Monday, October 15, 2007

adventures fictive & nonfictive

So we're back in humid South Florida, after a rather hectic afternoon & evening's travels: driving hell-bent for leather down the Massachusetts turnpike after spending a bit too long over lunch; dropping off the rental car at the Enterprise station – a good 10-minutes' drive from the airport, & with only a bare hour to spare before the flight left – only to learn that the flimsy little wagon (a PT Cruiser of all things – damn the government for bailing out Lee Iaccoca all those years ago!) had an unseen dent under its front bumper (something we & our insurance company'll be sorting out for weeks to come no doubt); elbowing our way in true Manhattanite pushiness thru the obviously not-as-in-a-hurry-as-us people waiting at security, where the Logan Airport authorities in their wisdom were funnelling three lines of passengers thru a single metal detector. But we made the flight, & got home in fairly good time, only to realize that we'd just gotten used to a chill in the air and leaves on the ground. One of my Florida-bred students, touchingly, brought up in class the other day "those trees they have up north that they get syrup out of, right?" I wish I taken her a picture of the blazing-red maples.
Thinking again of nonfiction, creative & otherwise. The books on the trip turned out to be neither Delany nor Austen (& not even Catullus), but a couple of serendipitous last-minute finds: Lytton Strachey's biography of Queen Victoria & Clive Wilmer's splendid Penguin edition of John Ruskin's Unto This Last (interestingly enough, the first Ruskin I ever read, in one of the mid-century Everyman hardcovers). Wilmer's done the book proud, both thru scrupulous editing and helpful endnotes, but also by taking the opportunity to surround Unto This Last – not a long book – with a wide range of Ruskin's writings addressing the issues of art & political economy, from "The King of the Golden River" to Fors Clavigera. I've been a Ruskin admirer for years & years now, & have only gotten around to Strachey fairly recently, & then only the famous Eminent Victorians, the book that put the snark into snarkiness. Queen Victoria is a much gentler book, tho by no means free of irony (a necessary nutrient, I believe). It shows off to great advantage Strachey's rather wonderful prose style, which I realized early on is no more or less than an updating of 18th-century cadential prose to a 20th-century sensibility. Ruskin, of course, is fit to teach anyone prose writing.
"But is it creative nonfiction?" I found myself asking, with flat phrases from Lee Gutkind's troops-rousing editorials in Creative Nonfiction ringing (or dully thumping) in my mind? Well of course it isn't. At least not to the extent that Strachey & Ruskin are consciously writing within already defined genres – Strachey the biography, Ruskin the work of political economy, or, more broadly defined, the Victorian hortatory essay (I may just have coined a new genre there myself...).

I of course have no desire to trespass on the turves of any of my colleagues in the creative writing industry, which is why I'm reluctant to designate anything I write "creative nonfiction," though it may be nonfiction & certainly feels creative, at least while I've pounding it out. But I'm also thoroughly & consistently suspicious of all attempts at genre-defining, which in the end serve more to fence some things out from institutional attention than they do to draw attention to others. I deeply regret the academy's tendency, over the last half-century, to define "poetry" as "lyric," & more specifically as "one- to two-page personal lyric."

I find myself agreeing with Michael Peverett (whose prose I'll read any day, in almost any mood): the whole exercise smacks of the sociological, of an emergent branch of the American creative writing industry, under the pressure of various institutional demands, seeking to define itself by plucking out outstanding contemporary exemplars of its practice, by press-ganging past writers into the fold, & by drawing lines around what is & what isn't kosher under the banner. Maybe I'm just reacting allergically to Gutkind's rather pedestrian effusions, which seem to rule out about 80% of what I find interesting in nonfiction writing. But I worry that creative nonfiction, which seems in recent years to have begun to get a real foothold in the MFA mills, seems to be passing up a golden opportunity: rather than taking a purely negative definition – it's not verse, & it's not fiction – & running with the extraordinary freedom & openness those two rules provide, folks like Gutkind seem to want to reduce the form to something like "the personal essay & memoir."

