Friday, August 12, 2011 9:49 AM
“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. ... Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?”— E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel
In Berlin, pretty Berlin, in the spring time,
You are never not wondering how
It happened ...
— Robert Hass, “Bush’s War”
If I knew, even roughly, how Berlin died, I would lay out the facts in a chain of evidence. And if I had a theory, however tenuous, about the city’s post-mortem life, I would argue it straight up: major premise, minor premise, conclusion. As it is, even the rough arc of exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement feels a bit shaky at best. But I can tell you how it feels, in July, on a sunny day late in the month, at the end of my twelve-week stay in the world’s strangest city.
I’m in Berlin for one reason: to explore how fact and fiction might profitably be collided together. I’ve been in town since early spring, teaching a seminar on that topic at the Freie Universität, with two dozen students from all over Germany who were born knowing more about the topic than I can ever presume to teach them.
The course is an experiment, probably not a great thing to try while a guest in a foreign country. But I’ve always wanted to explore, in a classroom, how factual argument and fictive projection, set side by side, might triangulate into places that neither can reach alone. Shaw may be right that “The sign of a truly educated person is to be deeply moved by statistics.” But natural selection has shaped us to be moved mainly by things on our own private scale. Discursive argument models and projects, producing tremendous leverage, but without a hook that hits us where we live, facts rarely compel us to change our lives. Narrative imagination can twist our guts and shatter our souls, but it’s mired in local fates that must be small enough to look familiar.
Suppose, though, that you yoked the two together. Thought and feeling, argument and stories, statistical analysis and good old twists of the viscera: these two inimical modes, played off of one another, might produce a kind of deep parallax, tricking the mind’s eye into turning those two skewed planes into the illusion of three dimensions. I’ve come to Berlin to test the idea in a live clinical trial.
In class, we’ve read many strange and unclassifiable things, works that hover somewhere between factual knowledge about the world and fictional embodiment of the world’s would-be knowers. We’ve read Julian Barnes’s idiosyncratic but entirely reliable biography of Flaubert, told by a wholly unreliable fictional biographer. As Barnes’s invented mouthpiece meditates on either Emma Bovary or his own shadowy wife: “Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this.”
We’ve read Paul Broks’s chimerical excursion, Into the Silent Land, with its collage of neuroscience, clinical case histories, memoir, philosophical essay, and bare naked short story. Broks’s essays prove that there is no Self, no master narrative holding us together; but his fictive personal memoir can’t escape having one. The brain is condemned to think that it’s a soul, and to describe that impossible hybrid state, Broks says:
One has to be bilingual, switching from the language of neuroscience to the language of experience; from talk of “brain systems” and “pathology” to talk of “hope,” “dread,” “pain,” “joy,” “love,” “loss,” and all the other animals, fierce and tame, in the zoo of human consciousness.
My students have swallowed every bastard hybrid genre I’ve thrown at them. Fictocriticism, mockumentary, staged reality, Borgesian simulated lectures, psycho-journalism, unattributed sampling, hip-hop mashup, real actors playing imaginary authors making pixelated media appearances while selling brutally frank memoirs filled with the slightly altered real-life experiences of some other, dissembling author. My sales pitch has worked so well with this group that, by the end of the semester, I’m appalled at what I’ve unleashed. James Frey, J. T. LeRoy, lonelygirl15, COPS and Survivor and America’s Next Top Model: bring it all on, my German students say. The blurrier the better. They have grown up in a world that laughs at the very distinctions that I’ve come here to challenge, and in class, they regard me with affectionate pity for my quaint belief in the existence of boundaries that a writer might still hope to exploit by transgressing.
Read the rest of Richard Powers' essay
Places at Design Observer >>
Image by Frank Schirrmeister.
Friday, October 15, 2010 10:52 AM
It’s easy to get discouraged about the state of the environment, but the book A Reenchanted World by James William Gibson, published this spring in paperback, offers some succor to despairing souls.
