- The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction
Despite the increasing number of writers who are turning to nonfiction, there have only been half a dozen or so books on contemporary nonfiction prose. Lounsberry attempts to contribute to this slim corpus by providing a taxonomy for dealing with the works of five writers: Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer. The major merit of The Art of Fact is its exhaustiveness. Lounsberry deals with all the nonfiction works of the five writers and also comments on thematic possibilities of works in progress. Compared with the more sophisticated formal analyses of John Hellman in Fables of Fact and Mas'Ud Zavarzadeh in The Mythopoeic Reality, however, The Art of Fact fails to substantially add to our understanding of nonfiction prose.
Part of the problem here lies in the simplistic nature of the categorization offered. Lounsberry calls nonfiction writers "realtors" and identifies four characteristics of their works: "documentable subject matter" as opposed to "invented;" "exhaustive research"; the use of "scene" or recasting events in narrative form; and "fine writing: a literary prose style." Obviously, any attempt to deal with the formal aspects of nonfiction prose on these grounds is apt to flounder. The author not only maintains questionable distinctions between reporting and narrating, popular and literary writing but also defines "fine writing" in a manner hardly useful for the stated purposes. Lounsberry's association of "fine writing" with the use of assonance, alliteration, and metaphor, for instance, can do little to accomplish the purpose of separating "literary nonfiction from the glut of nonfiction written in pedestrian prose."
There is potential in Lounsberry's attempt to link contemporary literary non-fiction to early prose narrative forms like the "news/novels" of the seventeenth [End Page 349] and eighteenth centuries from which the novel emerged. Thus the most commendable chapter in the book is the one on Tom Wolfe in which the author demonstrates Wolfe's appropriation of the Puritan sermon and his effort to speak as a contemporary Jeremiah single out "specific cultural forms for individual attack." This kind of sustained cultural and formal analysis is, however, missing from most of the book. The attempt to read John McPhee as a contemporary version of Emerson, for instance, is hampered by the author's literal analysis of images. The reader does not gain much cultural insight by knowing that McPhee's interest in Emersonian circles is evident in his choice of writing about basketball and oranges.
The Art of Fact does not provide us with an aesthetics of literary nonfiction but with isolated moments of useful analysis. Readers will be quite interested in the sustained analysis of the rite of passage in The Armies of the Night, the creation of the Whitmanian persona in Advertisements for Myself, and the use of the Jeremiah voice by Wolfe but less so in image of light in Joan Didion's works or in the listing of fathers and sons in Gay Talese's works.