Read an Excerpt
Scott Russell Sanders
There is a kind of writing that begins from the impulse to make things up, to invent a situation and see how it unfolds, to create characters and see what they do. Since around 1600, such writing has been called fiction, from a Latin root meaning "to feign" or "to counterfeit." In making fiction, the writer freely goes wherever imagination leads. The only requirement is that the counterfeit be sufficiently compelling to engage the reader's attention from the first line to the last.
Writing may also begin from a contrary impulse, not to make things up, but to record and examine something the writer has actually witnessed, lived through, learned about, or pondered. Such writing can range from history and philosophy to manifestos and memoirs, from the formality of footnoted tomes to the pizzazz of slangy blogs. What all such writing has in common is faithfulness to some reality that the writer did not invent -- to a shared history, to real people, to actual events, to places one can visit, to facts one can check. For better or worse, this wildly diverse range of writing has come to be called, by contrast with the freely invented kind, nonfiction.
Dividing the realm of prose literature into fiction and nonfiction is clumsy at best, rather like dividing the realm of animals into birds and nonbirds. It might be technically correct to describe giraff es and june bugs as nonbirds, but it would not tell us anything about giraff es or june bugs, or birds. Nor is it useful to lump together a four-volume saga of the Crusades and a four-page celebration of croissants under the single label of nonfi ction. Judging from the earliest citations of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary, the label was imposed by nineteenth-century librarians, who began dividing their books into the twin categories of fiction and nonfi ction (originally with a hyphen). I suspect they did so, at least in America, to emphasize the portion of a library's holdings that were solid, sober, useful, uplifting, and, above all, true, such as encyclopedias and repair manuals and religious tracts, as opposed to the romances, poetry, mysteries, fantasies, westerns, pirate adventures, thrillers, dime novels, and other frivolous books that wasted readers' time and corrupted youth and made no mill wheels turn.
Whatever the origins of the nonfi ction label, the publishers soon picked it up, and then so did bookstores, critics, and teachers, and now, clumsy though it may be, we are stuck with it. One virtue of the term is that the sly little prefix non- implies a promise -- that such literature is neither feigned nor counterfeit; it is answerable not merely to the writer's imagination but to a world beyond the page, a world that precedes and surrounds and outlasts the act of writing.
Of course, these two contrary impulses -- to freely invent a world or to report on the actual world -- rarely exist in pure form. Fiction must draw on the familiar world if it is to be comprehensible, and nonfi ction must draw on the writer's imagination if it is to come alive. Ask a roomful of writers how far a work may be shaped by imagination before it no longer deserves to be called nonfiction, and you'll receive a roomful of answers. Most likely all will agree on the necessity of choosing, from the myriad of possible details, those that are essential to the story and leaving out the rest; many writers will accept the filling-in of memory's blank spaces with vivid details; some will permit the merging of incidents or characters to streamline the account; and a few will claim the right to add, drop, change, or invent anything that enlivens the work.
While we may debate where the line should be drawn, at some point along that spectrum, nonfi ction gives way to fi ction. When a writer crosses over the line and still claims to be off ering nonfiction, it's usually for the sake of selling more books. Why does it sell more books? Because, in a culture awash with phoniness, we hunger for authenticity. We're so weary of hucksters, talk-show ranters, ideological hacks, inane celebrities, sleazy moralists, and posturing politicians that we long to hear voices speaking from the heart rather than from a script. Amid so much fakery, hypocrisy, and outright fraud, we long for the genuine. Knowing this, television producers manufacture "reality" shows, filmmakers promote movies as "based on a true story," and some authors, with the connivance of their publishers, fabricate a sensational tale and call it a memoir. In a culture besotted by marketing, we shouldn't be surprised by such deceit.
Dressing up a fabrication as a true report is not essentially diff erent from costuming an actor in a white coat to peddle a drug or wrapping a military invasion in the fl ag to make it appear as a blow for freedom. Lying to sell a book is not as serious an off ense as lying to sell a drug or a war, but it's a lie nonetheless.
Beyond insisting on the writer's responsibility to a world outside the page, the nonfiction label doesn't tell us much. To think and speak in a more precise way about this rich array of literature, we need more precise language. Just as we have names for a host of animals, from aardvarks to zebras, that might be grouped under "nonbirds," so we have names for many species of nonfiction: biographies, profiles, travelogues, spiritual writing, sports writing, science writing, literary journalism, documentaries, speeches, letters, memoirs, and essays, to list a few.
