Against a Literature of Fact
There‟s a big party going on but I wasn‟t invited. Or, perhaps more accurately, I‟m not really sure what all the celebrating is about. I am told that we are in the midst of a renaissance of something called “creative nonfiction.” That we are rejoicing because we have finally wrested the crown from the head of the Great American Novel and that we now stand triumphant with one foot on its corpse. That‟s good, I suppose, for a
nonfiction writer like myself, but for some reason I‟m not flush with triumph. In fact
what I feel is odd…..like something is missing.
So I try, as best an individual can, to survey the modern nonfiction landscape in search of what I‟m looking for. It is a varied landscape, I get that, and anything I come up with, from my limited perspective, will be limited as well. But still I notice a few things. I notice, for instance, that journalism, in some areas, has gotten a lot better. I am
not foolish enough to attribute this to any one man or one influence but I do find myself thinking of a class that the writer John McPhee has taught at Princeton for many years, a class called “the Literature of Fact,” that inspired a virtual army of followers. Of course
McPhee, a reasonable man, would make no claim to being a nonfiction messiah, and would likely admit that he was merely describing a sensation that began with the New Journalists and perhaps long before. When I read examples of the “literature of fact” I
am happy enough. There is much that is valuable, much to be admired, and much that is groundbreaking about the idea of a journalistic nonfiction that weds an artist‟s eye to
rigorous research, and that is embodied in McPhee‟s own exemplary and decidedly un-
showy work. McPhee aptly demonstrates how a writer might serve the story, while politely keeping his “I” out of the way, thank you very much, and how fictional
techniques like dialogue and scene can be used in nonfiction, without any displays of Tom Wolfe gaudiness. Robert Boynton, in The New New Journalism, his book
celebrating the generation of nonfiction writers influenced by McPhee and these techniques, writes: “Rigorously reported, psychologically astute, sociologically
sophisticated, and politically aware, the New New Journailism may be the most popular and influential development in the history of American literary nonfiction.”
Well, um, maybe. Leaving Thoreau and Emerson, not to mention Didion, Capote and Wolfe aside for a minute, we might grant Boynton at least part of his point: as I look around I see that, at this moment in time, a large proportion of the long narrative nonfiction appearing in the remaining slick magazines, and the nonfiction that is most often reviewed in the major book reviews, seems to be influenced by writing that turns to
other people, topics and ideas while keeping the self out of the way. Which, for the most part, is a good thing.
The trouble, I suppose, comes when the literature of fact, or perhaps the editors of fact, start to become gentle bullies, or more accurately landlords, who want only the good and the clean and the factual as their tenants. Memoir muscles in of course, rumbling from the other direction, but too often the personal and journalistic are kept apart, held back like fighters itching to get at each other. Worse, the two are often separated into “camps” or—god help us—movements. Memoir becomes Dr. Fact‟s bogeyman, it‟s dark
Hyde, its doppelganger. And then, with a little too much vehemence, memoir is scolded as immature, too concerned with its self, whiny, and unable to grow up and care about others. Of course a polite proportion of first person is allowed in the literature of fact, say 5%, a correct and refined slice of “I,” but should anyone take the affairs of the day,
swallow them, digest them, and then, to use a metaphor that Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay, favored, expel them as by-products of his or her own, they will be banished from the finishing school of fact.
Maybe this is just a reflection of the fact-filled society we live in, where the constant and unabating data onslaught has become a cliché. We are flooded with information, drenched in it, information over all, and this is reflected in the books we read. Never before has there been such a profusion of factual books about some subject,
usually, since 9-11, about war and politics. Books must be serious, must have a purpose, must stand up for, or against, the national defense. And readers must be serious, too, diligently ingesting the proper nutritious doses of fact. (The fact that there are so many factual political books is not undermined by the popularity of fact‟s opposite—the
political screed—since these also purport to be about something topical.) The unspoken argument goes like this: isn‟t it time to leave behind writing that is oh-so private and
precious? Time for a more serious literature? Isn‟t it time we forgo the old bullshit,
leave behind the romantic and personal and creative, and get down to the serious, manly,
buttoned-down work of reading?
To look at the books reviewed in prominent book reviews, which directly reflects the work pushed by the review‟s advertisers, mostly prominent New York publishers, you
would think that the best nonfiction can offer is a series of bolstered book reports, books about some important topic or social issue where there is often, as Boynton says, “an
element of muckraking.” This is a vital service, particularly in this troubled world, but I still can‟t help but feel that something has gone missing. What exactly? I think of
Montaigne again, writing up in his tower study, concerned with his self but something more than his self, writing sentences that now, five hundred years later, still seem fresh. With little strain I can spend some time this morning engaging in a conversation with Montaigne, following his mind through twists and turns that seem a lot like those that my own mind, or your mind, might take. Boynton claims that our best contemporary nonfiction writers are our journalists who follow “the great issues of the day.” But great
issues fade and what is most boring in Montaigne isn‟t his analysis of his bowels so much as his descriptions of the French Civil Wars.
