping around, lying, and full-out bitterness, in all their sleazy detail (If you haven’t read it, know that Strayed is meaner to herself with the details than anyone else would have been to her.). I thought about that essay for weeks, because when I closed the page where I’d read it, all I was left with as a reader was an overwhelming sense of love and loss. It was like an optical illusion, where you stare at the picture and see vases and you look away from the picture and see men’s profiles…remember this one? I felt more open, as D’Agata mandates of ideal nonfiction, “to possibilities in the world we hadn’t earlier considered.” And yet it was all true, every word, and every word’s order, and every word’s use, and context. The trick is not in the information; it is in what the recounting of her past makes us feel, on both a conscious level and an unconscious one, and the baggage we bring to the room ourselves, our inherited sense of loss, of mother’s love, of partner’s faith. The piece uses us against ourselves, and in league with the author. It is in essence a very high level sleight of hand, one which brings us to the edge of sympathy, but blindfolded.

And as to D’Agata’s assertion that “it’s art’s job to trick us,” a broad assertion about which a whole other dissertation could be wrought, think please of Anne Carson’s “Foam (Essay with Rhapsody): On the Sublime in Longinus and Antonioni.  This is a work in which one moves through the piece believing it is true, having been habituated to the form of essay now as an audience, and primed in fact by her actually calling it essay – outright lying, really – until the piece falls in on itself with little tremors of dissonance (really, you think as you read, the man did that?) until it utterly exploded into a circus of unreality. That’s a trick. That’s a trick that teaches me something about the way I read reality, not to mention the ways I physically read journals, books, and material objects by their labels and form and directed by my expectations.

D’Agata’s explanation of his own tricks, in comparison, one town for another, one night for another most crucial, most memorable night of another family’s history, reads rather like a smart boy caught out. Why? Because anyone can pretend the eight card is a seven card. That’s easy. And while I often love the charisma of cheaters, after a while I don’t play with them anymore. Their stakes are simply not high enough.

I tell my students, when they are tempted to do this sort of thing, that I am so much more interested in their desire for the information to line up differently, than I am in making those facts line up. I am so interested in their wish that the world be tidy, or even that information be purely informational. Beyond that, I want to know more about what bedtime story, what ingrained narrative, makes them believe that humans believe in “story” playing out a certain way.

In truth, memory’s great betrayal, that it will not lie intact in wait for us, is lament enough to revisit in every generation. This is what I go to nonfiction for, the way we pick at the scab, poke our finger in the wound of memory’s fickle and existential transience, and the inconvenience of our desire to make things whole and right. I am not so interested in the prettiness of the red/black/red/black of solitaire as I am at the process of trying to marshall the cards against the odds into shape, the rush of happening to hold the cards the one time the percentages, with my full attention, can be made to go my way. If there were no odds, I would not care, or try.

If You Watch Now What You Read Yesterday: The Video Essay

March 23, 2011 § 3 Comments

Managing Editor Liz Stephens weighs in on a short film by Tucker Capps, inspired by “First” from Ryan Van Meter’s debut essay collection, If You Knew Then What I Know Now (Sarabande, 2011). Stephens questions how nonfiction on the page made into visual work interrupts a reader’s imagination and identification with the author/narrator.  She also confesses her fascination with the inherent possibilities.  Read her brief essay here, and Van Meter’s clarification of his artistic choices versus the important contributions of filmmaker Capps, and and then be sure to view the film (linked at the end):

I find it disorienting to even hear a writer’s voice. The first minute of any public reading (any that isn’t my own, because I adore giving readings; an irony, as you’ll see), I look at the floor waiting to see if the writer is going to alter the way I perceive their work. And I don’t like it if they do.

But sometimes, the voice of a writer awakens work I have otherwise ignored or have lost patience with. I heard Lydia Davis and was electrified by her stylized performance of her work, her grip on the audience with her hip cocked and hands curled on the podium. David Shield’s stutter, out loud, was disorienting, and then, disorientingly, well, sexy, embodying complication, full of intelligence and combativeness. His work on the page is one thing; that work out loud – the insistence of presenting it, against aural difficulty – is another animal altogether. Neither of them, I felt in retrospect, had ever had as their project making my read a comfortable one. Their physical selves showed me that. They are intentionally dissonant, in person and on the page.

That’s pretty personal. But do we ever approach written words impersonally, really, even before they’ve been concretized into a physical “thatness?” And if not, what harm can it do to see the work, have the words take shape?

