Issue #0, Online Only

Context

Why It Matters

Jill Talbot

Context

On October 22 of this year, I discovered “The Facts of the Matter” via a Tweet that read, “apparently meta is the new big thing in nonfiction” with a link.

Wait. Scratch that.

I discovered “The Facts of the Matter” in my e-mail inbox in July of 2010. I received it in response to a query letter I sent to the writer, asking her to submit “an unpublished story/essay” for an anthology I was editing. Notice that slash. It’s everything you need to know about “The Facts of the Matter.”

But first, some context: The link on the tweet took me to the journal TriQuarterly, which had just published “The Facts of the Matter,” prefaced by an editors’ note that began: “When we received this anonymous nonfiction submission it caused quite a stir.” The editors raised questions particularly focused on the submission’s genre: “A memoir? Essay? Craft essay? Fictional autobiography?” TriQuarterly encouraged readers to respond on their reader reaction page. One reader boldly presumed the writer to be John D’Agata then a day later retracted: “It is not John D’Agata.” Other readers responded by raising issues regarding the narrator, and the writer’s metaphor for falsifying facts in nonfiction, and, of course, someone invoked the name of James Frey.

The next day, October 23, David L. Ulin, the book critic for the Los Angeles Times, published an article online about “The Facts of the Matter” which began, “What is the relationship of truth and invention in literary nonfiction?”

The next day, Ariel Bogle, a publicist at Melville House, wrote about it for the MobyLives book blog, focusing on the facts versus fiction issue, and I began, with dismay, to see that the majority of reader response to “The Facts of the Matter” centered on “The Truth of the Matter.”

Three days into the internet frenzy of FB links, Twitter RTs, and “hey, you should read this” e-mails, Bark: A Blog of Literature, Culture, and Art’s addition to the conversation had a similar start: “The essay focuses on fact and truth in creative nonfiction.” The comment section alone is its own essay.

By October 30, Jess Stoner, a recent graduate of University of Denver’s doctoral program in creative nonfiction, had added a post to her blog. It begins: “God help me, but I’m going to invoke Sarah Palin and call ‘The Facts of the Matter’ a form of gotcha essaying.”

Two weeks after TriQuarterly’s “The Facts of the Matter,” Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog published  “As a Matter of Fact: A Roundtable Discussion about Anonymous’ ‘The Facts of the Matter’ and Truth and Craft in Nonfiction,” arranged, in part, by Brevity managing editor Sarah Einstein, and featuring Anonymous, Matthew Ferrance, Ned Stuckey-French, and Sonya Huber.

On November 30, the Brevity blog featured the second half of the roundtable discussion, “Reality is Sly, People are Complicated.” Isn’t that the truth, I thought.

In the TriQuarterly introduction to the piece, the editors note: “We thought [“The Facts of the Matter”] was worth publishing for the issues it raises.”

Funny thing: so did I, when I accepted it for that anthology. But the issues the anthology raised and the issues that the TriQuarterly publication raised were different ones, and as the debate about “The Facts of the Matter” went viral, I felt as if something were missing from the discussion: Context.

In Part II of the Brevity roundtable discussion, Anonymous suggests: “Perhaps it would be best if I introduced the essay, which was written in response to an invitation that I received to write a ‘meta-nonfiction’ for an anthology that was published earlier this year.”

Not exactly true: the query I e-mailed to potential contributors in April of 2010 opened with this: “Last week, David Shields, author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto reviewed Ander Monson’s metamemoir Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, positing, “The memoir is dead. Long-live the anti-memoir, built from scraps.” Shields, in Hunger and beyond, adores pieces, fragments, arguing that it’s where memoir is “at,” (and that the novel has died. Again.) but I hold up my hand to ask, can we . . . take a closer look at fiction and nonfiction before we completely dismiss one or another or both altogether?” I asked contributors to “muddy the genre waters” with new pieces in order to distinguish, question, essay. What I received cohered toward a theory of nonfiction—toward—as contributors self-consciously wrote blends of fact and fiction in order to address what nonfiction is and does.

Let’s forgo the discussions about truth and anonymity and focus on the facts of the matter—and one of those facts is that I, as the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, asked “Anonymous” for something akin to a genre-collage, and “The Facts of the Matter” is what she sent in response to that query.

In my introduction to Metawritings, I explain, “The genre of each piece is not identified (at least not by me) so that discussions and contemplations may arise regarding genre.”

My introduction follows a prologue by Pam Houston, who notes, “Sometimes [fiction and nonfiction] collapse inside each other like a Turducken. Given the failure of memory. Given the failure of language to mean. Given metaphor. Given metonymy. Given our denial. Given our longings.” Exactly. We’re almost seven years out from James Frey, and it’s my opinion that we get over our million little hangovers. Allow John D’Agata to perform the essay of “John D’Agata.” We owe it to the genre(s) to engage in more labyrinthine, nuanced discussions of it/them.

Houston also addresses the attempts of language, and in the anthology I ask David Lazar to respond to her admitted inability to believe in “language’s ability to represent the world as it really happens.” He answers: “I don’t think essays represent. They present.”

Instead of photographs, we post Instagrams. Nuanced, altered images. Discussion of truth in genre should not focus solely on the ways in which the image has been filtered, but instead peer into the viewer of the kaleidoscope. Turn the band on the end and watch the fragmented colors overlap, change, blend. Kalos: from the Greek beautiful, eidos, meaning form; and scopos, which means watcher. Kaleidoscope, the beautiful form watcher. Perhaps I should have titled the anthology The Beautiful Form Watchers.

