THIS CONVERSATION began as a panel at AWP — the annual convention for creative writing programs and teachers — with Dinah Lenney, Sven Birkerts, Judith Kitchen, Scott Nadelson, and David Biespiel.
DINAH LENNEY: Author Lawrence Weschler once said, “Every narrative voice — and especially every nonfiction narrative voice — is a fiction. And the world of writing and reading is divided into those who know this and those who don’t.”
And Nabokov said: “Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth.”
So who’s right? Or are they saying the same thing? And how to argue with either of them and do I want to?
After David Shields said fiction was dead, after John D’Agata decided that the essay isn’t necessarily beholden to the facts — in other words, not so very long ago — I attended a series of readings with a couple of famous authors on the bill: two accomplished and versatile guys who write across genre, and both got a rise out of me before they even looked down at their pages.
It was natural for the audience to wonder what they’d be reading — stories? Essays? Criticism? The first guy acknowledged the question and teased us: “You be the judge,” he said. “I’ll just tell you, my wife’s name is Rebecca, whereas the wife’s name in this piece is Jessica.” The second guy, a few nights later, was just as coy — as if we were not only unreasonable but small-minded to think about labeling his work.
In the case of the first writer, the reading was more than just provocative. It was deeply and purposefully disturbing, in that our laughter, uproarious, indicted us no less than the first-person narrator, who revealed himself to be not just hilariously frank and self-deprecating, but a hypocrite and a bigot. Another writer raised her hand to ask if the piece had or had not been a story. “If that was fiction,” she said, “I admire you. If it really happened, I don’t like you very much.” The famous writer was visibly shaken. “You don’t like me!” he said. And he copped immediately. “It never happened,” he promised. And indeed, the piece had been published as fiction in a well-known journal.
And the second guy? He read a whole bunch of stuff — I can’t tell you what — I couldn’t remember a word or an image five minutes after his reading. All I knew? He was determined to school us: we should put our attention on the work, not the genre. What’s the diff? he asked. What, indeed? I wondered afterwards: if there’s no diff, why make a deal of it? Why distract me, why not be straightforward? What if he’d told us instead: I’ll start with an essay; I’ll end with a poem; I’ll read you a story in the middle — would that have interfered with his enjoyment or mine? Or might it have allowed me to focus, not on the pretense, but on the prose?
In a recent essay/review in The New Republic, critic Adam Kirsch observed: “The essayist is concerned, as a fiction writer is not, with what the reader will think of him or her.”
But maybe, in this current climate — in this tell-all, navel-gazing, bosom-bearing, reality-obsessed culture of ours — the fiction writer is more concerned about his audience’s opinion than he used to be. Maybe he wants a different kind of attention — a taste of whatever he thinks nonfiction writers are having. How else to explain why authors with international reputations, who sell plenty of books, would want to play the ambiguity card? What does it buy them? Seems to me their insistence that genre doesn’t matter is a kind of self-promotion: it’s not enough for the prose to be interesting: they want to be interesting, too.
Or am I to believe them when they say they want the reader off her balance? But how does that work unless they tip us off within the text, as with Sebald, Coetzee, and Slater, for instance? Or call the work fiction, as with Maxwell, Baxter, and, perhaps most recently, Sheila Heti. People have been writing autobiographical fiction for just about ever — and blurring genre boundaries, too. But if you don’t clue us in, if we find out after the fact, it’s a one-sided game, isn’t it? In which case, you’re all alone on the seesaw. Does that sound like fun? Does that sound like art? If so, okay — but whoever you are, you’re not writing nonfiction. Because a nonfiction writer doesn’t want her reader up in the air! She doesn’t want him to wonder or doubt. She has an obligation. Her job — that is my job — is actually different from the job of a fiction writer. And I want my reader to believe he can count on me to revel in its challenges and rewards.
And even so, I’m inclined to agree with Weschler — all nonfiction is fiction, of course it is —because the truth is tricky, subjective, elusive, shape-shifting, and because narrative is more often imposed than discovered. But this isn’t a two way street, and so Nabokov is also right. If all nonfiction is fiction, all fiction is fiction, too. So when a fiction writer shrugs and asks, “What’s the diff?” as if to imply that the nonfiction writer’s intentions and the nonfiction reader’s expectations are beside the point? He disparages and distorts my meaning and my work. It makes a whole lot of diff to me.