I watched Ryan Van Meter’s video the other day – yes, that’s right, this writer’s video – for his essay “First,” timed to introduce the forthcoming publication of his book If You Knew Then What I Know Now. Van Meter’s voice was distracting. What a horrible idea, I distinctly thought. But then I forgot, pulled by the tow of story. For one thing, having thankfully read the piece before I saw this film, I remembered it well, but for one aspect: the narrator’s precise age at time of story. Young, I remembered. How young, the natural paucity and laziness of quick reading had omitted. For those who haven’t read the work, a hugely simplified version is that a young boy tells another boy he loves him, and asks the boy to marry him. The parents, overhearing this, tell him, the narrator: no. That’s wrong. That’s not what boys do, they ask girls. No. And the narrator sees his tangible, vibrant, fully-realized hope in half the possibilities of life simply….slip away from him.

The boy, this narrator, is five years old.

It’s one thing to be told this. Seeing the boy – an artful, evocative silhouette in black in the film – the turning down of the head, the other boy’s shoulder hunching away, the hands, held a moment before, drawing sharply back into solitary laps – is heart-breaking. He’s five. He has a cap on. His feet don’t reach the floor. He’s five.

I took out the printed story, and read it again, more slowly this time. The language held up, in fact reasserted itself before me more strongly.

The truth is, I believe that we have astonishing imaginations, flexible and tensile, and that furthermore we are so media-inculcated now that we may automatically rebound from any one version of anything, may recoup images from multiple sources and mesh them together into new stories almost instinctively. My concern, in considering this new thing, is not much with the disturbance of story.

But consider this, a temporal confusion closer to the nitty-gritty of the nonfiction preoccupations that interest me here: in nonfiction, to what degree is the story the author’s to illustrate, and to what degree the reader’s? This answer seems hinged, in some integral but hazy way, to our fluid notion of the truth of the story. Not literal truth, to which we can hope the creative nonfiction writer has done justice, but emotional truth, which builds itself around setting, tone, association, a dreamlike quality that for one person may be predicated on the smell of cut grass and another the inside of a room. Seeing written work made into visual work interrupts our identification with a narrator: it’s no mistake that Van Meter’s film uses silhouettes as characters, leapfrogging the problem. But the filmmaker still makes choices that will not be our own. In other words, the author wants the story, it’s theirs. But it’s made to be given away, right?

Van Meter’s film did not alter any preconceptions I had of his essay. Turns out I hadn’t supplied many of them in the reading after all – which is interesting in itself. But it will be some time before I read the essay again without those images coming to mind. Even so, I don’t regret that the film supplied me viscerally with the grim starkness of a child’s world, in a kind of shorthand, the Lord of the Flies-like nature of learning on the job as you grow up. It reminded me of my childhood hurts and made me see that if anyone took that much hope away, at one whack, from my four-year-old daughter, heaven help them. Nothing could save them from me.

I felt this not because I read the piece, and not because I saw the piece. It’s because I reconsidered it. I spent time with the work I had previously hurried over.

Of course, there are some frightening implications in writers making short films like this, only one of which may be complicating readers’ relationship with the author’s work. It’s also the potential culture of celebrity that concerns me; will bad films lose readers? Will authors who make more expensive and cooler films sell more books? And thus be more famous, get more jobs, in a market where already having a book to get hired is beginning to be de rigueur? Does this take us even further from the valuable person who is devoted to teaching the art, rather than walking the ever-flashier walk? Is this one more tool that the confident, networking, modern writer may use that the shyer, less technical writer may not?

Sure, this move represents the “realities of the market” right now. But the market is not an unaccountable entity. We make it. The push and pull of our desires and our expectations make it. I’m not sure I believe any direction is wrong, but I want to know what it means.

And could the phenomenon distance us ever further from an intimate relationship (I know I keep using that term; it’s not accidental) between reader and writer? Is making a film piling more sensory input on top of an original experience of reading that’s one of the simplest we know, in which the satisfaction rises from the internal voice, which sounds a bit like theirs, seductively new, yet strangely like our own, murmuring in our ear as our eyes cover a page?

This act of making a short film for one’s book or story – I’m aware I could be making much ado over what will amount, technically and culturally, and maybe in about ten minutes, to the beta video tape. But it may be the Internet (“That’ll never work!”). In the meantime, the truth is, I’m watching them. I just can’t tell if I am fascinated with the possibilities (Do I want to make one? Absolutely, yes. Let me go on record here.) or if I’m literally mesmerized by the storytelling, in a new shape, of my favorite form, in a way that I think can also harness the strengths of the original form itself; both essay and short film are brief, saturated with tone and mood, quick to establish momentum, intentionally tactile in the imagery, taking on a similar scope of subject and throwing lyricism at it from all angles. Look at us go, I hear myself giggling. Now we are artists of a whole new stripe. Wheeee.

But then I wonder if, while watching them, I should hear the sound of a shoe dropping somewhere in the background.

I feel all these ways. There’s an essay in that. Maybe a film.

