Portrait of His Body
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Portrait of His Body

Genres people love to hate

People who express blanket distaste for contemporary creative nonfiction in any given decade are usually fixated on trends in one of two subgenres, memoir or personal essay, and they usually have one or both of the following reasons: 1) that people have a tendency to tell (self-serving) lies, or 2) that they’re (self-centered) windbags going on and on about trivia, displaying nothing more significant than their own tics and hobbyhorses. “Who Cares? Except Your Mother” was the title of a talk I once attended by Natalie Kusz, author of Road Song (1990). A memoirist herself, Kusz was of course not dismissing the whole concept of memoir, but trying to say how to do it right, to articulate memoir’s potential to speak meaningfully to a great many reading selves having no prior attachment to the author.

Anyway, could there be anything more self-centered and self-aggrandizing than fiction? Memoirists at least attempt to depict themselves interacting with people other than themselves, navigating through a world not of their own making; conversely a fiction writer says to us, “Here, spend some time inside a pretend-world I created myself, populated with characters I invented myself and plot events I invented and put into an order designed to manipulate you into certain psychological states. I’ll just feed you the pretend-information a bit at a time while pretending I’m not here.” Who cares about that? Except your mother.

No, actually, I love fiction, but it has to be outstandingly well crafted before I find it more engaging than reasonably proficient nonfiction. And I’m not atypical: the appetite for nonfiction is primal. Consumers of narrative care deeply whether an account presents itself as describing actual events and people, or made-up ones. If this were not the case, why bother to end so many crappy movies with that stark black screen and those white words floating in quiet authority: “Based on a True Story”? That it really happened automatically ratchets up a story’s emotional impact, and the fact that this opens us humans up to exploitation by all manner of shoddy or dishonest craftsmen, demagogues, and spinners of urban legends does not mean that the predisposition itself is contemptible or naive.

Based on is a license to lie,” I tell my students in Intro to Creative Nonfiction. “Moviemakers like that are trying to have it both ways: they get to claim the emotional power of reality and still make stuff up at will.”

In this “post-truth” political era, there have been articles and articles about people’s imperviousness to facts that disrupt their ideological commitments, their willing embrace of “news” sources that can easily be shown to be highly dubious. But even that doesn’t mean people don’t hanker for accurate accounts of things as they really are; it just means it’s not the only thing we hanker for. We also prefer to be morally comfortable. We want to be on the right side of an issue already, not to have to go through an endless process of fact-checking, interpretation, and soul-searching.

Sturgeon’s law

There are not many fiction writers who tempt me, proportionate to the sum total of all published fiction, but it stands to reason that in any artform, most practitioners and most productions are going to be average. Sturgeon’s Law (you can google it): “90 percent of everything is crap.”

By the same token, proportionately, we really only need a few fine memoirs or personal essays to uphold the value of those genres.

It was suggested to me that I concentrate particularly on Lee Gutkind and Phillip Lopate in the writing of this piece. The two are not philosophically similar: Gutkind recommends writing nonfiction that reads like fiction and uses the techniques of fiction; Lopate speaks of the centuries-long traditions of the essayistic personality who doesn’t disappear into the mimetic scenery but stays right there with us on the page, keeping us company. Nothing against Gutkind, nothing against scene-based, action-oriented narrative nonfiction, but, well—that subgenre is plenty healthy...