- What We Talk About When We Talk Nonfiction
I walk down the long hall between my faculty office in one corner of the building and the journal’s office in the opposite corner, but there’s no laughter drifting out of the open door, and when I get there, I don’t find a gaggle of interns sitting around the table, bingeing on gummy bears, trading manuscripts, reading passages aloud, urging each other which to read next.
In fact, when I open the door, sometimes no one even looks up. More often than not, one or two are sitting at the long table, earbuds plugged in, eyes glued to a screen, not talking or even noticing. We’ve transitioned to Submittable, the online submissions management system, which does in fact make many things easier (especially for writers, apparently, because our submission numbers have almost tripled). Reviewing the manuscripts online is also more convenient—as the interns tell me, it means they can get through the 30 or so manuscripts per week at 2 a.m. if they need to.
But I’m having a hard time adjusting.
For one, the kinds of spontaneous conversations that bubble up when you’re reading together in the same room just don’t seem to be happening as often. Those exchanges and corrections and insights that generate richer readings don’t happen either.
For another, it’s a different kind of reading, everyone agrees. You can read a screen well enough to know whether the piece is going to engage you, whether something interesting is happening, whether (as one put it just last week) you are captured enough to make it all the way to the end without taking a break to go chocolate hunting. In a given week, there will end up being maybe five essays of the thirty we read that generate enough interest to warrant a discussion at the Friday editorial meetings. And [End Page v] when it comes time to make a decision—to have the conversations that respond to my question, “Anyone feel strongly enough about this one to make a case for it?”—these reviewers seem to want paper in their hands. Maybe, as one said, it’s because we all love to read, and we’re committed to books. Maybe it’s the tactile pleasure of turning the page, of flipping (not scrolling) back and forth, that’s so tied to the sonorous and cognitive pleasures of the artfully crafted text—so tied that we haven’t (yet) learned to unlink or decouple them.
I don’t mean to be adding another voice to the tired refrains that bemoan the demise of the printed page. There are losses that result from any cultural sea change, and while I deeply yearn, for example, to experience the sounds of a premotorized landscape or to be able to look up at the night sky before the words light and pollution were ever yoked, I have no patience at all with conversations that list off the losses caused by digital media. Nevertheless: I think we’re better readers when we have paper pages to turn.
I’ve just returned home from Flagstaff, where nonfiction writers, editors, students—readers all— gathered for NonfictioNow 2015. It was an intimate party of 400. Compared to the thousands at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, everywhere you went, at every session and every meal, around every journal or press table at the book fair— everyone was talking nonfiction. As someone said to me, “This is our tribe.” Even the Halloween party Saturday night was a fest for nonfiction nerds, and believe me, people celebrated the deeply nerdy with glee.
Fourth Genre skipped the 2012 NonfictioNow conference in Melbourne (the original plan was to hold it every other year, and mostly it’s kept to that schedule): too far, too expensive, the timing too inconvenient. And so I’d forgotten the kinds of conversations that are possible with a gathering of this size and with this focus...
William Bradley, Penny Guisinger, Alexis Paige, and Karen McElmurray talking about the dangerous first person—the very significant consequences sometimes attendant on taking...