From Ryan Van Meter:

Many thanks to Liz Stephens and Brevity for this kind and thoughtful response to the short film inspired by my essay, “First.” But I want to offer a small but critical clarification. The film was created by a filmmaker, Tucker Capps, for my press Sarabande Books. Other than recording the voiceover (based on a script also created by Tucker), I wasn’t involved in the production of the film, and in fact didn’t see it until about an hour before it was posted on the Web. So the film actually is a reader’s interpretation of and reaction to a writer’s work. Tucker is himself a writer, which surely informs his filmmaking, but he isn’t the writer of the essay to which he was responding. (He’s also made other short films for the purpose of book promotion, and all of them are beautiful.)

Watch for Yourself: Link to the VIDEO


Listening to One Another: A Defense of the Memoir Genre

February 21, 2011 § 35 Comments

Our managing editor Liz Stephens, a PhD candidate in nonfiction at Ohio University and author of the smart, surprising “Ten Years I’ll Never Get Back” in the Fall 2010 issue of Fourth Genre, responds to Neil Genzlinger’s recent attack on the memoir genre:

Dozens of memoirs line the discount table at my local chain bookstore. The slim edge of one book there makes me thrust my hand out in front of another customer before she can lower her own hand onto what might as well have been WWII silk stockings. I want it. Let her huff. She probably wanted the one about getting happy next to my choice anyway. She probably thinks my choice is inexplicable. She might have dropped my choice like a hot tamale. It’s Mark Doty’s Dog Years. And in fact, the book does change, if not my life, then my entire week, and everything I write for a few days.

Would everyone be moved by this book? Absolutely not. Cat people, for starters. People looking for plot, maybe. Looking for muggles or mysteries. On the other hand, on the list of preoccupations I share with Doty: a) pets. B) death. C) New York City in the Eighties. D) fathoming how our loved ones make us face the uncomfortable in everything. How we come out of it, not holy, but better.

Would Neil Genzlinger like my book, Genzlinger who recently in the New York Times expressed his dissatisfaction with that state of memoir publishing? I’d guess not. Presumably he’s over in the aisle with Lee Iacocca autobiography, Pete Sampras, Ronald Reagan. People who’ve Done Something.

But I’m not one of those people. And so how they’ve lived their lives does not interest me, unless their lives are suddenly very relevant to me (my new president) or much later have historical value (Ben Franklin). But me, I will always be mired in the everyday. Still, my quotidian life fascinates me so much that I want to know what others make of it as well, of their train rides, their errands through the streets, their awkward exchanges with daughters. Other people may go to the top of a mountain when their partner dies, and may subsequently write about it, but I for one am more likely, should that scenario come to pass, to do what Doty did. To sit on the bed I’ve recently shared with the deceased and stare at my dog, wonder what he thinks of the whole precious and fraught debacle of our human lives. Every big moment is only, it seems to me, while you’re feeling it, small moments stacked up. I resist anyone’s story that tells me differently. And, gee, I’m just not planning on starting a car company.

“There was a time,” Genzlinger writes, “when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir.” Well, yes and no. It’s true that early autobiography was usually the domain of the celebrated, both in America and abroad. But there have always been the Saint Augustines, of course; and he was a “nobody,” a monk who told us for hundreds and hundreds of pages, in the fifth century, that some days one considers one’s bellybutton and some days one feels the presence of God. So is there a precedent for “nobodies” telling their own stories? Doesn’t this tradition have its own rich history?

In 1906, an editor from New York published a book of “lifelets,” called The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans as told by Themselves. Butcher, bootblack, dressmaker, cook, nurse, minister. Putting aside the historical value of work like that, which is immeasurable, did it sell? It did.

It ushered in thirty hot and heavy years of writing, and a permanent precedent, for memoir by “ordinary Americans.” E. B. White, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, John Cheever all started as light memoir writers.

Nevertheless, am I interested in all the memoirs out today? Heck no. Some of them I think are not worth the paper they’re printed on. Let’s be honest, you think it too. But what supreme elitism to suppose those might not speak to other readers. The fact that I turn my nose up at some memoir I consider a matter of personal taste, and certainly while my brand of “taste” has been validated by a sort of educated cultural elite, only extreme myopia would lead me to think no other “taste” might be considered worse or better. Furthermore, you can bet there are a thousand people you’ll walk by today who are not interested in lyric essay, disjunctive timeline narrative, any of the markers of high literature which might otherwise absolve a memoir from a humble authorship. Are we all literati? Should we be?

Ben Yagoda, in his book Memoir from which I drew the early century memoir examples above, points out that the appeal of writing by “ordinary” Americans at the time might have been the contrast to other, bleaker, views of the culture; may be, I point out, the contrast these polyphonic voices offer to a more consensual view of any place or culture. We’re all these things, like it or not. We can’t keep Wallace Stegner and not claim Britney Spears (I mean, can we?). We are as much Karr’s Liar’s Club as we are Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. We’re as much Dillard’s An American Childhood as we are Harry Crew’s A Childhood. And, because we’re keeping it real here, we are as much the woman in Eat, Pray, Love as we are that guy in Tuesdays with Morrie. I haven’t read Tuesdays, because I’m guessing its tone wouldn’t appeal to me, but do I know the way we as a culture deal with aging is an issue for me too? Yeah. I’m just going to have to find that lesson elsewhere, but I’m glad that book synthesized that lesson for so many people.

