Issue #35, 2008

What's the Story #35

The “L” Word—And All the Rest of Us “Outsiders”

Lee Gutkind

What's the Story #35

In my memoir, Forever Fat, I tell the story of my bar mitzvah, during which I am tortured by the brown wool suit my mother forced me to wear. The wool is itching like crazy and I am sweating so profusely that perspiration from my forehead is dripping onto the sacred parchment of the Torah as I read from it. The rabbi is appalled, as was my mother, who, when she read this excerpt, looked up at me and said, politely but clearly annoyed, “Lee, you have a very vivid imagination.” Both parents insisted that they never bought me that suit, and so the scene I described with the rabbi could never have happened. They were adamant, which made me uncomfortable and guilty—until I ran into Alan Levy some months later. He had read my book.

“I know exactly how you felt,” he said, “because I had to wear that same hothouse of a suit for my bar mitzvah.” Levy’s family had shared a walk-up apartment with my grandparents, a tailor and seamstress. His parents were too poor to buy him a new suit for his bar mitzvah, so my grandmother refitted my old brown suit for Alan to wear, he said.

Of course, I immediately recounted the details of my chance meeting with Alan Levy to my mother, who waved her hand as if she were brushing away an annoying fly. “Alan Levy,” she said, “is crazy.”

“But he says he wore the suit!” I protested.

“No,” she replied, “he didn’t.”

Did he wear the suit or didn’t he? Did the suit even exist? Either way, the experience confirmed what I had long believed—that the factual details of memoir are considerably less important than the writers’ intentions in revealing, describing, and re-creating stories. It is unreasonable to expect memoirists to document every detail of their stories. Even if Alan Levy had not confirmed my recollection, the story I had written was mine, as true as I could make it to my memory, whether real or partially imagined.

I was reminded of this by a recent essay published in Harper’s Magazine about truth and labeling in memoir, “A Lie that Tells the Truth.” In it Joel Agee recounts his struggle to avoid having his books, which he describes as “amphibious,” labeled as memoir and thus consigned to “the purgatory gloom of ‘nonfiction,’” banished from the realm of “that fabled unnamable beast—Literature.”

This need for categorization that Agee finds so uncomfortable seems unnecessary in some respects. While categorization may guide us in our selection of reading material, most readers are simply seeking enjoyment and enlightenment from books—no matter how they are categorized. (The publisher of the James Frey book, A Million Little Pieces, set aside $2.35 million, anticipating disgruntled refunds following the discovery of Frey’s trickery, but only 1,729 people did.) Publishers and newspaper reporters care the most about categorization, I think—not so much readers.

And, as Agee’s agent tells him, even “in publishing circles nowadays the L-word is the kiss of death.”—a statement Christina Nehring would probably agree with. In recent essay online at truthdig.com, Nehring uses The Best American Essays 2007 as a jumping off point to describe what she sees as the lamentable state of the form. She quotes essayist Joseph Epstein and agrees with his overall assessment of the tone of the modern American essay: “middle-aged.” By this, he means (in a good way) quiet. She means “Slow-moving. Soft-hitting. Nostalgic. Self-Satisfied.” And even “eye-crossingly dull.”

Nehring also laments the homogeneity of the writers whose work end up anthologized, and creates a composite portrait she calls the Preferred American Essayist: “Educated at Harvard, he or she had spent significant time at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, written proposals for New York Public Library Fellowships (often lovingly paraphrased in the essays) and received medical attention at Sloan Kettering Hospital. Chances are good she’s a doting dog owner who has done such things as lace her pet’s dinner with [antidepressants] or write gourmet cookbooks for his discerning palate.”

Nehring is making fun, but she’s got a point—the “literary establishment” in America, with some exceptions, has turned into a rather uninspired and predictable group. More and more, the popular American essayists are writing for each other and for other insiders, the type of people Nehring lampoons in her composite sketch.

But these are not the writers you’ll find in The Best Creative Nonfiction. True, this volume does include some writers who were educated at Ivy League schools; some live in New York, and some have attained a measure of insider status and fame— writers like Stefan Fatsis, Heidi Julavits, and Ander Monson. But for the most part the writers published here are outsiders—folks with other jobs, making time to write in between family responsibilities and other passions. They come from all over the country (and a few live overseas), and their perspectives are as varied as the places they call home. K.G. Schneider, a librarian from Tallahassee, Florida, writes mostly technical pieces for librarians, but also essays and travelogues. Hauquan Chau, a Canadian who teaches English in Japan, describes himself as a “modern nomad.” Patricia Brieschke has worked in a fertilizer factory and a five-and-dime store, among other places. Gwendolyn Knapp is a cheese monger in New Orleans. Laura Sewell Matter is a high school teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

It is also interesting to note how many of these writers are at the beginning of their careers. Sewell Matter’s story “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist” was her first national publication. “Spite,” the first piece in this collection, was Anne Trumbore’s first attempt at writing creative nonfiction. Many other writers are currently in MFA programs, honing their craft.