SCOTT NADELSON: It’s hard to argue with Dinah, but here goes:
Imagine for a moment that we lived in a place where books were sold without labels identifying their genre. Call this magical place, oh, I don’t know … Europe. What would we do? How would we know what it is we were reading?
Of course, we’d have form. Form not only to help distinguish one book from another but form that instructs us how to situate ourselves in relation to each piece of writing we encounter. We’d have line breaks and paragraphs. We’d have narrative, reportage, argumentation, reflection. We’d have point of view. We’d have some first-person narratives that ask us to read against a narrator, trying to see around her various blindnesses; we’d have other first person narratives that ask us to align ourselves with the narrator, trusting her complex insights and honesty. We’d know when we are being asked to experience something as objective or well-researched journalism, but we’d also know that there is no such thing as objectivity, that even the most well-researched book is full of omissions and bias and human limitation. We’d read everything we encounter with healthy skepticism; but we’d also read it with generosity, with a suspension of disbelief that shouldn’t be reserved only for obvious flights of fancy.
I worry that we as a literary culture have become obsessed with labels. I worry that as readers we have come to rely on labels — a product of the marketplace — to teach us how to read. I worry, too, that as writers we have allowed our self-imposed labels to keep us from understanding and appreciating the choices of writers who work in other modes. A writer who self-identifies as a novelist recently wrote, in an otherwise very smart essay about William Maxwell, “Some readers conflate the first person narrator Maxwell often employs … with Maxwell himself. As if his work was mere [my emphasis] autobiography. As if all he had to do was remember and transcribe.” I have often heard people who self-identify as nonfiction writers say about those who acknowledge using invention in memoir or essay: “They are being lazy.”
Those of us who work in both modes, or who don’t feel the need to distinguish between them but rather approach their material with whatever form feels appropriate to the needs of a given piece, know that there is no “mere” writing autobiography and that there is nothing lazy or easy about invention. All of us who write should know that any work that attempts complexity, that tries to connect one individual’s experience — whether actual or invented or both — to that of strangers who might open a book, takes serious effort, has been undertaken not for the sake of sales, but because the person who chose to put down these words cares about language, about narrative, about the expression of ideas.
I’m tired of hearing people say, “It’s a good story because it really happened.” I’m tired of hearing people say, “Why should she write about herself? What’s so special about her?” I’m tired of hearing people say, “I only read things that are true.” I’m tired of hearing people say, “Writing memoir is self-indulgence.” I’m tired of hearing about lousy novels that can’t find a publisher becoming best-selling memoirs.
Let’s drop the labels. Let’s let our work speak for itself. Let’s let the books we read teach us how to read them. Let’s approach everything with skepticism and generosity. Let’s let ourselves be moved by the words we read while never forgetting that they are only that, words arranged on a page.
SVEN BIRKERTS: I think one reads that description which Dinah offered and just thinks about it and finds one element and just keeps circling — and the element I circled is the obvious, which is that in essence “every narrative voice is fiction.” It’s interesting to think about — because life is an undifferentiated jumble of events and a cross-hatched play of forces, and what differentiates the human (maybe) from other creatures is that the human looks to make story — not for itself so much as to try to understand — parses sequence, looks at interconnections, seeks for causality, and also for shape. For shape, that which narrative aspires to be, is what lets us think that an intelligence something like ours underlies the whole business of creation. Narrative may be a fiction, but shape is the supreme fiction.
“The king died and then the queen” says Forster, is a story, while “The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.” The first is a narrative, the second is a narrative that has acquired shape.
I think of “fiction” etymologically — and we shouldn’t forget our etymologies — as a “made thing.” And nonfiction is a “made thing” as well. And maybe this is where some of the confusion originates.
Narrative is a human imposition, the making of thing, across all genres. At issue in the now-tired discussion is the “reality status” of the materials being used. Did such-and-such a thing really happen, or was it made up? It’s easy enough to draw certain lines when we are in the near-present, or have evidence or witnesses, and very difficult when we bring memory into the picture. Memory, which is itself an engine of narrative — selective and shape-making and never without its ulterior incentives.
