September 16, 2020 § 3 Comments
In the introductory conversation around Brevity‘s special issue on the Experiences of Disability, Sonya Huber asks her fellow guest editors Keah Brown and Sarah Fawn Montgomery to discuss how disability shapes their writing process, including ways in which their disabilities can change and deepen what and how they write:
Sarah Fawn Montgomery: Of course disability impacts my writing by sometimes limiting when, if, or how much writing I can accomplish, but disability also deeply informs my craft. It is subject and structure, influencing everything from framing and pacing, to detail and syntax. Disability has also shifted my writing practice. I know that I might not always be well enough to write, so I take advantage of any opportunities and am grateful rather than critical of the work I produce during this time. I recognize that long stretches of writing time are not always possible and have learned to write in short spurts and in unexpected locations. Sometimes I write daily, but many times I do not, and I do not feel guilty for taking time away to care for my body and brain. I understand this as another kind of writing practice, because caring for ourselves away from the writing eventually allows us to put words on the page.
Keah Brown: Disability impacts and shapes every aspect of my life. I am not just my disability but it is the lens through which I navigate the world. The writing process is no different. Earlier on in my career, I felt beholden to discuss disability, and that left me resentful, but as I have matured and grown, both as a person and professionally, I have realized that disability is a part of the nuance I bring to my work. The lens of disability has allowed me to get creative on the days my body won’t allow me to work at all. Shaping the way I approach work, disability is at the center of my work particularly in holding myself and others accountable, as well as giving me the opportunity to be assertive in what I need in order to create and when I need to say no. The truth is this: disability does shape my writing process from beginning to end in precious and obvious ways, but more important than words on the page, is the ability to shape me as a person. I am such a cliché, friends!
You can read the full discussion here.
September 15, 2020 § 2 Comments
The “Experiences of Disability” issue is guest edited by Keah Brown, Sonya Huber, and Sarah Fawn Montgomery. Artwork by Jill Khoury.
May 6, 2019 § 20 Comments
By LaRue Cook
I’m a cisgender, heterosexual white man who was raised in the South, a tick below middle class and near the second notch of the Bible Belt. Don’t worry. There is no but. I just think more people like me ought to own their privilege up front, outright. That’s kinda what my debut collection of essays is about: owning up to privilege as opposed to ignoring it or—worse still—apologizing.
Man in the (Rearview) Mirror is about leaving my job as a senior editor at ESPN The Magazine in Connecticut and moving back to my native Tennessee to become a full-time driver for Uber. All of this began in January of 2016, when I was thirty and had no idea that Donald Trump would be elected President of the United States. So, yeah, it’s about that, too—how my silence and ignorance borne out of privilege renders me as culpable as anybody for this current American predicament, to put it lightly.
Three book readings in, and I’ve introduced myself this same way—more or less—to an audience of mostly white people, from Atlanta, Georgia, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Portland, Oregon, the latter at an off-site event during my first-ever AWP conference. The following day I spent an hour signing books at my press’s booth as part of AWP’s humbling-ly massive book fair. To help funnel potential buyers to the table, my editor greeted people with a short pitch. (He’s a naturalized citizen from Trinidad, for the record.) Meanwhile, I was busy with my own PR song-and-dance when I overheard him say, “No, that’s the author. Wouldn’t you love to meet him?” I turned to see a young woman of color, whose seeming interest quickly drained from her face, upon seeing me. She said, “I’m sorry. I don’t buy books by white men.” Then she smiled and continued down the aisle. Nothing malicious. Very polite, in fact.
For the rest of my stint in Portland and since returning to Atlanta, where I’m a PhD student at Georgia State University, I’ve recounted that anecdote to fellow writers—of all identities. Some have scoffed, even rolled their eyes at the reductive logic. Most of the eye-rollers, admittedly, have been men. As for me, I’m not offended, didn’t even roll my eyes. Hell, first thing I thought: Now that’s an essay! Besides, I knew about this trend in theory, just had yet to experience it in practice. Which is why I’d like to consider seriously the implications of what that young woman said.
This is a blog called Brevity, so I hope you’ll excuse my lack of an exhaustive history on gender and racial inequality in literature, other than to cite a stat by essayist Sonya Huber, who is also the director of Fairfield University’s low-res MFA, of which I am an alum. Since 2000, only two of The Best American Essays have featured more women than men: 2011 and 2017. In ’07, ’08, ’10, and ’12, less than thirty percent of the writers were women. However, those numbers don’t take into account race or ethnicity, or how each individual woman identifies their gender. But I’m not certain those numbers alone can truly contextualize the lack of institutional inclusion in our industry: That series is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which is run by a guy named John “Jack” Lynch, a man who looks an awful lot like me. Same as Brian Murray (HarperCollins) and Markus Dohle (Penguin Random House) and John Sargent (Macmillan) and Michael Pietsch (Hachette). My point isn’t lost on you, I’m sure. Just as I’m sure you understand that it’s damn near impossible–if you’d like to sell even a couple hundred books as an indie author—to outrun the shadows of Jeff Bezos and Leonard Riggio. I can’t help but wonder if those men would consider their positions products of privilege, or of bootstraps being pulled up.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to speak to that young woman, to ask her if she only buys books published by Simon & Schuster, which is headed by Carolyn Reidy (a white woman, for the record). I would’ve liked to know that young woman’s thoughts on how we reconcile these white men and me, a person who simply enjoys telling stories, as I’m sure she probably does too. I imagine the ultimate question is: Should I be writing at all, or just reading and listening? How do white people write about privilege if their very words hold that privilege?
These questions loom large and are virtually unanswerable, but to censor them from being asked in these forums by the people who hold the power is to risk confining them to eye rolls or to echo chambers, where we can “unfriend” or “unfollow” those who might challenge us. And, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, once we’ve done that, then, as writers, we’re finished, we’ve lost. Because we actually believe we’ve figured out the world.
So, later that day in Portland, after that young woman had said what she said, I visited the famous Powell’s Books. I bought a copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I’m ashamed to say, at thirty-four years old, I have not yet read. But I will this summer, as well as C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides. And I’d say if there is anything remotely resembling an answer to the question of how I confront my white male privilege, then it is that, to personally seek out the experiences that are not mine and to bring them into the classroom.
LaRue Cook is the author of the essay collection Man in the (Rearview) Mirror and a PhD student in creative writing at Georgia State University, where he teaches composition and intro to fiction. His nonfiction has appeared in such publications as ESPN The Magazine, Reader’s Digest, and The Bitter Southerner, while his fiction has appeared in Washington Square Review and Barely South Review, among other places. Find him at laruecook.com or on Twitter at @larue_cook or on Instagram at @cook.larue.
March 21, 2017 § 1 Comment
by Vivian Wagner
This is a book about pain. Chronic, searing, never-ending pain—a pain that’s shaped Sonya Huber’s life for years. It’s also a book about the language of pain, the discourse of pain, and her gradual movement toward being able to talk and write about her experience with this mysterious thing that dominates her life.
As someone who hasn’t yet experienced chronic pain, I relied on Huber to draw me into her world, to show me what it feels like, to allow me to begin to understand an experience that many of us will, eventually, know first-hand. And she takes on this project masterfully, introducing her readers to pain just as she might introduce a family member. By the end of the book, I’d begun to see my current pain-free state as an aberration, as a temporary fiction, and I was grateful that she’d facilitated my entry into a world that is, in many ways, more real than the one I inhabit.
Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System is fragmented and disjointed, much like pain itself. She circles around her subject, assaying it, exploring it. Reading the book, therefore, offers an almost visceral experience. To shape this experience, the essays are filled with metaphors. In the first essay, for instance, “Lava Lamp of Pain,” pain is compared to “evil pink evening gloves,” a predatory bird, and a criminal.
Pain, though, exceeds the boundaries of metaphors and, ultimately, language itself. Huber wants to describe and delineate this experience, but it always escapes her grasp. Chronic pain, we learn through these lilting, lyrical essays, remains mysterious, even though it’s indelibly and inescapably connected to her body and sense of self.