And do I supposed some memoir about the ubiquitous damage of growing up white and middle-class in a divorced family….well, honestly, I’m having trouble thinking of a subject that has zero to do with me, that’s my best attempt at a book I think may not need to be written….but if I find that book, a book written in a style I don’t like, about a subject I think is vapid, I’ll just leave it on the shelf. For someone else. Because someone else may want that, may be so unconscious of themselves that to see their life reflected back, in a tone they don’t find distancing, could a game-changer. And if none of us think a book has worth, and we all leave it on the shelf, well, that’ll be its own reward, won’t it?

Can Genzlinger tell the woman down the subway stop from him what she should consider worth her time, just because an experience in a text does not speak to him? Some people write for the New York Times. Some people spend a lot of time worrying about their pets. Some people just want to sit down and have a laugh after a long day at work. It’s okay.

What does this fecund memoir rush in publishing tells us about ourselves as a culture? Is this the answer Genzlinger fears? I think it tells us something we shouldn’t worry about: we’re having a conversation with each other in the best way we can, since we may never meet. I’ve read a lot of memoir, since the start of recorded history, and so when I say always, I mean always, since we could write and eventually publish: we’re listening to each other, for all the wrong and right reasons we always have: prurient curiosity, absolution, confirmation, snarkiness, grace, boredom, community, joy.

Listening to John McPhee

March 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Brevity’s new managing editor Liz Stephens blogs on John McPhee and the recent/rare interview he granted to the LA Times:

Sitting here at my desk on a writer’s block day, staring out of my window at birds and trying to figure out what to say about birds, I’m struck doubly by John McPhee’s assertion that “you suspend the normal world to reproduce the normal world.” I think this, I think, and then think: John McPhee thinks this. (“You like coffee?” I’d surely wheedle if I met him. “Hey, I like coffee! You like sleeping? No kidding, I…”) It turns out, of course, that the seamless flow of information and the trustworthy tone in his own writing take the effort we all make as writers, unknotting sentence after ugly first-draft sentence.

In his new book of essays, Silk Parachute, John McPhee finally begins to show readers his “fault lines,” Susan Salter Reynolds calls these personal memories, in her review in the New York Times. At age 79, he has begun to open up. What a prize for all of us, in an age of egregious public self-exposure, to have waited so long to know more about any writer than he or she has already told us; especially one who has now guided us through fish spawning, geologic discovery, sports, and through these, often life in general.

Finally we get tools from the man himself. McPhee, Salter Reynolds tells readers, “writes three or four drafts of each piece, spending about two years on the first draft, four months on the second, one month on the third and one week on the fourth.” Also, as a researcher, he writes it all down as he goes. Also (and we love this conversation at Brevity), he believes there’s a “high priority on getting the facts straight. “ ‘People say the line is blurred,’” Salter Reynolds quotes him as saying. “But a fact is either checkable or it isn’t.”

For myself, I’m inspired. Some people, let’s be honest, I don’t care so much when they tell me about themselves. I hear a lot nowadays about people’s childhoods, and their troubles, and their opinions, without knowing immediately why I should value their particular selves over anyone else’s. They have to earn that, whether via rarity or distinct voice or sheer will shining through in their writing. Usually, I’d rather read about fish spawning and let the mystery of the writer simmer underneath the prose a bit. John McPhee, I already trust. I already look up to. He’s told me some things that were right. I’m listening.

— Liz Stephens

Brevity 28: Soon to Fall from the Tree

September 9, 2008 § 2 Comments

Next week, BREVITY 28 will fall to earth like an acorn from a truth-telling oak tree.  Where else can you find intergalactic dust, two peach-colored poodles, one upturned car, notes on the art of fencing, cake erotica, failed Caesarian sections, missing toddlers, cameos by Tiresias and Oedipus, and the brightest red dress you’ve ever seen?  All of it nonfiction, and brought to you by the incomparable likes of Terese Svoboda, J.T. Bushnell, John Calderazzo, K.L. Cook, Brian Doyle, Kate Flaherty, John Griswold, Pat Madden, Leslie F. Miller, Brian Oliu, Rita Rubin, Phil Terman, and Kathrine Leone Wright. Plus new Book Reviews from Debbie Hagan, Joey Franklin, and Liz Stephens and stellar Craft Essays from Barrie Jean Borich and Sherry Simpson.

Stay tuned!

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