We don’t get very far, we’ve seen, pushing the “did-it-really-happen?” criterion. But this should not hurry us into the camp of David Shields and the assertion that what did or did not happen is immaterial. That’s far too easy, and it winches down the net to the point that anything we hit is bound to go over. Genres are like etiquette: necessary for sustaining the tensions that keep things interesting.
But there’s another angle, I think. Everything we come up with literarily may be narrative, but we need to ask “what kind of narrative?” and “by what process?” For fiction, as traditionally conceived, invents its elements — the path, the blue bucket, the man with the pistol — while nonfiction finds its narrative, ostensibly, through discovery. So, a shapely story — a made thing — either way, but what a difference between the one and the other.
To fictionalize, the writer proposes a world and the people and things in it. They may derive, closely even, from the experienced, the known, but the assumption is that it is an autonomous world, perhaps very much like our own, and we are to treat it as such. The information, the value, comes from the interaction in our imaginations of the surmised, the posited, materials — it is a value, then, seen to be independent of the supposed “truth status” of the materials. No one will object that there really was no blue bucket. Instead, we will direct our attention — our attention will be directed — to what the presence of that bucket suggests in the author’s narration of events. The beauty of fiction is that it frees us from wondering about the messy status of things, people, and events so that we can give ourselves completely to their purposeful interaction.
In nonfiction the writer picks and chooses and arranges from what is believed to be the case, and the question to what end? is very differently inflected. The psyche that invents the blue bucket may not be very different from the psyche that remembers and uses it to some narrative end, but the inventing and choosing reflect different motivations. Both processes are determined significantly by the sensibility, the psychological character, of the writer, but the actions mark the difference between essentially opposite kinds of agency. Fiction says “let it be the case that” and nonfiction says, in whatever uniquely subjective way, “it is the case that.” In fiction we must contend with the author’s intention first and foremost: why this version of things? In nonfiction we must contend with the merger of the author’s actual psyche and the actual world, and ask not so much why this version of things, as how? How did this account arise from this person, these givens? Our attention is, at the deepest readerly level, directed at different things. There is nothing gained whatsoever in trying to get them to be the same thing.
DAVID BIESPIEL: I was feeling very confident about what I was going to say until I saw you nodding or shaking your heads.
Some years ago I attended a reading in Washington, DC, by the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. She introduced the story she read by saying that it was not autobiographical. Then she read her story about a woman who weighed somewhere in the vicinity of 300 pounds. When she was done, and the Q&A started, the first question was: “Miss Atwood, how did you lose all that weight?”
Perhaps the matter of genre doesn’t really matter.
Which is kind of my position. I mean, honored as I am to be at this table with such amazing writers whose work I adore, I also have to confess I don’t have much of a dog in the fight. I believe writers should feel free to write whatever they want to and label it however they want. In a perfect world, that one sentence would comprise my entire presentation.
As a representative of poetry, I guess I would say that the debate surrounding fiction and nonfiction, or the matter of genres generally, seems to me at least, to have been resolved when Achilles storms off to a pout in the opening pages of Homer’s dactylic hexameter-formed memoir/longform journalism/fictional narrative of epic proportions of the Trojan War, called The Iliad.
But, I’m nothing if not a team player, so for what it’s worth, I do have this consideration to offer. Last week I was in New York for meetings for the National Book Critics Circle awards where I currently serve as a juror. Last Thursday night, we announced the winners of the annual awards. NBCC has six categories comprised of five finalists each, and because of the heavy reading load, the board sometimes, over the many years, finds itself in discussion about the rationale for NBCC’s six award categories: fiction, nonfiction, biography, autobiography, criticism, and poetry.
I won’t be breaking any guidelines of confidentiality by describing my own opinions about literary categories vis à vis the NBCC model. (Which is a good segue for me to indicate that if you wish to read the minutes of those NBCC jury discussions about genre and other book critic things, all it takes is joining the NBCC, which you can do at bookcritics.org.) So, in the interests of leaving time for more discussion and less for formal presentation-ifying, here are a few open-ended questions on my mind, questions to which I don’t have answers, and as I say, I don’t really need answers.