Not that there's anything wrong with those forms – I'd take Montaigne & Pepys with me to that desert island, if I were allowed just a couple more books – but what about everything else? If the term "creative nonfiction" doesn't include Zukofsky's Bottom: on Shakespeare, Benjamin's Arcades Project, Ruskin's Fors Clavigera, Boswell's Life of Johnson, and Guy Davenport's The Geography of the Imagination – not to mention all of Emerson's essays, lots of MFK Fisher, Carlyle's The French Revolution, & Stein's portraits – then I'm afraid it's not of much use to me.
Mildly amusing sidebar: Thinking o'er this CNF business, & wondering "do I ever write this stuff?" I kept stumbling over the phrase "literary journalism," used as one of the subgenres of the CNF master-genre. Oh, sure, thought I – I do that; I write lots of omnibus book reviews & career-spanning commentaries on writers that aren't really hard-boiled criticism. But then I realized that "literary journalism" didn't mean "writing about literary subjects for periodicals," but "journalism that's a cut above most newspaper & magazine writing in terms of its attention to language, theme, etc." In other words, the word literary is being used in that execrable & lazy manner as a vague synonym for "good." As one finds "literary" a new sub-genre in fiction: here we have your science fiction, here's your erotic fiction, here's your mystery & fantasy, & here's your literary fiction. And if you hang around long enough, you get to migrate from one shelf to the other, as Wilkie Collins & Edgar Poe did.


Bradley said...

Interesting observations re: creative nonfiction; the only part I'd disagree with at this point is the part where you suggest that "folks like Gutkind seem to want to reduce the form to something like 'the personal essay & memoir.'" In fact, I think Gutkind tends to give short-shrift to certain types of personal essays; as Lopate points out, Gutkind's ideas about the importance of scene and using "fictional" techniques seems to leave the meandering, thoughtful essay out in the cold, in favor of memoir and literary journalism.

Brian said...

When it comes to fiction, I've long wondered if literary is a synonym for pompous, and occasionally an antonym for "popular with everyone but critics."

Of course, I might just be feeling snarky because I'm grading LIT 2030 papers right now.

Mark Scroggins said...

I agree, Wm, after having listened to the Lopate talk last night (I'll confess to having skipped much of the 20 minutes of introductions...). "Some Lines of Vergil" doesn't make the Gutkind cut, does it? (Not even to touch the "Apology for Raymond Sebond"...)

Brian--hmmm, you've been associated with a blog which has been dissing my man Pynchon lately, haven't you? And comparing (unfavorably) Margaret Atwood with (heresy!) Ursula K. LeGuin? But of course you're right. I keep getting stuck 20 pages into Mason & Dixon (gimme Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy any day), & found Oryx & Crake pretty decent but mostly overwritten s.f., plain & simple.

Why don't people ever talk about "literary poetry"?

Bradley said...

Mark, I was sitting in the audience, and even I wound up "skipping" the introductions at that thing-- I took a little vacation in my head to the enchanted kingdom of monkeys and zombies who obey my every command, and where Emily and I are worshipped as king and queen, and where we live in a sugar cube castle with a maple syrup moat. It's quite a nice place to visit, particularly at academic conferences.

But Lopate's really smart, and I suspect that his ideas about creative nonfiction might be something even a guy who hates generic definitions could live with-- he seems to be more concerned with opening the genre up, whereas Gutkind seems more... prescriptive, I think. Which isn't to say Gutkind isn't really smart himself-- I just think that his "definitions" of creative nonfiction tend to favor the type of writing he's quite good at (immersion journalism, to be precise), and he doesn't tend to give much thought to other forms-- despite the fact that his own magazine tends to publish work by the likes of Lopate, Annie Dillard, Daniel Nester, Floyd Skloot, and others who often prioritize "idea" over "scene."

Bradley said...

Oh, and regarding "literary journalism": I think most people probably agree that that's an uncomfortable title for this type of writing, but that it's preferable to sticking with its old name, "new journalism," as it's a form of writing that's existed for a few decades now. It's kind of like "creative nonfiction," in the sense that its clunky and not particularly descriptive, but still better than anything anyone else has suggested.

Amy said...

I swear at some point I think I did hear someone refer to "literary poetry" to distinguish it from "slam" poetry, et al. Or maybe the phrase was "academic poetry" (chills).

I will admit to using the word "literary" in my ignorant youth to modify "fiction" and to mean "good." Oddly I've ended up using it to mean the opposite lately, but that's because it's now a category at the bookstore, and all those "literary" offerings tend to suck platypus nads.

I am, lately, getting much more aggressive about finding good books, and I keep discovering them in "popular" fiction, not "literary."

Anonymous said...

Nice post Mark

Tom W.

Mark Scroggins said...

I'm happy to be snarky & say that I see very little evidence of Lee Gutkind being "very smart." But I'll concede he's a decent editor, which is a wholly distinct talent from being able to articulate an interesting & coherent editorial position (ie, editing "from the gut").