Thursday, March 26, 2009

A nonfiction manifesto

An excerpt of an email from the great poet Andrew Aulino:

Yes I was once browsing in Skylight Books in Los Feliz (next neighborhood to the West of me) and found myself stuck at a reading of some CNF, read in the "poet voice," and felt, both because of the subject matter and its dull insightlessness (wish this were German "sowohl ihre Themen als auch ihre Einsichtlosigkeit wie ihre (deswegen) unverdiente Gefuehlsanspreuche) and the emotional demands it made on the reader, though it hadn't earned them. And while she had subtler manipulations I won't get into, she seemed to assume, indeed demand that we feel deeply moved for the simple fact that she was discussing some certain subject, that she had a role in it, that it must be interesting, despite the fact that, Jesus Christ, I felt about to turn into some tusked, cloven-hooved beast, whirling and driven by some bibliophobic hormonal response into destroying the store and every copy of the book she was selling; indeed I felt that this transformation was taking place, for my knees began to get weak and my vision went from double to fully blurred, but it was merely my going into a coma of boredom, and my girlfriend at the time had to drag me out of the store, looping her arms under my underarms,, and slapping my face in the cold (it was winter) night air, and it took some good strong coffee, a big bottle of mineral water and the reading of some H.D. to fully restore me to my former state of (relative) wellness...

My thoughts below the fold.


For those of you who haven't spent a good part of your lives trying to figure out what "creative nonfiction" means, I'll give defining it a shot: creative nonfiction is an attempt to turn actual events into literary art. Implicit in this is an invisible contract with the reader stating that all efforts have been made to ensure that what is written is "real." Many will disagree with this. That's fine. I tried.

No form of art has been more heavily criticized since the Maplethorpe/Jesse Helms fiasco. People like James Frey, author of A Million Thousand Gazillion Tiny Little Pieces Inside Pieces of a Tiny Million Slices of Pieces or something like that, have been held up as exemplars of something terrible, something so insidious that they must be turned into characters who make Dick Cheney look like Rudy Huxtable. The man lied to Oprah, for Christ's sake. An American cannot commit a more heinous crime.

Out of all this came an unwritten rule that all CNF writers have been asked to follow: Your narrator, no matter what, must be reliable. An unreliable person, a real person like Humbert Humbert, has no place writing nonfiction. They can't be trusted, after all.

This makes sense if you're Truman Capote or Stephen Jay Gould, writing analytic, journalistic or historical creative non-fiction. But so much CNF is personal; it, unfortunately, deals in the totally and completely unreliable realm of memory. It's like buying pot off a dealer you don't know. You might end up with the best high of your life, but you also might end up naked in the back of a police car barking at the moon and propositioning the cop.

For the sake of argument, I would venture to say that anyone writing memoir or personal essays with a reliable narrator is being more dishonest than someone who writes with a reliable one. If you have something interesting to write about from your personal life, you are no doubt a complete and utter mess. I know maybe three CNF writers I would trust, and they all write analytic stuff. That doesn't mean I don't like the other three dozen I know. That doesn't mean I don't want to hear their stories. Memoir and personal essay writers who should be using unreliable narrators but pretend to be reliable end up causing pain just like poor Andrew suffered. Like Oprah suffered. Like every fan of the memoir form has suffered. It hurts the soul.

So to all of those CNF writers out there, give the unreliable narrator a try. Be honest about it. Let the reader know they shouldn't believe everything you say by being obviously unreliable because, let's face it, you are obviously unreliable. Pretending not to be is the lie! Editors, you should love this! It gives you the cover you need. Start accepting CNF books with unreliable narrators. Please, for the love of God. Something's gotta change or Andrew's burning down some bookstores.


Anonymous said...

I'm so happy someone else shares my opinion regarding a memoir narrator.

You sir... are a fancy man.

And I should know. I'm the fanciest man of the 21st Century.


Patrick O'Neil said...

I have never been accused of reliability...

JaneHaltiFischer said...

I am so glad I checked my junkmail account today and found your email about the blog...the ideals you aspire to and the creative ways you express them give me hope for the future, in spite of the emphasis you place on showing us our black situation.

I will hope to write more later, when I am not on the corporate dime. I have been recently downsized, however, so find myself stealing time from them a bit less guiltily some days (though only a few minutes here and there).