Why are autobiography and biography separated as categories? Would one category called, say, “lives,” do the trick? Though: would deeply researched biography, say, of the Robert Caro variety have a necessary edge over the private confessional memoir, or what you will, say, of the Mary Karr variety? And: if these categories were elided, would we care more or less about a particular narrative nonfiction version of events?
Why is there just one fiction category and why not divide that into novel, novellas, short stories, flash fictions? Do sub-genres add or detract from the making and enjoying of fiction or autobiography? Or, this question: can you compare a journalistic book of current events, say, about the presidential election of 2012, with a classically researched book about, say, the history of cancer? A book of formal verse with prose poetry?
We divide literature into categories and genres, and I genially participate in the activity, less so as a writer and more so as reader. But, let us ask, what is the right thing to do? Because an inclusive, generous, un-ethicistic answer to that question might discover that the labels for genres, which are commercially based, overly define, and surely inhibit, a writer’s imagination and gumption to label freely.
So. Why do book awards juries divide their beneficence into genres? One reason seems to me to be because publishers and booksellers do. Dividing literature into genres is a consequence, among other things, of the historic relationship between publishers and booksellers. Publishers label their products (autobiography fiction, poetry, criticism, biography) so that booksellers can determine what to order for the shop. Booksellers then categorize the ordered products to help customers better sort through them for purchase. The business of genres pertains to the business of retail — that is, retailing the imagination in a marketplace.
And here then is the issue of truth in advertising, a bedrock principle of American retail, including the retailing of literature. Clive James, author of the memoir, Unreliable Memoirs, some of which is not true, puts it this way. Memoirs that dramatize “conceal more than they reveal.” He writes:
[My] first volume, Unreliable Memoirs, has been a very good friend to me, especially in Britain and Australia. It’s never caught on in America. It’s because I say right at the start, “Some of this isn’t true.” You can’t do that in America […] You’d have to put a preface on the book indicating you’re aware that, in America, this is an issue. Almost uniquely in America, it’s a big issue. People are discovered to have deceived Oprah Winfrey! Crimes on that scale. American culture is different from the rest of English-speaking culture. In America, the label has to say what’s in the can, so in the supermarket you know what you’re picking up.
Like James, I resist ethics-ifying creative imagination. So let me end, in the spirit of stimulating rather than closing discussion, with a quandary rather than a conclusion: let us not talk ourselves into some Memoir Code of Ethics or, say, some Poetry Code of Ethics, and so on, something that might begin, “A memoirist must present at all times accuracy of information from all sources and exercise great care to avoid inadvertent error.” Or, “for a poet, distortion is never permissible.” Or something like, “the public is entitled to as much information as possible on the author’s reliability.” Or, “An author must assert that his or her motives are unquestionable.” Or, “A memoirist must avoid misleading re-enactments or staged scenes. All re-enactments must be labeled.”
In the broadest sense, a code of ethics may be good for the journalist, but for the memoirist? For the poet? For the novelist? Or for any writer who wants to write whatever she wants to and label it whatever she wants to?
JUDITH KITCHEN: When I was five, I was pulled from my bed and carried through the dark on my father’s back as water rose to his waist. At the neighbor’s farm, we sat on the floor until the men came back from the barn defeated, unable to save the cows locked in their stanchions.
In my first book of essays, images of that flood function as evidence of memory. In my second book, the flood appears once; the focus is on my mother trying to scrub the silt out of the grooves of the vinyl records with a wire brush. In the third — the one about photographs — the flood remains background: a ragged hole in the picture of the house neatly matches the hole in the left knee of my stiff Civil War ancestor, the result of yet another flood when my mother too hastily pulled apart the soggy photos. In my most recent piece — a long meditation — the flood appears again, this time in response to TV images of Hurricane Sandy. The narrator, in third person, anticipates for others: All she knows is that when those strangers go back inside their houses, they will smell the insidious scent of ruin.
A flood also appears in my novel. There, I borrowed from myself — whole passages from the essays lifted intact and put in another woman’s voice. Surprise! The flood of my childhood took on new life as if by magic. The real water that silently rose and receded becomes, for Molly, a swirling eddy as she is overwhelmed by life. Water as metaphor. Then, as Leo adopts Molly’s childhood image for his own, lo and behold — a metaphor of a metaphor.