Gibson meticulously builds a case that we are in the midst of “a wave of spiritual interest in nature,” a cultural shift that finds us treasuring human-animal connections, untrammeled landscapes, and all of nature’s vast wonder in our films, books, media, and personal lives. Writes Gibson:
The current change is much broader, deeper, and more varied than what has come before. Virtually every part of contemporary culture, from the highest realms of science, theology, art, and literature to the mundane world of commercial television programming, has experienced its revolutionary influence. … The ultimate goal of this sweeping change, which I call “the culture of enchantment,” is nothing less than the reinvestment of nature with spirit. Flatly rejecting modernity’s reduction of animals, plants, places, and natural forces to either matter or utilitarian resource, the culture of enchantment attempts to make nature sacred once again. …
People respond to the culture of enchantment because it offers them something they need (and cannot find elsewhere in consumerist America): transcendence, a sense of mystery and meaning, glimpses of a numinous world beyond our own. The spiritual connections made to animals and landscapes almost invariably lead—often intentionally, sometimes not—to a new relationship to nature in general. And nature perceived as “sacred” is allowed to exist on its own terms, for its own sake, valuable simply because it is there.
Source: A Reenchanted World
Image by suburbanbloke, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, September 02, 2010 2:57 PM
Thanks to the new book Cycling—Philosophy for Everyone, I now have a term to describe the state of mind I achieve on my daily bicycle commute. This passage comes from the essay “Becoming a Cyclist: Phenomenological Reflections on Cycling” by Danish philosophy professor Steen Nepper Larsen:
The standard bike is a piece of low tech, the nearly divine epitome of sustainability, and an absolute necessity when cities have to be rethought and redesigned without the present profusion of noisy, space-hogging, energy-consuming cars. In contrast to several years of gasoline-engine monotheism and tailpipes, the cycling polytheism will open many possibilities of otherness and gliding unpredictable processes.
The trajectories and escape routes of the bike do not follow the flows of commodities, money, and capital. The mobility of the bicycle reminds us much more of the old dream of being as free as a bird in the sky than a trip on the discounted economy expressway that commodifies our experiences. The freedom of the road contains much more than the modern, “creative,” self-managed workplace and is much richer than the freedom to consume. It is possible to accelerate your bike, but at full throttle it ironically contributes to a deceleration of the accelerating technologies of globalization. Cycling is an alternative version of rich global communication. Far from the Net, the PC, and the mobile phone, the life-world of the cyclist becomes saturated by the senses and overwhelmed by the physical and climatic reality “out there.” No protective walls or phantom digital walls to lean on. Below the helmet one is happy to enjoy what other people might consider to be empty and dead commuting time to be traveled at the speed of light, while moving from destination A to destination B. The biker knows that the road taken is more important than the goal. It’s no fun getting there if the getting there is deprived of quality and lacks adventures. The Germans have an expression for this fertile time-in-between: Zwischenzeit.
Larsen’s essay is one of the high points of Cycling—Philosophy for Everyone, which like every bike ride contains some uneven territory. The volume spills too much ink on Lance Armstrong and on bike racing in general for my tastes, and calling some of the material “philosophy” is a stretch. Still, almost any type of literary-minded cyclist will find something to latch onto in the book—food for thought during your next Zwischenzeit.
Source: Cycling—Philosophy for Everyone
Friday, February 12, 2010 5:21 PM
The lines between fiction and nonfiction are blurring and giving rise to a new form “that we might call ‘true fiction,’” writes Alissa Quart in Columbia Journalism Review. Quart sees examples of this phenomenon all around, including Dave Eggers’ brilliant book What Is the What, which tells but also takes a few liberties with the tale of a Sudanese “Lost Boy”; the forthcoming graphic novel A.D. by Josh Neufeld, which depicts post-Katrina New Orleans; and even The Hurt Locker, the war film that is presented as fiction but is based on an original nonfiction magazine article.