Of all these nonfiction species, the most versatile and exemplary is, in my view, the essay. This quirky and inquisitive mode of writing was named, and more or less invented, by a sixteenth-century Frenchman, Michel de Montaigne. He derived the name essai from a French verb meaning to make a trial of something, the way one assays an ore to determine its value. The term suggests an experiment, a testing, a weighing out. For Montaigne, an essay was an effort to make sense of life -- not the whole of life, but some confusing or intriguing portion of it. Thus he wrote about the pleasures of idleness and the rigors of old age, about cannibals and warfare and thumbs. His motto was, "What do I know?" Read ironically, that question is self-effacing, as if to say, "Who am I to have an opinion on such matters?" Read straight, the question challenges the writer to discover what, at this moment and within the inevitable constraints of ignorance, he takes to be true -- about himself, about our baffling existence, about the universe. It's not coincidental that Montaigne invented the essay at roughly the same time as Francis Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, and others were inventing the modern scientific method. Instead of relying on scripture, mythology, astrology, or past authority to explain the workings of nature, scientists conducted experiments. They formulated a hypothesis, carefully tested it, published their results for others to confi rm or refute, and then went on to create a more refi ned hypothesis. Since it is a collective endeavor in a way that art rarely is, science might take as its motto, "What do we know, and how do we know it?"
Experiments in language are messier than experiments in laboratories, because words do not parse the universe as neatly as numbers do, but the spirit behind both kinds of experiment is the same: to discover a tentative truth. For the essayist as for the scientist, the truth must be tentative rather than final, because further inquiry may deepen or clarify or overturn our understanding. The essay is not the only kind of literature that seeks to discover and articulate provisional truths about our existence. Poems and plays, stories and novels, along with other kinds of nonfiction do so as well. But the essay seems to me the purest expression of this impulse, which is why I call it exemplary. With a lineage stretching back five centuries and including such noteworthy practitioners as Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, and James Baldwin, the essay has enjoyed a flowering in our own time. It is a wide-open form, skeptical and reflective, lending itself to humor as well as solemnity, well suited to an age of multiplying possibilities and dwindling certainties. Readers as well as writers are drawn to the form because it allows for an examination of our most powerful and bewildering experiences. The worthiest essays are ventures into the unknown, from which we return bearing fresh insights and delights.
We are a question-asking animal. Th at is our burden and our glory. It's a burden because, unlike creatures governed entirely by instinct, we puzzle over how to behave, we wonder about where we've come from and where we're going and what, if anything, the journey means. This inveterate questioning is also our glory because it leads to our finest achievements -- to physics and philosophy, to poetry and painting, to cosmologies and essays -- to all the ways we ponder and praise this life, this universe, into which we've been so mysteriously born.
Copyright © 2007 by Lex Williford and Michael Martone
Since my coeditor, Michael Martone, and I had already decided to use a sophisticated democratic online survey of teaching writers for the second edition of The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, we thought that another survey like it might also be an excellent opportunity to poll teaching writers about the most compelling contemporary nonfi ction they've read and taught in their creative writing workshops and their composition and literature classes. Thus began the long, arduous process of publishing the first edition of the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction.
Not long after September 11, 2001, Simon & Schuster's David Rosenthal described to Edward Wyatt of the New York Times what he saw as a recent trend in the reading public away from fiction to nonfiction: "If there's any theme, it's that people only want to read the truth." Following the attacks on the World Trade Center, Rosenthal continued, "readers flocked to nonfiction works." Since the James Frey scandal that began the public debate about the ethical boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, between memory and imagination, this trend, if anything, seems to be accelerating.
Speculation about the causes of this rise in nonfiction's popularity has been wide and varied. In Many Mountains Moving, one of the many small literary magazines now regularly publishing creative nonfiction, writer and editor Naomi Horii tells interviewer Andrea Dupree, "Good creative nonfiction has always been important in literature -- take Thoreau or Laura Ingalls Wilder." As journalist Deanna Larson of the Nashville City Paper speculates in an interview with creative nonfiction guru Lee Gutkind, "Only 50 years ago, Americans didn't talk much about their personal experiences or impressions.... But that culture has changed. Readers crave compelling stories about real events that tell them why they should care."
While the rise in the reading of nonfiction by the general public is understandable at such a volatile point in history -- the end of a millennium during radical global change -- it mirrors a similar increase in the number of creative writing programs now teaching the writing of the so-called fourth genre, literary and/or creative nonfiction.
As our survey and anthology bear out, many poets and fiction writers are transforming traditional nonfiction through lyric, scenic, and structural innovations into something altogether new, raising complex questions about "the truth" in its relationship to literary perception and point of view, blurring the lines between "faulty" memory and the vividly rendered details of the imagination that fill in those gaps.
