W. Ross Winterowd is a wise and thoughtful reader, and (I suspect) a patient and careful teacher as well. These are, certainly, the chief merits of his explorations in the "other literature," literary nonfiction. In The Rhetoric of the "Other" Literature, Winterowd argues—correctly—that the "facticity" of certain works (for example, the nonfiction novel) has created a subcategory of literature, a "literature of fact," which is regarded as less "true," in the way that "pure literature" is "true," by an academy which is still bound by Coleridge's distinction between primary and secondary imagination, between imaginative and nonimaginative literature.
Winterowd argues forcefully against this dichotomy, chiefly because it is false; the aesthetic qualities of the text are not determined by the categories and labels we use to describe textual design and intention. "Is it not the case that terms such as 'lyric,' 'expository,' 'persuasive,' 'narrative,' and 'descriptive' apply to semantic intentions, not to texts viewed as formal structures?" Thus, the ethical and pathetic appeal of a "nonfictional" text (like Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard) may be as presentational (that is, "literary") as any example of "pure literature." Winterowd shifts the definition of the terms "nonfiction" and "literary" from the text to the reader chiefly through an analysis of the distinctions that [End Page 664] critics like Kenneth Burke and Mary Louise Pratt have drawn between the "lyric" unity of a work, which is thematic, and the "logical" or "narrative" unity of a work, which is created by plot. By shifting our attention to the contractual interaction between text and reader, Winterowd tries to show that in fact the "other" literature does not exist: "the borders between fact and fiction are sharply drawn through 'a contract.' " This contract, which is really a fulfillment of the promise made to the reader by certain "signals" in the text (which are not very clearly described, however), promises that a text will either be mostly "lyrical" or mostly "logical." This equation determines the "literariness" of a work, not its historicity or fact content.
The matter of Winterowd's argument, however, is finally not mainly rhetorical; it is canonical, and even his careful and logical argument does not dodge this political line. In the discussion of Michael Herr's Dispatches, we learn that we have entered the "realm of the lyrical" through which Herr, "like all poets, is confronting the paradox of unsay ability." Is this not another way of saying that "literature is its own truth," an assumption which Winterowd had questioned in the first chapter of the book? One wishes that he had gone a step farther to discuss the canonical purpose of all such distinctions, which is, I suspect, always to elevate art above "reality." I fully agree with Winterowd's conclusions, and I echo his plea that we abandon the distinction between "pure literature" and the "other literature," even though he has left the door open for another equally problematic distinction to take its place. In the end, it is the poignancy and wisdom of Winterowd's readings which I find convincing, and less so his logic.