Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Policing the Fourth Genre

Okay, so enough ribbing – yes, I’ve spent (wasted? consumed?) a number of hours that could have been devoted to more serious activities to reading Harry Potter & the Healthy Fellows, & of course I couldn’t put it down, & of course I won’t remember a single detail of the plot a week from now. Which says nothing about the book’s merits or lack thereof – it’s just one of my own hardwired shortcomings, being unable to remember what happens in a work of fiction. I have to reread effing Moby-Dick every time I teach it, after all.

I won’t add anything to Josh Corey’s (congratulations, Josh! – welcome to the great world of the sleep-deprived) kind words about the Potter phenomenon, except to note that these are books that draw you in by the force of what happens, rather than by the strength of their prose. I read a stack of novels in New York – Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out & Night and Day, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, The Great Gatsby, Paul Auster’s Oracle Night. It’s hard to admire any else’s prose after reading Woolf, who’s incapable of writing an intentionally graceless sentence, & Rhys is almost as good. Fitzgerald looks rather thin & tawdry beside them, & Auster little better than sturdy, workmanlike. In all this company, JKR comes across as a engineer rather than an artist, a maker of intricate contraptions that amuse and intrigue, but which in the end don’t really resonate very deeply. Each to his or her own – the HP industry has gotten my money, & my time, & now back to Jacob’s Room.
My chums at Incertus, which has swollen into an almost Kos-like group blog, are posting so quickly that it’s difficult to keep up. I was taken by a recent triad of posts (scroll & scroll again) by my colleague & Lucius Malvoy-lookalike William Bradley, venting much spleen at James Frey & his fictionalized “memoir” A Million Little Pieces, a controversy whose 15 minutes I’d thought had passed long since. At the time, I’d thought this was a tempest in a teapost. Of course one expects a memoirist to tell the truth in his work, or at least the truth as he remembers it or – & this is a crucial distinction – wants it remembered. And when somebody deliberately alters details & sexes up his story, as Frey did, then it’s perfectly appropriate to yank off the codpiece & reveal the true dimensions of the organ. (And to have a good laugh, & to ostracize the malefactor, etc.)

There’s always a spectrum of truth-telling in memoir. Ruskin’s Praeterita, which is one of his most beautiful & affecting books, sort of manages to leave out any mention of Ruskin’s first, ill-fated marriage; William Carlos Williams’s Autobiography is chock-full of inaccuracies and downright distortions, most of them due to WCW’s failing memory; & one can rest assured that most political autobiographies, from Richard Nixon’s down to Bill Clinton’s, are full of outright lies. We forgive all of those omissions & distortions (save for the last category), because we’ve entered into a readerly contract that the memoirist will be trying to give us a narrative which dovetails with reality.

Now I’m one of those tiresome people who likes to read the fine print on contracts before signing them, & when I’m told that a writer is going to give me the “truth” – or as William puts it, “Truth” – I’m inclined to quote Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?” Or to recall the sentence from Aristotle’s Poetics on how poetry (read “fiction”) is “graver and of more philosophical import” than history. Which doesn’t mean that William & I don’t agree that James Frey is a knave for trying to pass off an embellished narrative as literal fact. But I read this as a single case – among many other cases – of a writer on the make. It’s not an affront to the genre of the memoir, any more than the Milli Vanilli scandal undermined the “foundations” of dance-pop music or Ted Kooser’s being named poet laureate means the end of American poetry.

In short, I find one of William’s sentences particularly interesting:
Here's a man who got caught lying in a piece of creative nonfiction, but rather than admitting his wrong-doing, he tried to destroy an entire genre of literature by claiming that "everyone else is doing it"; anyone who claims to be writing about his or her own life is just as big a liar as James Frey.
Okay, so this is part of the intro to an “open letter” to Oprah Winfrey, & we ought to allow room for hyperbole. But how do you “destroy an entire genre of literature”? The logic is inescapable, & William argues it eloquently: there’s this genre of literature – call it “memoir,” call it more broadly “creative nonfiction” – & it has a single differentium that sets it apart from the other genres: it tells the truth (Truth).

I read an awful lot of things that aren’t fiction or poetry, & that have definite “literary value.” But I don’t know a hell of a lot about Creative Nonfiction as an academic discipline. I taught an undergraduate course in it 7-8 years ago & used maybe the 2nd edition of that anthology The Fourth Genre (plus a hell of a lot of supplemental stuff, since I found most of the pieces in the anthology pretty thin), but I’m pretty ignorant of the critical discourse that’s grown up around it. I’m not even quite sure what gets included & what doesn’t. The ad copy for the latest edition of The Fourth Genre describes “the full range of contemporary creative nonfiction” as “personal narrative, essay, memoir, literary journalism, and personal cultural criticism.” Is biography CNF? (guess not) Essayist book reviews? (that must be “literary journalism” – maybe?) Event history? (probably not – but what if it’s beautifully written, like Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties?) As with most genres, there seem to be things that are near the center of the genre – in this case, memoir and the personal essay – but the fringes are less well defined. (The Wikipedia entry on Creative Nonfiction, as one might expect, is a model of incoherence. I suspect I ought to trot to the library & read the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction, where this stuff is no doubt being thrashed out as we speak.)