Huber also emphasizes that eventually, pain is part of most of our lives. It is, in this way, more constant and reliable than a lack of pain. In “Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick,” she examines and interrogates the constancy and steadiness of pain. The essay opens with the following line: “When I am ill, only the kingdom of the ill is of comfort.” The kingdom of the ill, she says, is paradoxically more predictable and grounded than the kingdom of the healthy:
What I learn is that the kingdom of the ill is a vast bedrock. We appear weak and reclined, yet we cannot be invaded or defeated. Look at us: We are unbreakable in our brokenness. We cannot be cured and are therefore invincible.
In other words, far from being illusory, the kingdom of the ill is, in a way, more “real” than the kingdom of the well. As she says “We are real, and only illness reveals the true bedrock of illness. It is not imaginary. This land is the most reliable and most vast of the human experience.” As she grapples with feeling abnormal for being in chronic pain, Huber comes to realize that there’s nothing more normal, ultimately, than pain.
The arc of this collection moves toward the final essay, “Inside the Nautilus,” which is a moving account of Huber’s introduction to the McGill Pain Questionnaire. Unlike other pain rating systems, she finds that this questionnaire gets closest to providing a language for describing pain. It asks, for instance, “what does your pain feel like?” and then offers what she calls a “transfixing list of words.” Under the category of brightness, it suggests “itchy, tingling, smarting, and stinging.” Elsewhere, the questionnaire allows the respondent to choose from the following descriptors: “punishing, grueling, cruel, vicious, and killing.”
Immediately, Huber loves this questionnaire, because it provides a language for expressing her pain. During much of her experience with pain, she describes feeling marginalized and shunned, but when she discovers this questionnaire she feels validated. The questionnaire provides a kind of poetry of pain, and it lends a sense of reality to her experience. As she says, “I savored the form with a quiet outpouring of affection one reserves for sensitive thinkers and researchers whose work plumbs the core of human experience.”
Finally, it’s not so much the questionnaire, but this essay collection itself that allows Huber to develop her own pain discourse. Through these essays, she speaks the unspeakable. She gives form to the formless. She shapes the difficult reality of her daily life into a narrative that ties her experience with the broader human condition. And ultimately, through writing, she finds what she calls at the end of her final essay a “poetry within.”
A few weeks after finishing the book, I had surgery to remove a spot of cancer from my nose, and in the temporary pain of the recovery process, I found myself thinking of Huber’s essays. I caught a brief glimpse of someone I’d gotten to know through her writing—someone who will, most likely, become a more constant companion as I age. And this, ultimately, is Huber’s gift with Pain Woman Takes Your Keys. She recognizes our shared frailty, and she offers compassionate encouragement to tell its story.
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and a poetry collection, The Village.
March 31, 2015 § 1 Comment
We are Happy to Announce New Backer Rewards!
Our Kickstarter campaign is going wonderfully, and we are touched by all the support for Brevity. It’s been going so well, that many of the premiums have already been snapped up, and so now we are bringing new ones!
We have some exciting new rewards for backers, and we are incredibly grateful to the community of writers who have donated them. Help us out, and grab yourself some of the best possible literary swag.
GENERATE SOME NEW WORK! Brevity author Chelsea Biondolillo has generously offered a seat in an upcoming generative online workshop to one of our lucky backers! The date of this is open, so if you can’t make the next one, don’t worry! From the Apiarylit.org website:
The Generative Writing workshops emphasize the production of new work. Each week an optional prompt and maximum word count will encourage you generate up to 4500 words of new nonfiction. These can be individual flash essays, a connected series of vignettes or lyric fragments, or the building blocks of a single personal essay, literary journalism feature, memoir chapter, or hybrid of one or more CNF forms. You are welcome to share your responses with the class, or not, as you choose.
Biondolillo is a frequent craft essay contributor to Brevity, as well as one of our authors. She’s a smart, thoughtful essayist and a great teacher. We think you couldn’t do better than to take this workshop, and we are grateful to her for donating this incredible prize!
GROW YOUR PLATFORM! Does the word “platform” make you shudder a little bit? Are you feeling a little gobsmacked by the way publishers increasingly expect writers to have a strong social media presence in order to market their own work? Us, too! Well, all of us but the excellent Allison Williams, our social media editor!
For a hundred dollar donation, Allison will give you two hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of social media advice, including a one-hour Skype or phone consultation on how to build your specific brand as a writer. She’s done amazing things for us—really, she’s grown our blog audience exponentially—and we think she could do wonderful things for you, too.
A SPECIAL REWARD FOR WINE LOVERS, a SIGNED copy of Brian Doyle’s THE GRAIL: A YEAR AMBLING & SHAMBLING THROUGH AN OREGON VINEYARD IN PURSUIT OF THE BEST PINOT NOIR WINE IN THE WHOLE WILD WORLD. You will also get our gratitude, your name listed on a thank you page associated with the special gender issue, and a rock solid excuse to purchase and consume numerous bottles of opulent wine with dark cherry back notes.
THERE ARE TWO OR THREE THINGS WE KNOW FOR SURE, and one of them is that Dorothy Allison regularly delivers heart-breaking, hilarious, essential stories. So we asked her to sign us some books, and she said, “Fuck yeah.” Reward yourself with a SIGNED copy of Dorothy Allison’s TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW FOR SURE. You will also get our gratitude, your name listed on a thank you page associated with the special gender issue, and a book that will kick you in the ass. The good way.
WE WILL ALSO BE ADDING NEW BOOKS BY BREVITY AUTHORS OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, including work by Sonya Huber, Rebecca McClanahan, Patrick Madden, Gary Fincke, and Lori Jakiela.
You can see all of the Kickstarter campaign awards here. We are incredibly grateful for the response so far, and excited about the things will be able to do as new backers continue to join us. Thank you, all. We are deeply grateful.
February 6, 2015 § 5 Comments
I haven’t been able to write lately due to disrupted mornings, which has thrown me off and made me rusty. I have spoken and written about the hour-a-day writing routine, and I want to admit here in the privacy of the Internet that the bar is super low for that hour. Here’s a chronicle of real writing as it just happened:
MY HOUR OF WRITING THIS MORNING
8:30 reply to 2 urgent emails.
8:31: Oh my god this morning pissed me off so much. The battle with my son over his iPod. The freaking diabetic cat. The illnesses. The …whatever. Arrrrrgggh. I haven’t had time to write in days and I think I have forgotten how. Arrrrrrgggghghg.
8:32: Send an essay to be read by one of my writing groups. Stare at my folder of stuff in progress and nothing looks interesting. Resign myself to starting this document. Hating everything including writing.
8:34: Move two folders from “in progress” to published to clean up a bit. Then move one more. Then add a pub to the file of my list of publications.
December 29, 2012 § 4 Comments
Here at Brevity, we adore straight talk, honesty, shrimp and grits, and common sense. One of our favorite writer/teachers Sonya Huber provides most everything on our list in her recent blog posting entitled How to Publish Your Book. Good, gritty common sense, honest and straightforward.
Here are the questions she is so often asked:
Question 1: How Do I Get My Book Published?
Question 2: How Do I Write a Book?
Question 3: How Do I Write MY Book?
Question 4: Are you asking me how I became a writer?
Question 5: How do I get an agent?
And here are excerpts from a few of her answers. But read the entire posting, really.
… I’m trying to figure out and express exactly why the question is so agonizing. I think it boils down to my own inadequacy. Here’s my batting average (for real). About 1 hour a day since I was 23, minus the weekends and sick days. So we’ll say 5 days a week, 18 years… that’s 52 x 5 x 18 (at the bare minimum)=4680 hours. If I add in a few half hours here and there and a bunch of manic proofreading and revisioning, it’s close to 8,000 hours pretty easily (not to mention reading time, which should be added in, I suppose). That is a lot of waking time of life. To show for it, I have 3 books. And I can only tell you that I have no idea how to write a book, much less how to publish one.
… If you saw a welder working and said to the welder, “I want to build a battle ship,” what would his response be? He would sigh and say, “Okay. Maybe you should learn to weld first.” The obvious next thing is to say, Just write your book. Or just find an MFA program. And I hate myself for giving that kind of flippant advice.
… I wrote every day for an hour on the subway to and from work in Boston, and then I kept writing and I wrote a bad novel. Then I was hooked into it, and I subscribed to Poets & Writers Magazine, read it diligently, learned about writing and the writing and publishing industry, and sent my work out to many small and large magazines and anthologies. I gradually got published in small magazines and anthologies and got rejected a lot. It took a loooooonnnnnggggg time. it took an astounding amount of patience and still does.