There was a difference in how I treated that flood from one book of essays to the next — and I felt it. But there was a larger difference when I let its details flood my novel. When I was writing an essay, I was hoping to discover what that memory meant, how it was relevant to the person I am today. I was looking to what I could make of my life and the forces that shaped it. When I was writing my novel, I released myself from the struggle to make word and event coincide. I was making up so that the reader could make of.
Reverse the process. There’s no way for the reader to know what is real, what imagined. Only I know why I choose to call one thing nonfiction and the other fiction. But I do choose.
The distinction is illuminated in a recent article by Ian McEwan. Examining his periodic disaffection with fiction and his fascination with fact, he recalls being away at school, reading L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. He remembers identifying with the boy narrator who is intent on the extreme heat and that week’s copy of Punch with its drawing that shows Mr. Punch under an umbrella with his dog, Toby. McEwan remembers dropping the book and crossing to the library where he lifted down the 1900 volume of Punch and turned to July. There it was — the exact drawing: man, umbrella, dog. He writes:
And briefly, I felt an unfamiliar sadness, nostalgia for a world I was excluded from. For a moment, I had been Leo, seeing what he saw, and then it was 1962 again and I was at boarding school, with no lovers to run between, no heat wave, and only this remnant in a yellowing magazine.
In realizing he had, for a time, become the boy in the novel, McEwan recognizes one important value of fiction, and the salient passage is this: “In the act of recognition, the tight boundaries of selfhood give way a little. This doesn’t happen when you learn what a Higgs boson does.”
Nonfiction is built on a scaffold of fact. Even the essay, with its greater leeway for exploration and play owes its fidelity to the facts. Its purpose is self-knowledge, not self-invention. The real invention is the speaking voice. As Lee Martin suggests, “We create ourselves as characters […] We have to be able to see ourselves as clearly and with as much insight as we do the characters we create of others.”
One element in reading nonfiction is the assumption of the author’s presence. The reader is acutely aware that the events belong to someone else; he looks on, learns from, leans toward — but there is a reality check and a divide he does not cross. We read nonfiction with an alternative reality in mind — our own. We move rapidly from the text to our experience and back again, testing what is said against what we know. If the writer of nonfiction makes up facts without admitting it, he has not only let down this process, he has failed his genre because it loses credibility precisely where fiction gains it — in the specificity of what never happened.
In fiction, the writer recedes and we repress our own experience in favor of what is happening to the characters. Events matter to the reader directly, from inside. Time itself is liberated, and the book lives on in a continuous present.
And that’s why genre matters. Without nonfiction, fiction is dead. In an ironic reversal of roles, nonfiction provides us with an alternative self by which to make comparisons. On the other hand, as McEwan implies, we need the power of fiction to expand the confines of the living, reading self.
DINAH LENNEY: So there seems to be this idea here that readers are going to assume whatever they like, regardless: they might assume that something’s true, or that it isn’t, in either genre. Are we responsible for those assumptions? Scott, I’m thinking you should jump into this: fiction or not, with your “autobiography” — what’s your responsibility to the real people in your life?
SCOTT NADELSON: It’s a great question, and I would say, and again, I’m not throwing fact out all together — but I’d say that every book has built into its form, or every book should have built into its form, the way that a reader should be experiencing it; that it’s teaching a reader how to experience it. So in my case, (and I wrestle with this quite a bit), I do come out up front and acknowledge that I embellish, I exaggerate, I invent — and I was torn about doing so, because I feel like the form itself tells you that — the voice itself: because it’s comic and takes an ironic tone and it’s winking at you right from the beginning. I think all good writing does that: it’s built into the structure of the writing. Responsibility to the people involved, I guess that to me really depends on what it is you’re doing with the people involved. So there are some books — and here’s where I’ll take my shot at D’Agata, who I think makes interesting arguments; but where I feel he falls down has to do with the form of his book, which implies that he’s looking outward, that he’s involved in a journalistic investigation; and I think journalistic investigation should be fact-checked. When he argues that the facts don’t matter, the form says otherwise.