Quart is quick to acknowledge that the fiction-nonfiction hybrid isn’t all that new, but she contends that writers well known for mixing the two, like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, “imagined their work to be a certain kind of journalism.” Members of the newer breed, she notes, “seem to be backing away from categorizing things as ‘true,’ even as they are also rethinking what nonfiction is and can be.”
The new anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, Quart writes, even makes the case “that some works long considered fiction are actually closer to this hybrid form,” and she quotes from a piece by the anthology’s editor, John D’Agata: “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?”
Coincidentally, it was a recent story by D’Agata in The Believer that left me confused about what was information and what was art. In “What Happens There,” D’Agata traces the final moments of Levi Presley, a 16-year-old who killed himself by jumping from the top of the 1,149-foot-high Stratosphere Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
The writer does several things at once: In the guise of a reporter, he attempts to penetrate the wall of silence surrounding suicide in Las Vegas, which has the highest suicide rate in the nation year after year. Wearing a memoirist’s hat, he interweaves his own experiences in the city, where he briefly lived to care for his mother. And as a facile prose stylist, he attempts to vividly convey the sights, sounds, and smells that Presley might have encountered as he walked toward his deadly jump through the sprawling casino complex.
I was immediately drawn in by D’Agata’s deft, artful writing, and yet as the tale unfolded I was stopped cold at several junctures, mostly because as a journalist I had certain expectations about what I perceived as, first and foremost, a piece of journalism. To wit:
• The story begins with the glaringly vague time reference “one summer,” yet anyone with Google at his fingertips can learn that Presley committed suicide in 2002. Why not place the story’s main event in time for the reader? When is one of the six key story components in classic news journalism—components that are, ironically, the organizing principle of D’Agata’s new book About a Mountain, which includes the suicide tale.
• After meeting with Presley’s parents to discuss their son’s death, he writes, “At some point, it came clear while I was visiting the Presleys that in fact I had not spoken to their son the night he died.” I first read this as a jarringly understated admission, delivered almost as an aside, that he had misrepresented himself to the parents in order to meet with them. Ethical red flags were flying all over the place before I figured out elsewhere—via his book’s jacket notes—that D’Agata himself had believed he might have spoken with Presley on that fateful night. Maybe fans of the new “true fiction” will read right past this, but for me this was a major stumbling block.
• D’Agata pays a private investigator $400 for “vital information” about Presley that he’s unable to ferret out himself, and rather than praising the investigator’s ability to dig up these details, he feels compelled to coyly note that she “had a smoker’s voice, a barking dog and screaming kids and Jeopardy on in the background” when he called her. Yeah, and she probably was overweight and wearing ridiculous slippers and sucking on a Bud Lite. D’Agata clearly has a keen eye for detail, but extending it to someone who’s basically helping him report the story, with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge dose of classist disapproval, gave me a shudder of discomfort.
• D’Agata is able to get only one local official to go on the record about the suicide, county coroner Ron Flud. The coroner seems like a pretty straight-up guy—“a finder of facts,” he calls himself—who invites D’Agata into his office and expounds insightfully on the taboo of talking about suicide. But apparently this still isn’t enough for D’Agata. He calls Flud out for not answering a question about whether a suicide jumper is likely to lose consciousness in a fall, then proceeds to relay, in a self-serving writerly flourish, several things that Flud did not say.
• Someone who knew Presley hangs up on D’Agata when he asks personal questions about the deceased. But we don’t know who because the writer doesn’t tell us. The conversation is transmitted as a terse, paraphrased exchange with no context or explanation. Literary, yes, but mystifying.
• Finally, D’Agata appears to have never visited the suicide victim’s memorial website, which has been online since 2005. Here he could have gleaned several intimate details about Levi Presley—details not mentioned in the article—from reminiscences written by friends and family, and he could have learned the names of several sources to pursue for his allegedly hard-to-find interviews. He also would have learned from the entry by “Mom” that Presley’s mother called him her “precious Boomer”—from “baby Boomer”—not “Booper,” as D’Agata writes.