… I wrote so much bad, bad stuff. I still do, and then I sit and revise. That’s the only difference: the amount of time you are willing to put in to revision. If you are brilliant on a first draft, you should not be asking me for advice, because I don’t know what it’s like to live the life of a savant and I would not be the one to guide you. I am what they call a “grind.”
December 7, 2012 § Leave a comment
For anyone who has had trouble loving Montaigne’s essays as much as modern essayists are supposed to love them — because come on, he does get pedantic at times — here is a fine appreciation — with important distinctions — from the sharp pen of Sonya Huber over at ‘Her Kind,’ the VIDA Blog. We think she has nailed it. Montaigne himself has yet to weigh in.
Here’s an excerpt:
As I made it past the 1300-page mark, I was glad to get to this sentence: “I am not excessively fond either of salads or fruits, except melons. My father hated all sorts of sauces; I love them all.”I sighed with relief when Montaigne stopped quoting Seneca and turned toward his real body, even when he dished about the details of his agony with kidney stones. Give me melons, give me sauces—just give me something specific, something with taste and smell and heft.
I had already been told that Montaigne taught himself to write as he wrote, developing his skill over time; nobody explicitly told me to avoid two-thirds of his work, but I should have. I didn’t hear, however, that Montaigne’s decaying body was also his writing teacher. As he ages and becomes ill, he becomes vulnerable and specific. Melons and kidney stones give me something personal, something that reminds me of Montaigne as a corporeal being. Montaigne’s kidney stones bring him back to himself and make him strangely most alive.
November 20, 2012 § 9 Comments
This is the second, and last, installment of our roundtable on the essay “The Facts of the Matter” by Anonymous and published in both TriQuarterly and Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. The Anonymous author is joined by author/scholars Sonya Huber, Matt Ferrence, and Ned Stuckey-French. (If you missed the first installment, or the essay in question, you can catch up here.)
Last Roundtable Question:
Moderator: In “The Facts of the Matter,”Anonymous writes, “It is interesting that writers of creative nonfiction have become so at ease with lying, so uninterested in truth, at a time when our government is obsessed with obtaining the truth through increased surveillance, interrogation of suspects, data mining.” I’d like to close by asking you all to engage with this larger question of the argument about fact in nonfiction. Do the choices we make as artists (and consumers of art) influence or intersect with larger societal issues such as those cited by anonymous? Does the comic notion of “truthiness” attach to both John D’Agata’s About a Mountain and to the Bush administration’s misleading information on WMDs in Iraq, or is that just a hyper-hysteric exaggeration? Is there more at stake here than a genre of writing privileged in the academy but not so much on the radar of the average American or international citizen, or are we jousting at windmills that don’t really matter in the larger scale of humanity? Finally, where are we as a genre? Are we really comfortable with lying, or have most of us come down pretty squarely on the side of truth–not truthiness–in creative nonfiction?
SH: Well, I guess I’ll start this off… I’m going to take on the quote at the beginning in conjunction with the last question; I have more to say about “truthiness,” which I think is an important and dangerous gray area. I want to start with an honest question for my esteemed table mates. The quote at the beginning of the question posits “many” nonfiction liars. In the piece Anonymous implicates three by name: John D’Agata, David Shields, and Robert Atwan. Shields first: I’m actually not 100% sure that Shields’ position is represented clearly in the piece; the quote included seems to be observation misinterpreted in the piece as edict. Second: as far as John D’Agata goes, Ned already broke up with him. A major move! Tears were shed! Many of us talked and talked, were sick to our stomachs about someone treading all over a genre we care about, and we mulled it over and gnashed our teeth in continuous conversations and panels.Yes, this stuff will sell books, but that’s beyond our control. Just about anything flashy sells a book. Third: as for Robert Atwan, if he made a troubling comment, someone should ask him to clarify and respond directly. Are there many more? The numbers might be more obvious to someone like Ned who screens submissions at a major nonfiction journal. There’s much lumping of like and unlike here (rape vs. lying, D’Agata and Shields and Atwan vs. “many”), and I need to first understand what is actually being asserted. I did not understand why all these wrenching machinations were necessary to get to a point that seems so obvious; for me, the ends did not justify the means. Lying is wrong in our genre. Either I am missing a raft of semi-fake meta-essays (thankfully), or this piece is saying something that many people in the nonfiction community already know and believe. Or are we also to revisit the well-trod ground of faked memoirs? Let’s not. Liars will continue to get tons of attention, then will get praise for being “bold” and “controversial,” and the rest of us will just have to continue doing our work and calling them out on it. Or?… Enlighten me.
ANONYMOUS: Despite its dismissal as mere entertainment, it seems to me that art is still the compass of culture, so David Shields’ glib claim that “facts are irrelevant” in creative nonfiction seems to me gravely consequential (not surprisingly his assertion arises roughly coincident with a shift in our political discourse from disagreeing over interpretations of facts to a disagreement about what the facts are…not to mention fictional WMDs, Jayson Blair scandal, etc.). I think the fashionable disregard for “the facts” in nonfiction reflects a broader willingness within our culture to disregard inconvenient facts–whether for political advantage or for the so-called sake of art or to meet a newspaper deadline.
I wish this were limited to a few flamboyant rhetorical works by Shields or D’Agata or a single speech by Mr. Atwan, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Viz Pam Houston’s introductory remarks to Jill Talbot’s anthology, in which Houston argues–as many recent graduate and undergraduate students of mine have done–that, given the subjective nature of perception, it’s meaningless to talk about facts in nonfiction, since it’s all interpreted anyway (such illogic has, alas, become a commonplace): http://www.hungermtn.org/corn-maze/ . One might hope that my essay’s point were as obvious as Sonya suggests, but sadly we seem to have lost our collective conviction regarding facts, and whether they matter. Hence, this piece.
But for me, the heart of “The Facts of the Matter” is not its account of a sexual assault or its invented persona but its summary of the 18th-century Stamp Act–which distinguished fact from fiction about forty years before democratic revolutions flourished. That historical fact is not one that we talk enough about, as far as I’m concerned, or think enough about. I believe that what we do narratively does inform what we do actually (neuroscience increasingly suggests this is so): which is why I’m grateful to the thoughtful commentators whose effort to meaningfully parse this question gives me hope.
MF: I’m going to address the elephant in the room, instant replay in sports. This, perhaps more than anything else, is the larger cultural impulse that best intersects with our own artistic considerations of truth, fact, creative nonfiction, memoir, essays, composite characters, artful bending, and all of that. As anyone with even casual experience in televised sports viewing knows, instant replay offers a constant interruption to the flow of games, with the presumed benefit of objective truth.
In football: the head referee goes under the black hood to parse an apparently infinite number of variables (did the ground cause the fumble or was the hand moving forward and does the plane of the endzone extend infinitely skyward even as it is contained within the framework of blaze orange pylons?).
In baseball: line calls can be reviewed, to know whether the triple just inside the bag is actually a foul ball just outside the bag.
In basketball: exciting “buzzer beater” shots are automatically reviewed, holding the frenzied masses in a state of suspended animation — did we win, did we lose? — until the swish can be corroborated with the hundredth-of-the-second.
In tennis: the technological Hawk-Eye camera/computer wizardry (fascinating article here) extrapolates ball trajectory to create a definitive call of in or out and, apparently, make it clear which player tirades are justified and which aren’t.
In cricket (shit, cricket, has instant replay): various incomprehensible things are made clear through the intervention of technology. If you clicked the link above you know that Hawk-eye, in fact, was designed for a fairly specific problem in cricket that I will not pretend to understand.
I hate instant replay or, rather, the impulse that makes instant replay a desirable (even if detested) aspect of contemporary sports. We demand instant replay because we favor the concrete over the ambiguous, wish to pretend that subjectivity is non-existent, remain steadfast in a commitment to a delusion of the absolute. Instant replay exploits our discomfort with judgment, valuation, and nuance. Instant replay makes us feel like truth has been served, because we have verifiable technological proof that something happened in a precise way.
