Thursday, July 15, 2010

in which I talk about what I don't know about nonfiction (part 5)

I've talked about my basic impression of the genresome definitions and the concept of fact vs. truthsome more definitions and the importance of the "attempt", and most recently one of the major barriers of nonfiction . . . but, at least for now, I think I'm going to wrap things up.  (I'm sure I'll have more to say on the subject as I experience my nonfiction workshop class this fall, or read some of my much anticipated nonfiction reading-list*--but until then, this will be the not-quite-final-word.)

So:  here's some thoughts about John D'Agata's over-arching essay in his compilation The Next American Essay, which I found particularly interesting and insightful--specifically these quotes:
. . . despite the obvious abundance of documentation in nonfiction, some of the literature in this genre challenges that very presumption of fact.
This sums up exactly what I've been learning about nonfiction.  Nonfiction may be a lot of things, but it is not always factual.  It can be, of course, but the direction the essay is going right now is not towards the factual side of things--even though I think it is still an effective form of documentation. Where is it going?  Well, he goes on to pose these questions:
What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank spaces, or--worse yet--leaving the blanks blank?  What happens when statistics, reportage, and observation in an essay are abandoned for image, emotion, expressive transformation?
So instead of going towards the factual side of things, the essay is going towards the imaginative, the emotional, the purely expressive.

And here we get to the creative process--one of the reasons I started creative writing in the first place, and one of the reasons I stayed away from nonfiction for so long.  But now I'm realizing that nonfiction can be just as creative as fiction (if not more so, in some ways).  It can be just as metaphorical, just as allegorical, just as exciting, just as lucid, just as stereotypical, just as boring, and just as emotional and crazy as fiction.

But, back to facts.  Here's more D'Agata:
There are now questions being asked of facts that were never questions before.  What, we ask, is a fact these days?  What's a lie, for that matter?  What constitutes an "essay," a "story," a "poem"?  What, even, is "experience"? 
Whatever a fact is, I don't think it is necessary for a piece of nonfiction. I think, instead, the only requirement is that--whatever it discusses, whether it is an emotion or an event or a lie or a misconception--it has to exist, or have existed.  And even that connotation is ambiguous.  Especially as nonfiction becomes more artistic, ethereal, and lyrical:
The lyric essay inherits from the principal strands of nonfiction the makings of its own hybrid version of the form. . . . Facts, in these essays, are not clear-cut things.  What is a lyric essay?  It's an oxymoron:  an essay that's also a lyric; a kind of logic that wants to sing; an argument that has no chance of proving anything.
The essay (and by extension nonfiction) is the neglected step-child of the writing family.  It doesn't prove anything with exactness, not like academic or scientific papers do.  Nor does it create something as wholly and with such wild abandon as fiction or poetry does.  But it does have one foot in each camp, and thus, in a lot of ways, the best of both worlds.

I found the following quote of interest because it was an afterward--despite discussing the title and, at least in my eyes, the overall significance and meaning of the compilation itself:
By "Next" is meant those essays that will be inspired by these.  By "American," of course, I mean the nation.  And by "Essay," I mean a verb.
The "next American attempt," or the "next American trial," or assay, or experiment, or conjecture.  Nonfiction, I think, is all about attempting to convey the human experience, in whatever way possible.  It is about trying to describe personal or terrible or terrific or ineffable things with a limited language--knowing that you'll fail, but succeeding just in the attempt.  Thats a big appeal of nonfiction to me, and that is why I think it is something I'll keep turning to as the years go by.

I think I'll even write a few pieces myself.

So watch out America.

Including, but not limited to books by David SedarisJohn ScalziDavid Foster Wallace.

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