In the end, the story seems to be a case in which a creative writer took on a semi-journalistic task, in the process taking liberties that some audiences may enjoy (James Wolcott of Vanity Fair certainly did, calling the story a “show stopper”) and that others may find confusing, distracting, or journalistically dubious.
If we are indeed entering a new world of hybrid literary journalism—one in which, Quart writes, “we are seeing nonfiction freed from its rigid constraints”—I for one hope we remember that some subjects, like a teenager’s suicide, seem to demand a deep and abiding respect for facts and clarity. At first impression D’Agata appears to be honoring the memory of Levi Presley by speaking the unspeakable—yet by the story’s end, at least to this reader, he appears to have done just the opposite.
Source: Columbia Journalism Review, The Believer (subscription required), Vanity Fair
Image by Marcin Wichary, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, January 22, 2009 8:15 AM
Barrelhouse is currently holding its “Barrelhouse Invitational: Office Life Edition.” The DC-based journal invites “cubicle drones to submit your fiction, essays, and poems about the highest highs and lowest lows of the disproportionate amount of time you spend in an Office Of Some Sort.”
According to the hilarious and snarky Interoffice Memorandum (pdf), your account of office life doesn’t have to resemble Dunder Mifflin, but still should have some relation to the official theme. “Barrelhouse understands fully the nature of the flexible situation vis a vis the modern office environment, in that this circumstance is increasingly flexible. . . . Therefore, submitted works of literary merit need not seek to portray said topic in a strictly cubicle-defined locality, but rather should ideally represent the mindscape of The Office in the broadest and most effective terms deemed appropriate for each specific work of literary merit.”
Submissions are due by March 1, and winners will be published in Barrelhouse #8, released in June 2009.
Tuesday, November 04, 2008 12:47 PM
BART [mocking a man with a ponytail]: Look at me, I’m a grad student. I’m 30 years old and I made $600 last year.
MARGE: Bart, don’t make fun of grad students. They’ve just made a terrible life choice.
JACK: We may not be the best people.
LIZ: But we’re not the worst.
JACK and LIZ [in unison]: Graduate students are the worst.
Mocking the idea of graduate school is a pastime enjoyed most, it seems, by grad students themselves. That’s true for me, at least, having recently completed a Master’s of Fine Arts program and masochistically relishing every joke about the usefulness of those extra three letters on my resume. The feeling among many fresh out of grad school, especially in the arts, is equal parts accomplishment and ambivalence: “Well, I’m glad I did that. What the hell do I do now?”
April Bernard makes a more measured case against graduate school in “Escape From the Ivory Tower” (excerpt only available online) in the Fall 2008 “Ways of Learning” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. Actually, to say she is “anti-graduate school” is not entirely accurate; rather, she provides sound reasons why graduate school isn’t for every person—or every discipline. Speaking from her experience with an unfinished English PhD from Yale, Bernard describes the tedious seminars, sexist milieu, and post-structuralist myopia that characterized her time there.
Bernard’s essay doesn’t brim with the same elitist contempt for her own students as Lynn Freed’s infamous anti-MFA screed, “Doing time: My Years in the Creative-Writing gulag” (subscription required) published in Harper’s in 2005. Rather than penning a haughty manifesto, Bernard advances an argument about pedagogy, teasing out the reasons why the humanities aren’t always best served by the kind of highly specialized postgraduate study brought to bear on other fields, such as science or business.
The essay serves as a reminder that education can be found outside the classroom, and good writing beyond the workshop. For her own part, Bernard has made her peace with academia: By publishing poetry and fiction, she’s secured a job teaching writing to undergraduates, circumventing the advanced degrees that retain their stranglehold on the faculty hiring process. Based on her wit and nimble prose, I’d say her students are lucky to have her, even without that almighty graduate degree.
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