DAVID BIESPIEL: Tim Connelly, from whom I’ve learned just about everything that I know about poetry, once said of a poem that the language of the experience should equal the language of the poem. And so for me as a poet, trying to figure out my responsibility to the reader (which I try not to think about much) has to do with trying to find some kind of communion. I don’t think that it’s only about a writer giving to reader — the reader offers something back, and that’s where the communion takes place.
JUDITH KITCHEN: I know the one place where I felt responsibility to other people was in my book about photographs. There were so many people who I didn’t even know in the pictures, yet I knew they had certain connections to my mother. So I had some responsibility to her — even as I decided to give her a posthumous shipboard romance and things like that. But most of those photos were of people who turned out to be on the brink of something, as with one that was labeled, Paris 1938. I know now what was about to happen, but my Aunt Margaret sitting at the table in Paris did not know what was about to happen. So I felt some obligation to both history and the personalities in the photos — the ones I knew and ones I didn’t — to represent those circumstances in one way or another. I went off on a lot of speculations, and I had a lot of fun — in other words, I was writing fiction — but it was a nonfiction project, and I felt the obligation to announce, in hopefully subtle ways, that I was in the territory of people whom I didn’t know. When I write about my mother or father, I figure they’re fair game. I don’t write about my children because they’re not fair game: they didn’t ask for it. (I don’t know why I think my parents did.) When you’re writing about somebody you don’t know, or when you’re sure you don’t have the complete story, I feel you have some real obligation not to depart from the facts without letting the reader know that you’re doing so. Otherwise how are they to know?
DINAH LENNEY: In that book — Half in Shade — it’s your nonfictional purpose and agenda to speculate. You keep reminding us: I am speculating. Scott, you said earlier that we should understand from the outset, from your humorous tone, that you’re having some fun with us. So my question is why not call it fiction? What’s so terrible about that?
SCOTT NADELSON: This is something I have thought about a lot, and if I’d had my choice, I would not have allowed the publisher to put any genre label on the book. Of course it took them about 45 seconds to say no to that idea. The reason that I don’t like the line being so tightly drawn is that it creates a frame whereby a novel or story in which Scott Nadelson appears is immediately seen as postmodern, which is not at all its intention —
DINAH LENNEY: But that’s not the way people talked about William Maxwell.
SCOTT NADELSON: Here’s another example: Michael Martone. I read an essay about Michael Martone’s Michael Martone as an example of creative nonfiction. But I had always seen it as fiction — and I would argue that it’s the same book either way; that the experience of reading that book tells us how to think about the complexities of identity without having that frame showing us how to think about it.
SVEN BIRKERTS: While we’re on this question of writing about other people, a kind of axiomatic little formulation occurred to me, although I haven’t tested its truth value: to exist is to feel that you own your story. When I wrote memoiristically about any number of people, there was not a single person that I pleased by doing that, and I realize it had nothing to do with whether I said something positive or negative in my characterization. It’s simply that their sense of reality was based on the belief that they owned and understood their story and no matter what I did I’d get it wrong. I had another thought, too, shifting topics here a little. There’s an assumption that’s kind of underlying that one simply chooses: I can do this as fiction or nonfiction. I’m sitting here thinking about why this bothers me. All my life I’ve wanted to write fiction — I thought fiction was the great thing. I can’t write it, though, so nonfiction is a default for me. But the fact that I can’t write fiction — that there’s something I can’t do — tells me that there is a diff: that’s a diff marker.
DINAH LENNEY: Right, exactly. And if people don’t like the way they’re portrayed in memoir, that’s true in fiction, too, right? Colm Toibin wrote an essay for The New York Times about that — his assertion was that when you write fiction, you also don’t please anybody. Scott, are you going to run into trouble no matter what you call it? Is that part of why it doesn’t matter to you? Because people are going to be mad anyway? I’m picking on you.
SCOTT NADELSON: That’s okay. I don’t know. I may be in trouble; we’ll see. I walked into this project by accident. I started off the way I start everything — my stories always start with some nugget of autobiography, and usually I improvise, but in this case I gave the character my name and stayed close, and it needed to be that way. So the line I drew for myself was I was going to be harder on myself than on anybody else.
DINAH LENNEY: Which is what we insist on from writers of memoir and personal essay.