But, let us then ignore for a moment that the very act of measuring something affects its outcome (so sayeth Heisenberg, who might not actually have been talking about the infamous NFL “tuck rule” but might as well have done so). And let us also ignore the prevailing wisdom of beloved post-structuralist French theorists like Derrida and Foucault and Althusser and, my personal favorite, Baudrillard, who all rise up to more or less say, truth is not true. Or knowable. Or is always in negotiation. Or something like that.
Thus I find it completely unsurprising that the growing use of instant replay coincides with a growing clamor for the “absolute” knowledge that a college football playoff will bring coincides with the use of remote-controlled drone strikes in Afghanistan that appear simultaneously true and video gamey coincides with the strategic disinformation of WMDs and the invasion of privacies under various un-truthfully named artifacts like the Patriot Act coincides with the rabid de-truthification of presidential campaigns coincides with the growth industry of on-line fact-checking sites coincides with our own conversation about how sacrosanct the Truth is when writing creative nonfiction.
Goodness, even rodeo uses instant replay.
“It’s a category mistake to think of memoir as belonging to journalism; it belongs to literature,” David Shields writes in “What We’re All Looking For: Notes On Our Reality Hunger”. “I think the reason we don’t interrogate poetry as we do memoir is that we have a long and sophisticated history of how to read the poetic voice. We accept that its task is to find emotional truth within experience, so we aren’t all worked up about the literal. We don’t yet have that history or tradition with the memoir.”
I wonder if part of the reason that the contemporary creative nonfiction of right now keeps circling around the limits and validity of truth-fidelity correlates precisely to the growing lack of clarity we experience in our world. Ours is a regrettable time of fundamentalism, when the discomfort of an ambiguous world blows so many toward the rigidity of dogma and the drawing of lines in the sand. Indeed, creative nonfiction is a genre that relies very much on the usage of truth, but I think we’re disingenuous at best when we pretend that truth is something we ever quite fully understand. In fact, since I think most people really do understand how untenable truth is (has always been, will always be), many turn to nonfiction as a quiet refuge away from the storms of postmodern confusion.
To me, fundamentalism marks one of the chief problems of the current state of creative nonfiction, which frequently seems to be almost indistinguishable from the notion of the memoir, even though the latter is a certain subset of the former. Instead, because popular nonfiction has been dominated for a decade or so with the kinds of memoirs that Shields identifies as “a summing up of life,” we have come too quick to think of that mode as a preferred aesthetic of the genre. But I consider the memoir (as most know it) to be the least interesting of the nonfiction out there, or at least the most limited. The memoir seeks to recount or reconstruct some aspect of life that was lived, and in practice that often results in a preference for memoirs of interesting lives that have been lived. So when we limit ourselves to a genre of memoir, we limit ourselves to a genre of gossip: consider how much memoir relies on the melodramatic, on essentially the same kind of subject matter that has long been fodder for supermarket paperback romances and mysteries and thrillers. I fear that a rigid desire for a certain kind of (falsely) absolute truth supports a vision of our genre as one predicated on hyper-dramatic subject matter. Melodrama is not known for nuance. A lack of nuance can too easily appear to be Truth, nuance too easily considered misleading.
Art, of course, is the desire to press against the thick skin of life. Art is the line call. Art enters when we can’t quite make heads nor tails of the situation (What? Now even competitive coin-flipping has instant replay!?). Art revels in ambiguity, and I think we do a disservice to the artistic potentials of creative nonfiction when we are too quick, as Shields argues, to epistemologize ourselves as journalists who write with a bit more flair, use the first person a lot, maybe get a little crazy from time to time and write in the second person.
One of the horrific consequences of our contemporary spin toward a world defined by technology and economy is the marginalization of art. I fear that when we become too absolute about truth and do not acknowledge the potential truth of truthiness, when we do not recognize the fluidity of our genre and how the motion between the real and the twisted is, often, hard to know (like, what did I have for lunch yesterday? And if I write that it was tuna fish when, in fact, it was lutefisk, have I committed a sin against truth that both disqualifies me from the genre of creative nonfiction and links me irrevocably with depraved and wanton liars?), we are committing a blow against literature. Creative nonfiction is not about the telling of facts. It is about the shaping of facts in a quest to probe the questions that lead us to truth. No, it’s not the same thing as fiction, even if it sometimes appears on the page as a similar animal. But neither does slippage in “factuality” immediately disqualify something as nonfiction. As with so much (everything) in the world, there are gradients and spectrums and matrices and complicated venn diagrams to nonfiction. Instant replay is only one sort of truth, and it’s not the truth I believe lies at the heart of creative nonfiction.
SH: Good points, Matt. I think the two questions of most consequence for our genres and for the question of truth in literary writing–as you point out–are not the absolute decision on “truth vs. lying” but the question of humility (having your limitations be blind spots or explicit and acknowledged) and the question of motive. We can tend toward truth; that’s the best we can do, if truth is something we care about. We are limited by our humanity and our subjectivity. I think John D’Agata in his D’Agata-way loves truth enough to rumple it, though I personally don’t think it should be rumpled. I believe in having every sentence aim for a truth that is a communication between the reader and the writer. That might be a high standard to hold, but it is mine. At the same time, we have to be humbled by truth, by the unknowability of the universe. I can barely get a handle on where I left my car keys. Keeping multiple fake universes running is not one of my gifts.
At the same time, one key political point is that “truthiness” matters in different ways depending on the voice and the aims. Motive is key. In politics, for example: Propaganda is lying or exaggerating for the sake of trying to make change in the world through a somewhat despotic manipulation in order to coerce an audience to believe something you believe. It’s often done for fervently noble reasons. Propaganda can even be aesthetically brilliant in a Leni Riefenstahl way, but it is usually dangerous and it hurts people. What’s more, it robs them of their dignity through stirring up emotions and then using the power of those emotions as a stand-in for rational thought. Hence the WMD fervor, the blind spots, and the unknowable question of whether those people believed what they wanted to believe or whether it was calculated manipulate, or both. This is part of what riled me up about the Anonymous piece; in one sense, it’s literary propaganda, designed to make a noble point–but those are practices and an entire genre I ran from and I want no part of. The distinction between propaganda and polemic, I believe, is the distinction between engagement of the animal-guts and the mind.
The good news is that there is nothing new about propaganda. It’s something that has been long discussed and analyzed. Truthiness in politics is kin to propaganda. The only antidote is a fearless recording of our actual minds, our real lives, our less-than-magical daily details. In essays, I believe you can fearlessly imagine, and it’s easy to do so. All you have to do is to start with “I imagine” and then to share your brain. Then tell the reader why that was relevant to your real life. That’s my suspicion even with the aesthetic use of “improvement” of truth without the vulnerability of “showing your work” (I stole that from Bob Cowser, who I think was quoting someone else): it’s the loss of contact with our messy reality. But the opposite challenge is the inherently impossible nature of portraying messy reality through a single subjectivity. Those are two very different “truth” challenges. They should not both be simply put under the umbrella of lying.
I’m a current and former political activist. Anyone with strong political passions who also writes has to admit that they have contemplated using their writing skill to write the heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative tearjerkers or brain-bakers. As a journalist, I’ve done that. And I’ve been asked to do that and refused. Over time, my moral compass developed to the point that when I was treading anywhere close to that territory, I got a little queasy. I don’t do much journalism anymore because some of what I was asked to do (particularly as a freelancer) tread into those accepted categories of sensationalism: Generate Shock! Outrage! Sadness! Joy! It’s funny that we think of journalism as somehow immune from those propagandistic templates.
I’m essaying toward my point here, which is that genre doesn’t give us a corner on truth. We can’t protect ourselves from the lying that surrounds us except on a case-by-case basis. Whenever something outrages our senses of decency, we have to speak out. We also have to speak out in a grounded way that risks something: our real identities, our reputations and our jobs, our lives and our friendship networks, even our “likes” on the Internet. If we don’t have real people willing to stand up for even a limited and local form of truth, we have lost the main strand in our genre that matters to me, which is the confrontation with what is beyond and around us.
ANONYMOUS: It’s false to oppose truth and fact, or journalism and literature, distinct as each is (Didion’s Salvador, for one, encompasses all of the above). The whole point of CNF is to acknowledge the writer as lens, to render the actual through a particular mind, and many of the best memoirs (as well as literary journalism and essays) make use of the gap between what happened and what is recalled (McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, for one). The problem arises when we pretend to render facts when we’re writing fiction–not recording memory’s delightful mishaps or employing invention for meaningful effect (and signaling reader of same as Hong Kingston and Slater and Ondaatje, among many others, do) but lying to the reader because it’s easier or more expedient or from laziness or a desire not to consider the facts too closely.