So perhaps, if Montaigne is my guide, I should look to the contemporary essay to try to find what has gone missing. Maybe that‟s the place where I can discover memoir
and journalism mixing it up, where I can find someone sitting up in their study, both
looking out toward the world and looking inward at themself. But when I start searching
I quickly discover that the word “essay” is anathema to New York publishers, even lower
down the food chain than the short story. The few essay collections that get past the gatekeepers are topical, which makes them, to my mind, something less, or at least something different than the type of essayistic writing I‟m looking for. Okay, fine, but
you would think I could at least find essays in something called “The Best American
Essays.” And I do, sort of. There are a few contemplative pieces mixed in there, along
with some articles—the literature of fact again--and straight bits of memoir, and also a different type of writing that I can‟t quite put my finger on at first, a kind of ritualized fetishsizing of everyday objects, like, say, toasters. I also quickly learn that the essays in these anthologies are chosen by celebrity writers like Susan Orlean who, oddly enough, seem to like to choose the work of other celebrities. I do not mind toasters and I do not mind celebrities, but I still feel somewhat empty and I‟m beginning to worry that the only one who can help fill that emptiness is a French guy who has been dead 500 years.
Maybe part of the problem is that I do not read to “learn.” In this I may be an oddball. I mean if I learn incidentally, as a byproduct of my reading, that is great. But it‟s not why I‟m doing it, it‟s not what I‟m digging for. Maybe what I‟m looking for is
less a series of facts than a roadmap, though a roadmap so complex and messy that at first glance it would seem a crazy scribbled maze. Maybe, and this is getting closer to it I think, I want to be pulled forward the way the reader of good mystery novels is. The difference is that the question that drags me forward isn‟t “Who done it?” Rather it‟s “how to be.”
I am edging toward something soft here, toward the spiritual maybe, or at least the moral. Journalism has deep roots as a nonfiction art form. But wisdom literature has
deeper roots. Think the Bible. Think Samuel Johnson clearing the nettles of human chaos with a machete called common sense. Johnson wrote that the chief importance of biography, and by implication autobiography, was finding what could be “put to use” in
our lives. That‟s it exactly. More recently, as specialists sub-divide ever more and sub-
genres split into even more subdued subs, wisdom literature has been shunted off into the ghettos of spiritual writing or, worse, inspirational writing, or, worst of all, the self-help section. But take it out of these ghettos and re-integrate it, through the most capable and artistic of hands, and it can make up a vital feature, and a missing leg, of great nonfiction. I am thinking here again of Montaigne, talking to himself up in his study, working out his, and our, life‟s problems while never settling for anything short of complexity and
contradiction in his answers. And I am thinking of Thoreau, three hundred years later on this side of the Atlantic, essentially taking the Montaignian self-experiment and making it his own, but this time throwing in some trees and rocks.
One thing I would bet my life on: if you could time-machine either of these writers into the present (and grant Montaigne American citizenship) and then have them write in the current idiom, neither would have a chance of being published in Best
American Essays. They are too sloppy, too unfettered, too rambling. “Rambling” is a quality that critics and scholars love to praise in theory in essays, but in practice editors rarely allow any sort of real ramble to stand. Our minds have been trained for nuggets, for articles, for information efficiently delivered. To ramble we need to truly stretch our legs, to stride out without pretending we know just where we‟re going. We need to air it
out, and explore whatever we happen to find, and this is, quite simply, not allowed. “No
Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs dot the modern landscape; we are taught to stick to the path.
Maybe one of the keys here is that neither Thoreau not Montaigne were involved in literary careers so much as they were involved in, as I suggested above, experiments of self. Montaigne‟s work, begun in the 1570s, signaled not just the birth of the essay but
of an attitude, putting the self on display to reveal the contradictions of self, and hoping to achieve, through candor, the intimacy which the essayist Philip Lopate, a great contemporary champion and anthologist of the essay, calls “the hallmark of the personal
essay.” Lopate once wrote that reading the best personal essayists is comparable to going for a ride inside a writer‟s mind, and this is certainly my experience in reading Montaigne. To vastly oversimplify, Montaigne‟s self-experiment involved a deep mining down into
self and then a reporting back to the world of what he found there. His readers, of course, don‟t read him and say “Well, that‟s a fair and accurate report of what Mr. Montaigne was like.” Rather they instantly do what all readers have done since the beginning of reading and put themselves in the protagonist‟s shoes, though in this case the protagonist
is Montaigne himself. In this way they begin to explore their own self shoals and self shallows. “It is philosophy that teaches us how to live,” wrote Montaigne. This sound laughable when we think of philosophy as a college major, disconnected from life, but what if, rather than laugh, we treat this idea seriously?