SCOTT NADELSON: I guess that was the factor that made me not worry too much about how other people were going to react: because no matter how anybody else feels about themselves in the book, they’re going to feel worse for me.
JUDITH KITCHEN: What’s interesting is that Scott’s whole premise has to do with good readers — but we all know that there is such a thing as a bad reader. And he was talking about good writing, and we also know there’s such a thing as bad writing. I would agree with everything he has to say in that perfect world of good writers and good readers: in that case, yes, we should be able to pick up on the cues. But then I come across something — and I’m going to use maybe the most extreme example: an author who remembers being the child survivor of the Holocaust. But it turns out he was never in a concentration camp — he was in an orphanage in Switzerland. And I don’t think those two things are quite the same, yet the book received many awards and a lot of people felt it was real. I never thought so. Right from the beginning I felt suspicious in some way. I’ve never been able to quite put my finger on why, but it seems to me that this book — and all its awards and then the unveiling of the facts surrounding the book — gave a lot of ammunition to people who would deny the holocaust.
So where do you draw the line? Annie Dillard’s cat (in “Coyote Crossing”) isn’t going to hurt anybody, whereas making up material about the Holocaust might. But even with Dillard — a made-up cat served as her central metaphor. So what does she really learn about herself if she never owned the cat at all. It seems like a little thing, but it’s really important to me, so I decided that I’m going to draw my line before the cat. Does that mean everything I write is factual? No. When people ask my brother if he’s in my books, he responds, “Yes, mine are the only parts that aren’t true.” You know, as a person and a writer, you’re not ever going to be completely accurate, but why are you there? To invent a cat so you can win a Pulitzer? Or to find out who you are from the real life that you really live. And I think we come to it differently. I think Scott is going to find out who he really is by playing a different kind of game. And forgive me for saying this, it feels like a masculine game, but it gets to the same place. You have a lot more fun, that’s all I can say.
DAVID BIESPIEL: I’m going to let you think about that, Scott.
Every time somebody talks I always find myself agreeing. I do want to say that I don’t think that Holocaust deniers need any motivation to deny. They will deny, and it’s a problem. But they don’t need nonfiction or fiction or anything else to do it.
DINAH LENNEY: But we don’t want to be giving them ammunition.
DAVID BIESPIEL: Like I say, I think they’ll deny no matter what. I think that the question of something like the Holocaust is crucial, and I’ve struggled with it a lot. But to kind of tag on to the idea that one owns one’s story — some stories aren’t owned by one, they’re owned by the community, they’re owned by the planet, by the Milky Way galaxy — like the Holocaust. And yet I’m interested in what you were just saying, Judith: can you find out who you are — I’m not trying to be provocative, I’m just trying to ask the question — can you find out who you are by denying the Holocaust? Can you find out who you are by writing a piece in which you write yourself into a story like that, even if it’s not what happened? It’s such an open-ended question, I don’t have the answer, but I do think that —
JUDITH KITCHEN: He was inventing a complete other self.
DAVID BIESPIEL: I don’t know the answer to the question. Maybe you have a private story that you’re trying to bring into a public space in terms of autobiographical poetry or nonfiction. But I suppose that’s true of fiction, too. It’s different I think when there’s a public story that you’re trying to bring into a private space. That raises questions, yes.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: It seems to me that one of the first and foremost functions of story is instruction for survival. And maybe that’s why memoir is so popular now. When you hear the question “Is that true?” and you suspect that it’s coming from that space of I-need-to-know-for-my-own-survival, does that affect your answer?
SCOTT NADELSON: I’ll just steal my answer straight up from Tim O’Brien, who says that if you ask the question you have the answer: if you hear the story and it sounds true to you, if it strikes you as true, then it is. The experience of the narrative is its own truth. So my answer would always be yes.
DINAH LENNEY: And my answer about my own work — it’s true, yes — like Sven, I don’t know how to write fiction, I really don’t. So yes, this is the way I perceive the truth, this is my best and most considered understanding of the events as they happened. It’s a performance in that way, but it’s true.