I, for one, love to invent and do: in fiction. When claiming the heft of fact, I stick as close as I can to same, while acknowledging slippage, memory’s gaps, signaling where certainty fails and guesswork or invention of necessity begin, as I work my way toward understanding. It’s silly to pretend that personal truth is at odds with facts: think of Hong Kingston’s brilliant rendering of whole scenes she had no part in to convey the “truth” of her childhood ! But she levels with the reader and let’s us know what is invented. Not to do so is to lie. And should disturb the reader as my bit of invention in “The Facts of the Matter” has done.
To suggest that we ought to let the reader know when we embark on invention in nonfiction is hardly fundamentalism; it’s common sense. That it’s necessary to have this conversation at such length suggests to me how uncommon such sense has become.
NED S-F: I like “truthiness” and don’t like “trickiness”; that is, I like truthiness as practiced by Stephen Colbert when he, as “Stephen Colbert,” uses the concept to undo the trickiness (aka the “truthiness”) of George Bush or James Frey or David Shields, all of whom he has exposed on his show.
Maybe I’m feeling too damn sunnyside-up because of the results of the recent election, but I don’t agree with Anonymous’s assertion that “writers of creative nonfiction have become…at ease with lying” and “uninterested in truth.” Why else would so many of us have been so up in arms about A Million Little Pieces? And in response to Sarah’s final question, I would say that no we are not “really comfortable with lying” and “most of us come down pretty squarely on the side of truth–not truthiness–in creative nonfiction.”
Which means that we understand what Stephen Colbert means when he talks about truthiness and that finally we don’t fall for the trickiness of Bush, Frey, Shields, and D’Agata. Or, if we do fall for it, we get as mad as Oprah when we find out that we were tricked. Or, as mad as I was at Anonymous when I found out that I had been tricked and that he was a she and not a rapist.
(Which is not all that mad. Indeed, I hope to give my old friend Anonymous a hug, buy her a beer, and have a chat when next I see her, which I suspect will be at AWP in Boston. I will not be mad at her, just as I was not really mad at John D’Agata when I “broke up with him” at the last AWP.)
I agree with Anonymous when she says that we can make shit up as long as we signal that we are making shit up. But I don’t think James Frey signaled that he was (as Colbert put it) “making up his past,” or that Bush signaled when he sent Colin Powell to the UN with all those charts, or that D’Agata signaled when he played the asshole to Fingal’s overly earnest fact-checker, but neither do I think Anonymous signaled when she pretended she was a rapist and I don’t think she’s signaling now when she insists that she must still be anonymous (though you can be in on the joke if you buy Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, edited by Jill Talbot (University Of Iowa Press) 242 pages, $39.95). I know, I know, she’ll say she signaled after the fact, but to me that just puts the piece in that particular subgenre of trickiness called gotcha.
And I think that Sonya is absolutely right when she suggests that distinction between “truthiness” and “trickiness” has to do with the humility. LIke Sonya, “I believe in having every sentence aim for a truth that is a communication between the reader and the writer,” and that motive and humility make such communication possible. Humility comes from recognizing that we often lie to ourselves in our writing, or to put it another way, we don’t always signal to ourselves when we are making shit up. Part of my quarrel with both The Lifespan of a Fact and “The Facts of the Matter” is that while I think they are both smart, I also think they are too clever by half. It is easy, indeed inevitable, to screw up, lie to ourselves, slip into denial, lose our humility, posture toward our readers, and as a consequence, not get it right. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is very hard to come by. Reality is sly, people are complicated, and truth is slippery, or as Matt nicely put it, instant replay isn’t enough. I think Montaigne had it right when he recognized that you get it right by recognizing that you can’t get it right, even if life consists of trying to get it right. You keep listening to yourself and your reader. You keep revising by only adding, never subtracting, and you doubt everything, even yourself, especially yourself, in that never-ending attempt to answer the question “Que sais-je?”
But hey, what do I know?
As a Matter of Fact: A Roundtable Discussion about Anonymous’ “The Facts of the Matter” and Truth and Craft in Nonfiction
November 5, 2012 § 32 Comments
Recently, the journal TriQuarterly (re)published the anonymous essay The Facts of the Matter. The piece troubles many of the conventions of creative nonfiction–including the obligation to be factual–in service of the argument for factualness in nonfiction. Brevity is pleased to host this roundtable conversation with the Anonymous author and three leading writers/scholars in creative nonfiction. Thank you to everyone who participated.
This will be a two part discussion, with the next round of questions coming largely from reader response (posted in the comments section below). –Sarah Einstein, Managing Editor
1. Would each participant in the discussion introduce themselves, please, with an emphasis on why you are a stakeholder in the conversation?
SH: I’m Sonya Huber, a writer of creative nonfiction and an assistant professor at Fairfield University. I’m the author of three books: Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and The Backwards Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration. Before entering academia, I worked as a journalist and as an organizer for various social justice causes. I suppose I am particularly interested in this conversation because I believe personal narrative can reveal surprising and necessary truths that can give people the power to change the world or small pieces of it.
MF: This is Matthew Ferrence, essayist and assistant professor of creative writing at Allegheny College in Northwestern Pennsylvania. To this conversation, I bring a growing interest in the potential of fractured narratives, experimental structures, and other busting-ups of expected form. But, I’m still also a fan of the straight-ahead (such as it is, y’know, with all the meanders) Montaignian essay. My other stake here is my commitment to nonfiction as artful truth, with all of the messiness that brings to the table.
NS-F: I’m Ned Stuckey-French, an associate professor at Florida State University, where I teach classes in creative nonfiction, modern American literature, and our Editing, Writing, and Media Program, which focuses on writing and new media (or as we tag it, “Writing for the 21st Century). I’m the author of The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri Press, 2011), co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time (University of Iowa Press, 2012), and coauthor (with Janet Burroway and my wife Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Longman, 8th edition). My articles and essays have appeared in journals and magazines such as In These Times, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Walking Magazine, culturefront, Pinch, middlebrow, New South, TriQuarterly Online, Guernica, and American Literature, and have been listed four times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays. I am the book review editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. I’m the father of two daughters — one of whom is a high school senior about to go off to college.
Anonymous: Perhaps it would be best if I introduced the essay, which was written in response to an invitation that I received to write a “meta-nonfiction” for an anthology that was published earlier this year; I was delighted by the prospect, as meta-narrative offers a chance to at once compose a piece and comment on its form (in this case, to write an essay and contemplate the troubling fashion for passing off fiction off as fact in contemporary creative nonfiction). As for myself, the usual applies: I’m a writer and professor whose work has received a Pushcart Prize and been published in Best American Essays, The New York Times, and the like.
2. As a reader, I left my first reading of this essay very angry. I felt that I had to constantly extend myself to the author in order to accept that the work was a work of nonfiction because I found the narrator difficult to believe. When it was eventually revealed that I should not have been so generous, I felt betrayed. To quote from the essay, “A lie can be a violation, a forced entry, a kind of rape.” While it would be a gross exaggeration to say that I felt raped, I did most certainly feel that my trust had been violated. Could you describe your own reaction, as readers, to the essay and it’s central conceit?
SH: My reading experience definitely affected my reaction to this piece. A colleague and writer friend–Ioanna Opidee–forwarded me the link via email in the middle of a rushed and busy day. I could see based on the content of her email that she was clearly upset by what she’d been able to read up to that point.
Out of concern, I opened the link on my phone. Like Ioanna, I didn’t have either time or mental space to read the entire piece–which I took to be an essay. The content was so difficult that it felt impossible to read this all at once, to force myself through the paragraphs when each sentence was astounding. TQ had inserted a hint in the intro about how to read the piece; I would argue the lack of such a nod toward an honest or even complex contract with the reader within the piece itself represents one of the essay’s failures. In my experience, the brief “how-to” from the editors of TQ were blasted away by the narrator’s sentences.