It is an interesting, important time to be reading nonfiction.
Whatever the reasons for its rising popularity, according to the Associated Writing Programs Official Guide to Writing Programs, creative nonfiction is now widely taught alongside courses in poetry, fiction, drama, and screenwriting in the more than three hundred writing programs across the United States and Canada, and the number of creative writing programs advertising for new nonfiction teaching positions has risen significantly over the last decade. Furthermore, as the selections in this anthology suggest, many of the country's most gifted poets and fi ction writers are also writing remarkable, compelling nonfiction.
Perhaps because of the increased interest by the reading public and the growing number of students reading and writing nonfiction, literary journals such as Gutkind's Creative Nonfiction and Michael Steinberg and David Cooper's Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction have proliferated. Despite the rise in books on the writing of nonfiction, however, there are still surprisingly few affordable nonfiction anthologies for professors and students to use in their nonfiction classes and workshops.
For this reason and others, the original premise of The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction -- to create the highest-quality, most affordable anthology from a democratic selection of teaching writers in universities across the United States and Canada -- seemed a perfect starting point for a new anthology of nonfiction, especially when, along with the stunning rise in the costs of a college education over the last decade, the costs of anthologies have almost doubled, some anthologies selling for well over $50 in college bookstores.
Assembling a low-cost, democratically selected anthology like the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction can do much, we hope, to help make the costs of an education more within reach for students and still bring to a wider audience the most compelling contemporary nonfi ction written over the last thirty years.
The Online Surveys
For the month of July 2006, we conducted two separate online surveys of freelance and teaching writers for the second edition of The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction and the new Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. After a long, arduous search using many sources including Google, the Poets & Writers Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers, and many university and writers' websites, we obtained the names and email addresses of more than two thousand poets, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, and journalists, those with well-established reputations as well as those at the beginning of, we hope, distinguished careers.
From this pool of writers, we received survey responses from just under a hundred, many of them distinguished nonfiction writers, fiction writers, and poets, who nominated a total of more than five hundred essays based on the following two questions:
What short essays published since 1970 would you most like to see in an anthology of contemporary creative nonfiction? (In other words, what essays do you most often photocopy and bring to discuss in your creative nonfiction classes?)
Why do you read or teach these essays? What specific technical or thematic concerns do they best illustrate?
At the end of July, we collated the survey's complex results and ranked the essays. Then after several months and no small difficulty in locating the nominated essays, I emailed the same writers who had nominated them to find out where they had found them. Within a matter of days, I'd received stacks of essays via email, snail mail, and fax. It was a remarkably generous response, and we're grateful to all who saved us countless hours looking for essays in small literary magazines and other difficult-to-find publications.
"You've got to read this," everyone told us, and we did.
The nominated essays we've included in this anthology are ranked in this order: Jo Ann Beard's "The Fourth State of Matter" (seven nominations); Thomas Lynch's "The Undertaking" (four); Annie Dillard's "Living Like Weasels," Phillip Lopate's "Portrait of My Body," Tony Earley's "Somehow Form a Family," and Sue William Silverman's "The Pat Boone Fan Club (three each); and Jamaica Kincaid's "A Small Place," Anne Carson's "The Glass Essay," Cheryl Strayed's "The Love of My Life," and Michael W. Cox's "Visitor" (two each).
Choosing among the remaining essays that received a single nomination was incredibly difficult, but the result is, we hope, an anthology that includes a remarkable range of voices unlike any nonfiction anthology we've ever seen.
We live in a time a time of big lies and little lies -- one president under fire for lying about sex, another for lying about war -- and people are hungry for "the truth." Ask any journalist, essayist, fiction writer, or poet, and he or she might say that striving after truth, the journey itself, is at least as important as the arrival, if not more so, and more often than not it simply raises more questions. Strive as we might for "the truth" -- for some certainty about it -- there are at least as many truths as there are those who believe what they want to believe.
And the rest of us? What can we do? Read everything we can and try to decide the truth in it.
Whether we like it or not, we'll always be stuck with the "factual" truth of observation, faulty memory, and its imaginative interpretation -- the fact that, even in physics, just the observation of a quantum event can change it -- but the best nonfiction writers take all this as a given. Impatient with lies, especially the lies they tell themselves, they give intelligent, critical readers greater freedom by asking questions about the emotional and psychological truths that matter. They try to tell their stories as truthfully as possible, and then they say:
This may not be exactly what happened, but it's exactly how it felt.
-- Lex Williford Copyright © 2007 by Lex Williford and Michael Martone