What is different and special about The Best Creative Nonfiction is that we are introducing new voices, at the tipping point of discovery, that are not part of the homogenous, composite world Nehring is so critical of and bored by. The places we found their work are similarly diverse. (All of the pieces in The Best Creative Nonfiction have been previously published except for two, Emily Bernard’s “Figurines” and Pagan Kennedy’s “The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex.”) There are pieces here from some cornerstones of the literary establishment, magazines and journals with rich histories—like Harper’s and The Georgia Review—as well as from younger publications, like The Believer, that have begun to make their mark. Chances are good, however, that you’re unfamiliar with many of the print and online publications from which we’ve pulled stories, among them Eclectica, The Big Ugly Review, Etude, Willow Springs, and Obit. You probably don’t subscribe to PMS poemmemoirstory, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Swink, or even Creative Nonfiction, but if you did—and perhaps you should—you would see that there’s an expansive and ever-increasing body of literature out there in the hinterlands, far beyond the pages of The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, where writers are capturing the tone and spirit of our country and many parts of the world, in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and in forms which defy categorization. The creative nonfiction pieces in this collection represent power and vitality of the rising tide of these voices and the scope of its achievement and impact. They demonstrate the versatility of this genre we call creative nonfiction.

The week after Nehring’s critique appeared online, the Chronicle of Higher Education published “Creating Nonfiction,” an essay by Rachel Toor, a creative writing teacher from Spokane, Washington. In it, Toor rehashed the overworked debate about why creative nonfiction is called “creative nonfiction” and not “narrative nonfiction” or “literary nonfiction.” This is a subject that has been beaten to death over the past couple of decades—yet never seems to die. Toor summarized the usual answers: “Narrative” and “literary” are problematic because (1) some brilliant, beautiful nonfiction is simply not narrative, and (2) no one has the power to determine what is literary and what is not (the “L” word again).

But Toor pursues the subject with dogged repetition. She also squeezes in a sarcastic reference to “James Frey and his ilk,” a group that includes, according to Toor, Annie Dillard, who referenced a cat that did not exist in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; Bruce Chatwin, who may have never met in Patagonia some of the people he described; and David Sedaris, recently outed by The New Republic as “a maker-up of things.” Toor also goes after the difficulties with the word “nonfiction,” pointing out that the word causes us to be “defined by what we are not.”

Ultimately, Toor’s complaint boils down to this: “I don’t like the ghettoization of nonfiction from literature”—which echoes Agee’s concerns about the narrowness of labels. Both writers are well meaning, earnestly telling readers what they think, and attempting to motivate readers to think more deeply and analytically about their ideas and vision as it relates to a subject for which they have a great deal of interest and passion. Which is exactly the reason creative nonfiction has become so popular, so quickly—it allows writers to declare themselves in the most passionate and revealing way possible. When you read the work of creative nonfiction writers (whether or not they have been stamped with an “L” of approval), you not only learn about the subject being discussed (walking across Andorra, egg donation, the burial of the “N” word), but you also meet another human being, a real person, a writer searching for meaning, identity, insight, and courageous enough to share his or her angst and passion with the world.

Speaking of angst and passion and sharing with the world, as in volume one, we’ve included voices from the photosphere, selecting blogs that, while generally rough around the edges, are thrilling in their immediacy and intimacy. Our blog editor, Kathleen Tarr, went on a crazy, endless search she calls “bloginfinitus.” “I got so deep into linking and clicking that I completely lost track of where I was and how I got down certain cyber paths,” she told me. “And this is part of the blog experience, isn’t it? You follow one narrative and then another and another and before long, you’ve just connected with an eclectic group of humanity across the globe.”

Many of the blogs published here were discovered by Hattie Fletcher, managing editor of Creative Nonfiction and Jessica Fischoff, a graduate student intern. And coordinating editors Hattie Fletcher, Dinty W. Moore (who edits his own online journal, Brevity) and Jessica Mesman Griffith (Hattie’s predecessor at Creative Nonfiction), screened all of the approximately five hundred pieces nominated this year for The Best Creative Nonfiction. We worked together quite diligently—for months!—in order to winnow the mass of nominations and blog entries down to the pieces you find in this collection.

And then we added one more special feature: statements from the editors of the publications from which our selections have been taken. We are pleased to identify them here—and praise them. It is easy to forget that editors, often anonymous, are the vital link, the connective tissue, between writers and readers. Editors help writers focus their messages and hone their identities. Writers don’t say much about editors one way or the other, and critics don’t say anything at all, unless they feel that the editing is uneven or shoddy. There are few awards, special fellowships, teaching positions, or studios in art colonies for editors. But in the end, it is an editor’s touch and insight that shapes and defines what the “L” word is really about.

Author Bio

Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the founder and editor of Creative... read more

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