As I drove between appointments, my mind was thrown into turmoil. It was not the turmoil of a discussion about the nature of truth. It was a turmoil about the meaning of rape and rape narratives. I drove and sat in meetings, mulling over the presence of this real rapist. I am a busy woman and a mother with a full-time job and several extra obligations, and I did not have time to read the whole essay on my phone that afternoon.
You could say I read the essay “wrong.” Instead, I would argue that this is how we read now–especially online. I would argue that a piece of writing that asks me to sit down and finish it in entirety in order to understand any of it is asking for a privileged reader, one with as much time and silence as Montaigne in his tower, one that has the ability to shut out the world when he wants to. And this piece–like those containers with compressed spring-snakes inside–demands you read this all at once.
That day, I was not that reader.
I used all the tools I had to read “The Facts of the Matter,” and apparently I did it wrong. I read further, picking through the paragraphs in parking lots, in a doctor’s waiting room. I slowly digested each paragraph as it unfolded. This writing wanted to break my heart, and I would let it.
In some way, though, am I not the ideal reader, the thoughtful reader? Instead of devouring the piece as a math quiz with a solution, I slowed down to consider each sentence. In between reading those paragraphs, I drove and I mulled.
The worst experience was that I made a list. I made the horrible list it asked me to make: the list of male older tenured nonfiction writers in the Midwest. Dear god. My mentors. I knew him. I had to, you see. Because our creative nonfiction community–especially in the Midwest, where I am from, home ground–is that small, still that close.
I picked up my son from school and stood in the kitchen talking to my husband as we cooked dinner.
“There’s a rapist,” I said. “Someone in the nonfiction community. Someone in the Midwest. Someone who said they’re not even sorry about what they did.”
I ate dinner with the presence of that rapist in my mind. I mulled over very different truths than the story-problem the writer intended. I mulled over this story of the rapist. In a way, I knew right away that the ghost-essay (the one that would soon not exist) was horrible but necessary. I thought it was a kind of evil bravery to admit this: there are rapists in our midst. I thought about the reckoning that would happen, the backlash in creative writing programs, the necessary examination of continued sexism, the complication of close mentoring friendships, the relationships between men and women in the larger creative writing community and in academia.
I was ready to engage in that challenge, to see the world. To see the true world, which seems like always the point.
Then after that evening of mulling during dish-washing and laundry and putting my son to bed, I went back to the piece of writing and read the postscript, saw a slim justification–“Would it change things if I were a woman?”
I’ve met liars of both genders. So–no. There are women rapists. Now the only thing I know is that I believe nothing else the narrator said.
The writer assumed that gender would provide justification for the experience s/he had put me through; this makes sense, as the piece of writing provides an example of the ends justifying the means. The writer seemed to assume that being a woman would be a situation I would never consider. The piece of writing seemed to tell me that its ideal audience was a man who needed to be shocked. I, a woman, felt condescended to as I read the final move of the piece, an argument not meant for me at all, but meant for someone who disagreed with the writer’s position regarding truth in nonfiction. The narrator seems never to have considered that it might affect a woman in this way.
What’s sad is that the writer and I had been on the same side: we agreed about the dangers of playing “fast and loose” with the truth. We had both apparently shared the trauma of assault—and that was a central reason, from life experience, for why I simply could not read this essay like a math problem. Its content is the opposite of a math problem. “The Facts of the Matter” presented a flesh-and-blood experience as an abstract falsehood. It’s not even fiction, because fiction is an attempt to tell a version of the world’s truth, packaged as a story. This was a made-up story packaged as true, which makes it a lie. The brief closing, its presence as an afterthought, apart from the narrator’s voice throughout the piece, seemed to leave me only with a question about the “truth” contained on that page, a doubt which echoes so much of what is uttered to degrade women’s experiences: rape is a lie. She’s making it up.
So I wish the essay had been about making cheese or stealing apples. The choice of a shocking image was unfortunate, as violent as the violence against truth it wants (rightly) to protest.
MF: Certainly, the subject matter of the essay struck hard. Shock is an accurate descriptor, since what I was reading was so abhorrent. My reading was also shaped by my purpose as reader: I hadn’t read the essay when I was asked to take part in this roundtable, so I first entered into the text with the knowledge that it was somehow “about” truth in nonfiction. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting to engage a pseudo-confessional of sexual abuse, and certainly wasn’t expecting to find an essay that aligned a story of such abuse with a defense of the necessity of factuality in nonfiction.
And part of my initial reaction was to ask myself, What’s so crazy about this piece? Keep in mind, this is because I was thinking about reading this in the context of the larger question of truth in nonfiction, and in many ways I found this particular essay utterly unsurprising on that matter. Shocking, yes, because of subject matter, but not really engaging in any particularly deep way the sorts of truthy questions that interest me.
The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve considered the way that the deceit or misdirection or identity shift functions in a piece that is, at heart, a polemic. The author-we’ve-agreed-to-call-anonymous has written an argument, not so much an essay. It’s a bit more Bacon than Montaigne, and certainly far more pointed than the artistic round-a-bout that I think of (and prefer) when I think of an essay. It is, at heart, an article, something Cynthia Ozick warns is “guaranteed not to wear well,” and part of the reason that the rhetorical deception of the piece is jarring and, I think, hard to justify.
NS-F: Sarah’s question and Sonya’s and Matthew’s responses pushed me to think about about how and when I read this piece, what my first reading was like, and what colored that reading. I read this essay after a male ex-student of mine sent me the link via Facebook, suggesting that I might want to read it because I’d written a piece about John D’Agata, titled “Dear John, I’m afraid it’s over…,” which appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog and in which I’d challenged John’s approach to “truth” in nonfiction. The fact that my student had referenced this piece was, of course, a tip off and affected my reading. The next day before I had had a chance to get to the piece, a current student of mine, a young woman who is pursuing an MFA and is an excellent essayist, asked me in class if I’d read it. I said I hadn’t but would. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but something in the way she inquired suggested that she found the piece disturbing and confusing, and again, I figured something was up.
My truth antennae fully at attention, I read the piece and, like all of us, found it disturbing, troubling, confusing, and intriguing, but finally, mainly, ultimately manipulative. As a father, son and husband whose own family has been personally and forever affected by rape and as a social activist who came of age during the second wave of feminism, I was disgusted and outraged by the events depicted in the piece. But, (and with this piece it seems there is always a “but”), I felt cheated and expected to read the piece in a way that didn’t feel quite right. The overabundance of detail (beginning with the reference to Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa as viewed that week in Vince Scully’s art history class), the doth-protest-too much assertions of truth (beginning with the title and the opening line), and the narrator’s flat affect and cerebral analysis left me wondering, though again, the seed of my skepticism had been planted by the way my students had recommended the piece as well as Sandi Wisenberg’s cautionary introduction.
Then came the punch-line postscript, which brings us in turn to question 3.
ANONYMOUS: I’m grateful to know that the piece was shocking–it’s meant to be. Not for the sake of mere frisson, which would be cheap, but to underscore a serious problem with contemporary American creative nonfiction and to remind us that we should be shocked whenever fictions are passed off as facts, whether in the political realm (fictional WMDs) or the poetical (David Shields and John D’Agata’s recent arguments to that effect).
Sonya Huber’s point that the writer’s contract is not an honest one is, I would say, mistaken, given that the piece has never appeared without an editorial frame to point up its meta-narrative nature (it was originally written, as I said, for an anthology of meta-narrative, and was reprinted by TriQuarterly with the editorial commentary Sonya notes). Moreover, it reveals by its second crot that it is assaying the question of fact and fiction, which is a pretty clear contract with the reader (experimental narratives often take a few pages to establish their terms, since a single crot often will not serve–as when Joan Didion shifts narrative points of view in Salvador–it’s not a false contract with reader, but a complex one).
I didn’t imagine that one would read the whole of it through, but I did hope that it would provoke thought and conversation among readers, whatever portions they read, and ideally inspire outrage about the blurring of fact and fiction in “creative nonfiction” when the reader is not clearly signalled. That practice should piss us off; I’m grateful that this smart panel of readers takes art seriously enough to GET angry about this. We should. Not about my piece, I’d argue, but about the increasingly glib disregard for fact in CNF.
It’s worth noting that when TriQuarterly staff read this, some wanted to call the cops and report a crime: I could not have hoped for a better response. That is a sane and humane response to awful facts–to take action–and the real problem with blurring the line between fact and fiction in CNF is that it confuses us about how to respond, whether to respond, and encourages paralysis. We should be shocked by that.