The original title for Metawritings was (Meta)Writing in (Non)Fiction. (Gad.) It was intended as metonymy for the blurred associations within its pages. Depending on the variables, the title changes: Metawriting in Fiction. Writing in Nonfiction. Meta Non. On and on. (Kaleidoscope).

When I queried the editors at the University of Iowa Press, I had just read The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 Issue. I wrote: “The June 28, 2010 issue of The New Yorker features a story by Nicole Krauss entitled “The Painters”: a writer is told a story at the end of the evening by her host and retells it through her own writing. Within the story, the writer grapples with the fiction versus nonfiction aspect of the story and by doing so, Krauss adds to the burgeoning offerings of metawriting in current literature.” The anthology, I assured the editors, would grapple, too. But it would do so much more. “Metawriting,” I wrote, “would be the only anthology of its kind to include essay AND story (they are not mutually exclusive) in a self-reflective anthology.” And I explain “my attention to the meta-quality of fiction and nonfiction, as writers address, in their own genres, just as they eschew genre boundaries, exactly what it is they are writing.” (italics added here)

I wanted to create a genre-defying anthology that also captured our current self-referential culture, the FB and Twitter hyperawareness that records what any of us is doing at any given moment. I wanted the anthology to be “lively,” not just a collection of published pieces placed side by side in alphabetical order. I wanted writers to be on the page and aware that they were on the page and that they were sharing that space with other writers.  In addition to the pieces, I interviewed all the contributors to extend the conversation of the genre(s) and to allow the writers to interact and respond to each other, thereby adding another layer to the meta-quality of the anthology.

The order of the pieces further added to this self-reflective quality. When a writer offered a nod in a direction, I followed that up with a writer who not only was headed in the same direction but would take the reader all the way there.

Now I can get to “The Facts of the Matter.” I needed to build the layers of contextual introduction first. Hopefully, you’re still with me.

How I framed Anonymous’s “The Facts of the Matter” became imperative because it was a hybrid piece, what the author describes in the anthology as “a persona piece. … The speaker of the piece is an invention (a composite of things others have told me and my own observations and life—in short, it’s a fiction), a fiction intended to suggest the trouble that comes of making stuff up in nonfiction.” (Oh boy.)

The piece before “The Facts of the Matter” is by Cathy Day, who explains in her interview, “Fictional techniques [‘Creating a narrative persona. Dramatizing scenes the writer didn’t witness. Re-creating dialogue. Revealing the interiority of their subjects’] may have been used, but the reader can trust that the work is truthful. Since I am almost never able to abide by this contract, I . . . check the ‘fiction’ box, when it’s necessary to check boxes.” On the next page, a quote from Anonymous precedes her piece: “Fiction is a wonderfully flexible form . . . but when it comes to bearing witness to the troubled world in which we live now, I turn to nonfiction.” (She turns to both in what follows.)

In my interview with Anonymous, I asked about her anonymity. (Her identity is revealed in the interview. Want to know?  You can find out here and support a university press at the same time.) She answered: “It’s hard to resist turning the question back to you: would it matter if I were [my name]? Do such facts matter to a piece of nonfiction, and if so, how? Does it alter how we read the piece to know that I may be a woman?”

Turn the page, and you find Sarah Blackman’s “The Girl is a Fiction.” Yes, I meant to do that. And even more so because of its first sentence: “Once a person has been a girl, it’s hard to write about the subject.”

In her interview, Blackman explains, “Everything I wrote about in that essay actually happened, but I don’t care if it did or not. Which is the real joy of writing without worrying about genre.” So, in three contributors, we move from checking boxes when necessary and a nod to the fictional technique of “creating a narrative persona” to just that in Anonymous’s insistence of fealty to facts via fiction, and we keep dissolving genre-lines with a writer who feels free from “worrying about genre.” I don’t think these three writers are in agreement, and I’m not saying which one(s) I agree with or disagree with, just as I avoid such commentary in the anthology. I’m the editor, the interviewer. I let these writers offer their own theory toward nonfiction. To highlight Lazar’s point, I present.

As the editor and presenter of Metawritings, I believe that the re-publication of “The Facts of the Matter” and its online reaction altered the anthology’s focus to issues of truth, and that’s unfortunate. I agree with Robert Root, who commented on the Brevity blog, “Generally speaking, I find discussions of truth in creative nonfiction the dullest, least necessary conversations to have about the genre.” I agree, though I will make an exception for David Lazar’s Truth in Nonfiction: Essays (University of Iowa, 2008), which, in part, inspired me to aspire to Metawritings. Turn the kaleidoscope—the variegated issues of nonfiction (hopefully) become more complicated with every new essay that’s written, every memoir that’s published.

(When the writer first sent “The Facts of the Matter” to me, she asked if I thought the narrator sounded male. I told her I had assumed it was female—I also thought, an anthology with female-on-female rape? This will be groundbreaking—and I offered to send it to a trusted writer friend via e-mail to get his opinion. She wrote back immediately, insisting I not do so as she had been once been burned by her work being sent online, and she didn’t want her writing to be subsumed. Ah, the irony.)

In the interview which follows “The Facts of the Matter,” Anonymous declares, “Ultimately, the real victim here . . . is factuality itself, and the reader, who is played.” Without that nod to her work’s own manipulation, the writing loses its proposed meaning, it seems. I return to Houston’s mistrust of language and add to it one of
Anonymous’s rules for writing: “Don’t believe what you’re told, which of course includes what I’m telling you now.” Following her “persona piece,” that rule resonates, and in adding that rule, the piece comes to life, like a kaleidoscope. Without it, perhaps not so much, maybe.

“Context is everything,” Jonathan Lethem writes. I concur.

Author Bio

Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded:  Women and Addiction (Seal, 2007); the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions... read more

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