SVEN BIRKERTS: But let’s also throw in that true has many layers here — and I always feel that this goes to the old Vivian Gornick thing of conflating in order to represent herself and her mother walking down the street (in Fierce Attachments): if she nailed the psychological truth in a way that resonates credibly, and if that was her intention and it worked for me, then I excuse the surface mussing. I don’t care about it at all. But I think real attentive reading is about negotiating those psychological nuances. And you know when something hits.
JUDITH KITCHEN: When people ask why memoir is so popular, I always just give a glib answer: it’s because we don’t know our neighbors anymore. My mother got everything she needed by gossiping over the clothesline with her neighbors, and I honestly think that in some ways the memoir serves some of that same purpose: it tells us we’re human, other people have problems, and here’s how I handled this or that situation, that type of thing, so if we got to gossip more or could get to know our neighbors …
DINAH LENNEY: We have Facebook.
JUDITH KITCHEN: But Facebook doesn’t seem like gossip. It’s not quite that kind of exchange — doesn’t have quite that intimacy — it feels a lot more like you’re just putting your whole life out there for the whole world. At least these people knew who they were talking to over the clothesline.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: One of the things I’ve noticed about my undergraduate students is that they’re very cynical and mistrusting about the truth, and one of the things that happens to them is that they become apathetic. This is a terrific and thought-provoking conversation for me as a writer. But as a teacher of creative writing I feel I have a responsibility to not suggest in any glib kind of way that there is no difference: write what you want, it doesn’t matter, call it what you want — but rather to seriously educate students about all these issues and ask them to develop a code of ethics for themselves about the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Do you have any comments about your role as teachers versus your role as writers?
SCOTT NADELSON: I hate to start again …
SVEN BIRKERTS: Start again …
SCOTT NADELSON: Well, I think you answered the question. The responsibility of us teachers is to bring the question to the students in all its complexity. To acknowledge, as we should acknowledge with everything, that there’s no black and white, that people are coming at this from really different angles: here’s a range of point of views, let’s talk about it and find our way through it — find your way through it, find your own line but be deliberate about it and not apathetic. The conversation will work against the apathy.
SVEN BIRKERTS: The question too, is whether you approach this by sermonizing and asserting, or whether you find a way to do it in the context of their writing. You can sermonize forever, and they’ll think what they think, but if you can demonstrate to them why this works and this doesn’t, convincingly, on the page, and if that somehow underscores the difference you’re talking about, they may actually implement it in the writing and eventually elsewhere.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: Should we care about labeling the work after people are dead?
DAVID BIESPIEL: That’s the best time to label the work.
DINAH LENNEY: Also a good time to write about it.
DAVID BIESPIEL: Yeah, and that’s what I wanted to say. I think you should be the critic that challenges that. I think if it’s something that has you exercised you should write about it, and if you want to bring people to task as a critic that’s a good use for that genre.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: I wanted to ask if anybody on the panel has considered Sebald as a model of not avoiding the question but proving how profound the question is and how to deal with it, ethically and otherwise?
JUDITH KITCHEN: Sebald makes us think large thoughts, and he does so by obviously blending the genres and showing how the individual is implicated in the large historical event. But he never changed an event — let’s say there was a battle: he didn’t put it in the year before because it would be convenient, and he didn’t say what its results had been in some opposite form just because it would make his point. He had a lot of fidelity to historical fact even as he was playing the games that he played, and that’s one reason why I think that Austerlitz was not as good a book as the rest of them: because he called it a novel, he treated it as a novel and so it never raised all the huge issues that the other books did.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: As writers and editors are we unnecessary gatekeepers?
SCOTT NADELSON: This is where I envy poets because they don’t have to have that kind of gatekeeping, and a lot of my thinking about this really comes from envying poets who are able to capture that vulnerability and intimacy of a reader engaging with his voice, knowing that it’s about the experience of language but being able to be as close to that voice as possible without having the label in between. So as a writer I would say Sebald is definitely a model for me — and hero — in that I think it’s built in right in the first pay of The Rings of Saturn what he’s doing. As soon as he starts talking about the two simultaneous coincidental deaths of his colleagues you know you’re in a dream state, and I think following your instinct and your intuition without having imposed what this is ahead of time just frees you as a writer, and you write the thing that it’s going to become and worry about what it is after the fact — or let somebody else worry about what it is.