As to the notion that “the writer assumed that gender would provide justification for the experience s/he had put me through,” it is simply inaccurate–this isn’t a question of justification; my gender arises in the piece only as a means of triggering the vertiginous horror we experience when that trapdoor opens in nonfiction and we find out that we’ve been lied to.
As to my not having considered a reader’s possible response, Sonya’s right: I didn’t, and I’d say moreover that I shouldn’t: that’s not the artist’s business–calculating audience response is the work of advertising, not art. (Had it been about cheese or apples, I doubt we’d be having this conversation–it’s about a shocking subject precisely because playing fast and loose with the facts is a shocking subject. Form and content relate to each other, as they should.)
As this is an essay, my job was to consider the question from as many angles as I could, to weigh the matter of fact and fiction in CNF, to consider it in the light of history, personal experience, news reportage, the borrowed authority of quotation, as any good essayist will do.
The essay is not alas “an abstract falsehood”; I would that it were fiction: but save for the rapist’s persona (which is, as in all nonfiction, an invention), it’s all too true. All of it. The things nice male academics of a certain age say of their students. The post-party rape on a couch. The pregnancy. The stats. The DRC rapes. The legal case in Israel. The quotes. Save for a few intimate details, which are not lodged in any public ledger but are nonetheless true, you can look up the facts of the matter.
Finally, as to Matthew’s claim that this is polemic not essay, I’d note that some of my very favorite essays are polemical, so the adjective hardly disqualifies the noun: think of Joy William’s delightful “The Case Against Babies” or Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasures of Hating,” both of which have worn quite well. Bacon’s essays seem to me narrowly didactic, not really my taste, but the comparison is not unflattering: still, my piece weighs a question, offers evidence, and ultimately aims to provide the reader with an experience of the horror of deceit, so as to show how forced entrance into imagination or body are each profound violations.
It’s my hope that the outrage inspired by the piece will be put to good use and spur us to be equally outraged by the glib disregard of facts in contemporary CNF.
3. On Anonymity: What does authorial anonymity allow in this work, and what is the cost of it? What can we learn from this experiment about the relationship between authorial voice and creative nonfiction?
SH: This is a huge question, and not one that I’m sure I have an answer to. The one thought I had is that the reader doesn’t actually become attached to a name. Sentence by sentence, the reader becomes attached to a narrator as he or she is built and presented on the page. I believe the reader has every right to assume that the narrator in nonfiction is the central guiding presence in the work. In fiction, we are on guard for “character,” so our trust level is theoretical, not freighted with reality-testing and trust. In nonfiction, we contemplate our real relationship with the narrator as he or she presents himself–very intimately–as a real person. While we all write in personas which are versions of ourselves, the signal of anonymity increases the reader’s assumption in nonfiction that the narrator’s truths are weighty and offered at great risk to reputation. I believe the “anonymous” byline on this piece made me even more drawn into this narrative than I would have been if the name given were simply false and seemingly gender-neutral.
MF: I don’t have much to say about the anonymity. In general, I’d argue that nonfiction should be signed: what we do relies on the tension of a real author opening the self up. Without a listed author, there is no self.
NS-F: My friend, mentor and collaborator, Carl Klaus, recently published The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, the best book we have on the problem of the narrator in the personal essay. Of the contradiction that creates this problem, Carl writes that the essay puts “one more directly in contact with the thought and feeling of its author than do other forms of literature” while cautioning us that at the same time “the ‘person’ in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts.” Shortly thereafter, in support of his claim about the constructedness of persona, Carl quotes Scott Russell Sanders’ great essay on the essay, “The Singular First Person”: “What we meet on the page is not the flesh and blood author, but a simulacrum, a character who wears the label I.”
The day I read “The Facts of the Matter” was Sanders’ birthday and on the birthdays of essayists I often post a picture of them and a quote by them on Facebook. I opted that day for a different passage from “The Singular First Person”: “You may speak without disguise of what moves and worries and excites you. In fact, you had better speak from a region pretty close to the heart, or the reader will detect the wind of phoniness whistling through your hollow phrases. In the essay you may be caught with your pants down, your ignorance and sentimentality showing, while you trot recklessly about on one of your hobbyhorses. You cannot stand back from the action, as Joyce instructed us to do, and pare your fingernails. You cannot palm off your cockamamie notions on some hapless character. If the words you put down are foolish, everyone knows precisely who the fool is.”
So, you see the problem — a slippery, constructed, postmodern subjectivity and my own foolish self. In “The Facts of the Matter,” the narrator is first a man, a man who is professor and an unapologetic rapist, and then a woman, a woman who is a feminist and a writer of “meta-nonfiction” attempting to skewer the fast-and-loose use of “facts” advocated by writers such as David Shields, John D’Agata, and, according to the author (incorrectly, I think, because she is misreading his rhetorical questions), Robert Atwan. In both cases, the narrator is cloaked in anonymity, but in the first instance, we come to see that “anonymous” means only that the character is unnamed, while in the second case it means that the author is protected. But protected from what? The outrage of readers? The responsibility of defending her position publicly and as herself? Or, more charitably, is she protecting the friends and the sisters of her friends who were actually raped? Or again, less charitably perhaps, is she protecting (inadvertently perhaps) the actual “male professors” whose “by and large verbatim” quotes she puts in the mouth of her rapist-narrator?
By raising these questions I don’t mean to suggest that the author is not speaking “from a region pretty close to the heart” or that I “detect the wind of phoniness.” I don’t. I believe that the author cares deeply about rape and that the piece is an honest attempt to confront the horror of rape and show how rape is about power rather than sex. An essay, however, can be honest, but not successful, or not as successful as it might potentially be. The anonymity is also part and parcel of the attempt to write what the author calls “meta-nonfiction.” I think that the attempt to write “meta nonfiction” is misguided because personal essays are always, in a sense, “meta nonfiction” because they are always (or almost always) include reflection and so are the story of a mind thinking, a writer writing. By pushing this further (e.g., by dividing the piece in two, by employing anonymity, by withholding information, by pushing irony to the point that it becomes an inside joke, etc.) the author becomes distant and controlling. At first I was reading a fictional short story, but I didn’t know it was a short story, for I thought (was supposed to think) it was a personal essay. This short story only became a personal essay when I got to the postscript and was now required to reconsider my reading of the essay that was all along a short story, but only a short story for the author, and not for me. (Got that?) For me at least, all this layering and rethinking and distance makes the personal essay less personal, something more akin to a thought experiment being orchestrated by a wizard (a very bright wizard) behind a screen. So, finally, I felt manipulated and perhaps because I felt manipulated, all that much more put out that “the flesh and blood author” got to claim anonymity.
And now, gentle reader, I feel I should tell you that the anonymous author authorized Sarah to tell us who she is (and she’s someone I already knew). It’s not my role to out her and as I tried to suggest above, I think I understand some of why she adopted anonymity, but now I wish she’d come out from behind the curtain.
ANONYMOUS: As I stated above, the only “invention” in this piece is the conventional one in memoir and essay, that of a “persona,” which here is a stew of several parts Evelyn Waugh and a dash of Nabokov.
The rationale for Anonymity is simple: the piece requires uncertainty about the author’s identity to have its effect. There’s no effort to protect myself in this: my identity is clearly stated at the end of the lengthy interview that appears in the anthology for which the piece was written (Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, edited by Jill Talbot), should anyone care to know. But my identity is irrelevant. (The wonderful writing teacher Bill Roorbach used to say that you knew when you had stopped reading a piece and it had begun to “read you”–by which he meant that it had triggered some personal emotional reflex–when you stopped talking about the words on the page and started to talk about the writer. I wonder if perhaps that applies here.)
The essayist is often effaced in the essay–where subject takes precedence over personal biography: we know an essayist’s thoughts, not his or her dining habits (unless they are the subject of the essay). Fretting about my identity is a distraction. The essay is not about me; it’s about a shocking contemporary practice: not sexual assault, but our all too convenient disregard of facts.
As to Ned’s claim that I am “misreading” Atwan’s public speech, for which I was present, as he was not, I must admit that I find suspect any literary criticism that would claim to have the corner on truth in such matters–interpretation is not monotheism after all; there is no single truth here; to claim one is in possession of that would seem a lie.