As for Henry David Thoreau, he externalized a similar experiment by adding the natural world to the mix, eschewing journalism in favor of reporting to a journal “of no
large circulation”--his own. Last fall I taught Thoreau‟s Walden to a class of
undergraduates and they at first reacted, predictably, with boredom and befuddlement.
But it was with something like joy that I started to watch as some of their eyes opened to the fact that, hey, this is stuff I could actually put to use in my own life. And if Thoreau wormed his way into their thinking, it was in no small part because he was so preoccupied with worming down into this own. “The mind is a burrowing organ,” he wrote.
And that‟s just it. That‟s just what I‟m looking for. Burrowing literature. I want
facts, sure, but I also want something that tunnels below the facts. I want to watch a mind in action, a person using his or her mind to work down through those facts, hording the ones they need and tossing aside the ones they don‟t, and, most of all, putting those facts to use. That is what excites me. That is what gets me turning pages.
How can I get so excited about reading writers who at times seem preoccupied only with working out the algebra of their own lives? The standard explanation, which I touched on above, seems to be that by plumbing their own depths, by so well exploring themselves, they let us look into our own selves, and there is something to this. But there‟s more. What we discover when we read, and really interact with, these writers, is
that they are living—yes, still living—human beings who are burrowing deeply into their
own lives and the world around them. They are trying to make sense of both the world and themselves, and they are trying hard. (Why wouldn‟t they try hard? This is their
one and only life!) Why am I so concerned with this burrowing literature? Maybe in part because it‟s so exciting to me. This is the excitement of quest, though this quest is not after a dragon or a pot of gold, but for the answer to a question. That question is a simple one: how to be on earth during our short time here? What should we spend our
time doing? Who should we become? And, that question at the heart of the mystery again: How to be?
These are the questions that keep me on the edge of my seat, curious, rapt, engaged, and if we read these writers for a while we find that these concerns are contagious. By watching their burrowing minds in action, we begin to see that we can burrow, too.
2. The Ghost of James Frey
There are problems with this type of writing, however. One practical challenge, if you write this sort of thing, is getting it published. If publishing is your primary concern then it is best to keep your first person input under wraps, spooling it out at roughly the 5% that the editing cabal has determined is best, and to watch it lest you slip too close to the sloppy and soiled world of memoir. Stick to the facts and try to forget that what human beings are most intrinsically interested in are the lives of other human beings. Be a good boy or girl and stand back deferentially and you will be rewarded.
If you do decide to peek out from behind your fact pile, you may experience some unpleasant side effects. You will find that the puritans, who you might have thought had vacated the American scene a while ago, are still here in full force and not shy about launching into an orgy of tsskk-tssking and finger wagging. And you might also find that,
after you reveal yourself—expose yourself--in your prose, you end up feeling slightly
queasy and ashamed, hungover even. Be assured that that is perfectly normal and also
part of the tradition. One could argue that Montaigne‟s chronicling of his own every
thmove was the closest thing the 16 century had to reality TV, and in fact Montaigne
painstakingly revealed the particulars of his life, including, as I‟ve mentioned, his bowel movements. He may do this with the belief that “Each man bears the entire form of the human estate,” but there is no getting around the fact that he also talks a whole lot about himself. Thoreau, too. Flip open a page of Montaigne‟s essays, or of Walden, and you
will find you are gazing at a forest of “I”s. And not only do these authors talk about
themselves: they are also almost neurotically defensive about it. Montaigne, for instance, can sound like Colombo after a while with all his apologizing, while Thoreau starts defending himself right on his first page: “I would not talk about myself so much if I knew anyone else as well.” (It says worlds that this sentence sounds like an answer to a
judgmental question asked by a stern father.)
Modern essayists do plenty of apologizing, too, (see E.B. White) but since the essay is regarded as a minor player in the literary scene, it does not bear the brunt of the puritan attacks on the first person. It is memoir, standing out front and taking the hits like the essay‟s bodyguard, that takes most of the abuse. In fact, though the work I am describing, the work I love, is not memoir per se, a digression (a ramble) into the current reaction to memoir seems legitimate, given that the forms share many borders and that the best modern essays, like the best ancient ones, employ healthy helpings of autobiography. Of course the scorn heaped on the genre of memoir is out of all proportion to its crimes. For the last twenty years it has been a straw man, held up as a symbol of all that is wrong with literature and the world. Can you believe it? the critics
ask. These people write about—get ready now—themselves. How disgusting. But if