Genres are notoriously difficult to define, in part because writers are always pushing at limits (prose poetry, anyone? the nonfiction novel? some of Beckett’s late drama, without characters, action, or speech?) & in part because the recognized genres haven’t grown up in logical, philosophically coherent ways. They’re not logical categories, but what Wittgenstein called “family resemblance” categories, “network[s] of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing,” of affinities shared among some members and not others. (What does Tender Buttons have in common with the Odyssey, or the Odyssey in common with a Shakespeare sonnet – save that they’re all “poetry”?)

In the case of CNF, what one has is a fairly young generic classification. People have been writing things for centuries that one could retroactively call CNF, but it’s only in the last few decades that it’s been given a name – or, more crucially, that it’s been given a place in the academy: and with that place in the academy comes the obligation to define and defend one’s practice.

William’s emphasis on the truth-value of CNF is a clear instance of genre-defining, & genre-policing. (And as usual, whenever a writer starts defining his own genre, what’s he’s really doing is defining his ideal view of his own writing.) For my part, I’m as little fond of the genre police as I am of the dream police, the canon police, or any other police force. Pronouncing what is & what isn’t a member of X genre smacks of weeding out the Mudbloods & the Muggle-borns, & I’ve always found the most interesting spots of writing are where the genres get blurred & start to overlap. And while I whole-heartedly agree with William’s scorn for standards of accuracy & decency in the contemporary political & cultural climate, I fear that I’ve imbibed way too much post-structuralism (not to mention good old fashioned American Pragmatism) over the years to take a call for “transcendental Truth” without more than a dash of salt & suspicion.


Bradley said...

All good points, Mark. I'm not sure I completely agree with you on the subject of genre-policing-- at least as it applies to creative nonfiction. As opposed to other genres of literature, nonfiction seems to demand a certain amount of self-policing, as it defines itself (in its very name) in terms of what it is not-- that is to say, this type of literature is not fiction; it's not something that the author's made-up. So if an author does resort to deliberate invention in her "memoir," and winds up creating fiction, she seems to be in violation of the one clear "law" of the genre.

Reasonable people can and will disagree, of course; Lee Gutkind and Phillip Lopate have gone back and forth on issues of definition and classification in the past, and probably will again-- Gutkind feels that creative nonfiction should be steeped in the literary journalist's drive to "tell a story", while Lopate thinks that Gutkind's description of the genre would rule out the personal essays of Montaigne, Lamb, and Hazlitt (plus, Lopate doesn't even like the name "creative nonfiction" for this genre, although I think that ship has sailed). For my part, I've taken the unpopular position that nonfiction writers shouldn't even create composite character or change the names of the people who inhabit their lives/narratives-- though I seem to be on the wrong side as far as that issue goes, if trends within the genre itself are any indication.

(But rest assured, as firmly as I might state these convictions, I don't harbor the illusion that my opinions on these matters should necessarily become "law." I'm less a genre "policeman" than a genre "neighbor who calls the cops with noise complaints every so often, even when more reasonable people would agree that there's really nothing to complain about").

Two other things complicate the discussion too, which you refer to in your post but which bear repeating-- one, CNF is "a fairly young generic classification." The term didn't even exist prior to the 1970s. So I think it makes sense that people discuss "What is this genre?" Blurring genre distinctions can be good, but I think some distinctions need to exist before they can be blurred.

The second thing to keep in mind, I think, involves the people who read memoir. The genre's main draw is its promise that it's going to represent the author's reality-- real ideas, real experiences. If that promises is casually broken, then the genre itself seems completely redundant-- we can get the same experience from reading fiction.

And that's essentially what I was getting at with my (admittedly melodramatic) statement about Frey "trying to destroy a genre." Of course, no single writer can destroy a genre, but at the same time, I do feel like Frey gave it the old college try. His "memoir" was proven to be a collection of self-aggrandizing distortions and lies, and his response was, essentially, to say, "That's all creative nonfiction is!" I don't think most readers of nonfiction were fooled, but still... what a jerk, you know?

Amy said...

I think it's helpful to draw a distinction between facts and truths -- there are rarely facts in my fiction, but I always strive to be "true"... and mindful that my truth is not necessarily anyone else's.

But I've got it easy. I get to make the shit up. ;-)