Finally, as to whether the piece succeeds, the fact that David Ulin in the LA Times considered it worthy of his smart and admiring exegesis, and that many other publications (from Manhattan to Spokane to Kentucky to South Carolina to Kansas City) have picked it up; the fact that we’re discussing this here and that I’ve heard from several readers of the anthology that they consider the essay “one of the ten pieces every CNF student should read”; and the fact that it’s being taught and discussed in classrooms, would all seem to me to suggest that it has succeeded in provoking the conversation it sought to inspire.
4. On Falseness in Nonfiction: This essay purports to argue against lying in creative nonfiction, and yet it relies on a number of lies–from the conceit of its narrative voice to the fact that we, as a panel, are only pretending not to know the identity of its author–to function. Ultimately, does the essay function better as an argument for the possibility of falsity in nonfiction rather than against it? Or does it succeed in spite of the fact that it seems to argue against its own validity?
SH: I think this piece of writing functions as an example of what happens when you cling too tightly to being right: you pull out every big gun possible to win against what you see as wrong or bad. In this case, the enemy is the position of purposely falsifying information for the sake of art. “The Facts of the Matter” purposely falsifies against art instead of falsifying for art. In a way, it sets itself on fire to protest artful falsification. As such, it is an essay on fire, an essay in flames, an essay that is not actually an essay at all. I think it is tragic, and it is performance, but I don’t think it’s possible to talk about it as creative nonfiction.
We know there are several kinds of “true” and several kinds of lying. One test of truth in nonfiction, for me, is the question of whether I would give this piece of writing to my mom, my non-writer and non-professor friends to read, whether I would give it to my sister. The question of truth in that case circles around the goal of offering something to add to someone’s life—even if it is a difficult and hard-won truth. There isn’t that nugget of accessible truth that I could share with people outside that limited world of people who discuss John D’Agata or even know who he is.
MF: Anonymous her/his-self writes in the Postscript that the “piece is meant to be shocking, in hopes that it will shock us into thinking harder about what we’re accepting when we say that facts no longer matter in CNF, or to us” and that it is “intended to point up the absurdity and real horror of playing with facts in nonfictional where there are stakes…, as there always should be in art, we cannot afford to be glib about claiming fictions are facts…”
It is in this shock that the article/polemic/I’ll-call-it-an-essay commits a foul against not essaying nor creative nonfiction but, in fact, rhetoric. It relies on a combo Slippery Slope and Strawman strategy, where the stakes are raised by the direct content of the piece (the sexual assault) and not by the supposed intent of the argument (engaging the necessity of truth in nonfiction). In that sense, the piece fails to persuade me of the dangers of D’Agata, Shields et al, very much because the sensationalized conceit of the article/polemic/I’ll-call-it-an-essay takes to the point of absurdity the fluidity and flexibility other writers call for.
So, thinking about Sonya’s response to her initial reading, a response driven in part by the temporally fractured way she read the piece in our digital world, I agree that as an article it fails to play by the rules of our reading. The shocking subject matter incites fury, sadness, and pain because the lede of the article conceals itself within the extended metaphorical non non-fiction.
Yet at the same time, if I consider the piece an essay, then I disagree that an author should need to consider the manner of reading. An essay is a full thing, must be read in total to be understood. Thinking of the piece fully (and by “fully” I include the way I first read the piece, Postcript, author notes, header and all), I find myself defending the authorial choices this way: it doesn’t lie or deceive at all, in full. The deception is revealed, and the effect on the reader is to confront them with the shock and anger that comes about from that deception. Thus it pinches the technique of the lie as a means to argue against the lie.
But it’s still a polemic, and that part of it I find harder to defend, since nuance is necessarily left out, and with it the artistic potential of artful misdirection and textual prestidigitation
NS-F: I very much like the ways Sonya and Matthew have approached this question. I too think this piece is a “polemic” that shows “what happens when you cling too tightly to being right.” As Matthew suggests, this polemic has two targets — rape and a particular kind of nonfiction. The problem, I think, is that the targets get confused and the issue of rape gets subsumed by the issue of truth in nonfiction. We are, I believe, supposed to see the narrator above the postscript is someone whose sexism has led him to lie, become dissociated from himself, objectify women, and rationalize his cruel and violent attack. And I do. But don’t we know that already about rapists? Or, as Matthew put it, isn’t that fictional rapist a strawman? Or as Sonya suggests, the rape has, in a sense, become “a big gun” pointed at John D’Agata and David Shields, or at least at John and David’s understanding of the role of truth in creative nonfiction.
The same day I was reading “The Facts of the Matter” I finished a review of Randi Saloman’s excellent book, Virginia Woolf’s Essayism, and it suggested to me another approach. Saloman distinguishes between the essay and fiction (mainly Woolf’s novels) by looking at our experience reading the two genres. A longheld trope for the essay is that it is a conversation. For Saloman, this means that the reader is on more even terms with the author, engaged and responding to the author within a digressive, recirculating, meandering form. With a work of fiction, she argues, we are more passive and give ourselves up to the author’s imagined world following a plot determined by probability and some kind of logic. When Woolf mixes the two — in A Room of One’s Own, for instance — she creates what Saloman calls a “counter-factual” or “speculative” essay. To create this essay she uses fictional elements, most notably the character of Judith Shakespeare, but we know the character is fictional and participate with Woolf in speculating on the what that Judith’s life might have been like. Judith is fictional but we know she’s fictional. She allows us to imagine an alternative history and an alternative future. She’s a fictional character within an essay that we know from the start is an essay. She is not a trick and if A Room of One’s Own is a polemic against sexism, it is a kind of non-polemical polemic.
ANONYMOUS: I love this question, Sarah: it’s very smart (and one raised by David Ulin in the LA Times, as Sonya helpfully pointed out in a separate exchange). In writing this essay, I aimed to do precisely two things: 1) ponder whether facts do matter in creative nonfiction by weighing the evidence at hand, and 2) more significantly, I wanted to give the reader a visceral experience of fiction passed off as fact–I wanted us to register the real horror of that. We talk a lot about this question as writers, readers, students, and professors, but it seems to me that the conversation has been largely theoretical. I wanted us to have a visceral experience, a bodily sense of the awfulness of a narrative (and a society) where the line between fact and fiction have become blurred, uncertain. So I’d strongly disagree with those who would say that this essay affirms lying in CNF, the blurring of those lines; judging by the panelists’ reactions, I’d say it enacts a pretty strong argument against that practice, which was my aim. I hope the piece tests the proposition that “facts are irrelevant” in nonfiction, as Shields has claimed, and finds to the contrary.
That’s also why I strongly disagree with Ned’s claim that my essay is somehow a “big gun” held to D’Agata’s head or Shields’. That metaphor misses my point by a mile: this essay is more like a trap-door that opens beneath us all (as, I believe, is the popular disregard for fact in nonfiction). Ned’s reading would try to make the essay a personal matter, when it’s not: it’s a formal one–a problem with form that we are all having now.
As for the essay’s form, Ned suggests that I might have done better by borrowing Woolf’s methods, but I’d note that her speech was written almost a hundred years ago and that each artist creates the form necessary to her or his time: Woolf needed to argue for women’s capacity for greatness, so invented Shakespeare’s sister; in the 21st century, we need to be reminded of the horrors of passing off fiction as fact, so I invented a narrator (at least in part.)
But I worry that the panel seems to be largely missing those points here–both formal and substantive. So rather than continue to respond to their claims point by point, as I’ve tried to do above, I would simply direct them and readers of the essay to the wonderful and insightful exegesis of “The Facts of the Matter” by David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times:
Despite the unanimity of this panel, happily a diverse array of responses to it can be found on line; a few of these are below:
I hope, for all our sakes, we will continue to speak ardently about why the facts matter.
Moderator’s Note: Responses from SH and Anonymous were stricken from the roundtable discussion because of confusion among the participants about whether or not there would be opportunities to reply to one another. The intention had been that there would be this opportunity, but Anonymous asked that we limit each respondent to one initial statement. Because I believe that I wasn’t adequately clear in my initial directions to the panel and to Anonymous, I have agreed to strike this response, but in the next round we will not redact anyone’s comments and cannot guarantee that any person will have the final say on a specific question.