jump to navigation

Assaying the State of the Essay March 24, 2013

Posted by The Typist in books, literature, New Orleans, NOLA, Odd Words, Toulouse Street.
Tags: , , , , ,

Sunday’s panel on Creative Non-Fiction at the Tennessee Williams festival spent much time answering Adam Kirch’s infamous (well, to some of us) essay in the New Republic, “The New Essayists, or the Decline of a Form? The essay as reality television.” Novelist and Tulane professor Thomas Beller, the author of a series of personal essays titled How To Be A Man suggested that the readers and writers of the current explosion of personal essays have mixed motivations. Essayists look to be “a legitimate [interior] voice speaking to the outside world” but that too many writers suffer from what Dorothy Parker called “the frankies”, the desire to share beyond their own best interest and that of the reader.” Readers, he said, were often “looking for somebody to make a fool of themselves.”

Panelist John Jeremiah Sullivan was one of Kirsh’s first targets: “A talented writer such as John Jeremiah Sullivan might, fifty years ago, have tried to explore his complicated feelings about the South, and about race and class in America, by writing fiction, following in the footsteps of Walker Percy and Eudora Welty. Instead he produced a book of essays, called Pulphead, on the same themes; and the book was received with the kind of serious attention and critical acclaim that were once reserved for novels.” The Southern Editor of the Paris Review and contributor to GQ, Harper’s Magazine and Oxford American took exception to the idea that essayists, especially those who write for magazines are somehow beneath literary notice. He called it “cultural eugenics’ and a reject of 300 years of English literary history to attack magazine writers or suggest the essay was dead. “Lamb, Hazlitt, de Quincy were all writing for magazines” but are presented now cleaned up and anthologized.

Beller said that too many essays today are predictable. “Too many essays even in the best magazines, from the first two paragraphs you know where they’re going.” He praised Sullivan’s work for its twists and turns. comparing them to early Paul McCartny songs. “They are like three or four songs all strung together.” Panelist Elena Passarello, author of Let Me Clear My Throat and a contributor to Creative Nonfiction, Oxford American and Slate, turned to writing and essays in particular after a career in acting. says she tries to creative performative moments on the page. “The essays that fire on all cylinders show the workings of a human mind, [the author’s] or another’s.” Beller, who suggested something similar earlier (see above) said the form also allows writers to take “their eccentricities out into the world,” which lead to a discussion of his own contribution to the New York Times Food section on the peanut butter and pickle sandwich.

You Make Shit Up April 22, 2012

Posted by The Typist in A Fiction, Fortin Street, New Orleans, The Narrative, Toulouse Street.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

Everything has a rational explanation. Those cuts you don’t remember getting until you get blood on something (leprosy or epilepsy). Why organic milk keeps longer in the fridge (irradiation or preservatives). Those mysterious stains on the linoleum that came with the apartment (ritual sacrifice or a blowtorch accident). Why my Kindle locks up two minutes before class (gamma rays or those bad things you said about Amazon on line) (never underestimate the power of Amazon). The problem is, how do you know which? The problem is, why do these things occur in my life? The problem is, why do I think about them so much? The problem is, why do I come up with these possible answers? And why can’t I turn off Comma Use (consider revising) in Word when I like the way I use commas just fine (illiterate code monkeys or those bad things you said about Microsoft online) (never underestimate the power of Bill Gates).

When your rational explanations become increasingly irrational it is time to expand your definition of rational. (Is Mercury retrograde?) Or start drinking. The two things are not mutually exclusive but somewhere this side of pink elephants there are rational explanations for things that appear to defy explanation. They are not, however, half as interesting as the inventive. I was pretty sure that thunk noise my house in D.C. made around ten every night was the building settling from temperature changes and not the story I told everyone about the tenant who hung himself from a transom at exactly that time. Expand the rational. Use your imagination. Make shit up. The entire history of literature can be summed up as: These things happened: to people, to places, to things. These things make no sense. Make shit up. God for example. Q.E.D.

(I do not own a Kindle.)

Non-fiction is not made up shit. It is potentially worse. You pitch an editor, write a book proposal. If you don’t deliver they might to be disappointed, especially if you get paid anyway. Publishing is the manufacture and sale of words, and if you go outside the control lines you are a statistical deviant. This is terribly bad if you are a Toyota, but you are not. They have manged to convince you that you are a Toyota. You can always find someone to feed your preconceived story which is possibly worse. Once you commit yourself to the path of fact you are not allowed outside the lines.

Here on Toulouse Street I am not committed to the supremacy of fact.

(I no longer live on Toulouse Street.) (I am not giving up my Google position ahead of the Doobie Brothers.)

The last time I wrote as a journalist was a few months ago. The last time before that, 30 years, so I took good notes. I brought a digital recorder and listened to it on the way home before I transcribed my notes. I was committed to the path of fact. Someone saw the story online and said I misquoted them. They told me the “real” version of the story. I listened to my recording again with my notes in hand. I got it right the first time.

I think they did, too. It was a better story, and close enough to the original I struggle to understand the desire for a correction. I can only think a dozen years of Catholic school had something to do with it. All that guilt. Please print my act of contrition and three Hail Marys.

The paper ran an online correction which probably no one read. The better story triumphed.

I was given an F in art in first grade because I refused to color inside the lines. My father the architect was furious, and went down to St. Pius and chewed out Sister Timothy, who I think came up to just above his waist. This was not how a past president of the Holy Name Society was supposed to behave. I learned to color inside the lines anyway, but not to like it. Still, I managed a career in journalism and managed a few small awards. I left that for politics, where facts are malleable weapons and control of context and the conversation is everything. I hated it and learned a great deal.

Feeling a sense of relief at being laid off is definitely outside the control lines. I like it out here. I no longer aspire to meanness, the veneration of the average. Fact lives inside the control lines, is quantifiable, measurable, metric. Truth lives outside the control lines, is a failure of controls. Truth is disruptive of process, must be brought under control, inside the lines. Just look what they did to Jesus. He did not die for your sins; he died to scare the shit out of you, your boss Yahweh in front of a flip chart stabbing his finger at your dots out there on the perimeter and having a fit.

To move Truth inside the control lines you must identify it, determine its causes, submit it to metrics and bring it under control. Once it is subject to metrics it becomes fact. And facts are only interesting to me when they fall outside the control lines: the length of a monstrous squid hauled up from the depths, the delightful irregularity of the rings on a plate of calamari.

If you are searching the world for a neat and packaged truth with a t like Jesus nailed to the wall of a room I suggest mescaline because it is a great deal more fun than church. Or a class in Six Sigma. And more honest.

I didn’t finish my Six Sigma green belt.

I don’t have any mescaline.

I don’t go to church.

If you are looking for Truth here on Toulouse Street I will deal you in. I might have all the facts or I may have a hole in my straight. I don’t have to show my hand. I can always smile and fold but instead I will bluff well and you will buy it and never know. Have another beer. It’s a nickel and dime game anyway. The statistics governing poker, betting inside the control lines, is not the point. We play in the land of wild cards and the bluff. The veracity of the stories we tell is not important. As long as you get what you came for–lost less than I spent on beer and snacks, hung with your friends, got something off your chest in front of what is as close to a sympathetic and trusting audience as men get–everybody goes home happy.

(I don’t play poker).