Rediscovering Nonfiction

by Salvatore Pane

A few weeks ago I was at a multi-genre reading with segments of fiction and nonfiction. I sat. I listened. I thought about how cultured I was. And I was utterly bored, especially during the creative nonfiction components. It was mostly navel-gazing and that genre I hate more than anything in the entire world: “Memoir of a Privileged, White Twenty-Something”. Ok, I guess that’s slightly better than “Memoir of a Privileged, White Twenty-Something Who Goes To The Third World and is Enlightened Spiritually”.  I sat there scowling and thinking about how much I used to love CNF back in college when I enjoyed literary journalism as well-deserved respites from devouring novel after novel after novel. I sat there thinking how I no longer cared about the genre.

In a workshop class I’m taking, writer Cathy Day has us thinking about “the negative cultural and critical reaction to personal nonfiction writing vs. its popular/commercial appeal”. It’s interesting that in an era of publishing history when nonfiction greatly outsells all facets of fiction that CNF, particularly the memoir, is under attack. Check out Taylor Antrim’s tirade on The Daily Beast. How about Maud Newton’s slam over at the LA Times? Two big name authors who swung through Pittsburgh both discussed how much they disliked CNF: Lorrie Moore and Aleksandar Hemon.

I can only speak to my own experience. I’m not a huge reader of the genre. I’m very often bored by memoirs, especially if the writer isn’t famous or hasn’t gone through something exceptional. I don’t read nonfiction for assurance that I am not alone in the universe and that there are others out there like me; that’s why I read fiction. These are my favorite works of CNF: On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner. Lives on the Boundary by Mike Rose (light pedagogical theory). Portions of Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (a pedagogical biography).  No More Vietnams by Richard Nixon. Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman. A Tragic Honesty: The Biography of Richard Yates. And New New Journalism, a fantastic collection with long, informative essays by writers as varied as John McPhee and Hunter S. Thompson.

I bring these up to illustrate a point. The Rumpus recently ran an interesting article about why people read nonfiction. It quotes John D’Agata who asks, “Do we read [nonfiction] to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?” I think this is the fundamental sticking point in the nonfiction debate. I’ve looked at my shelves, thought about this question and my own instinctively negative reaction towards memoirs. Clearly, I’m not reading nonfiction for art. No one who lists the prose of Richard Nixon as a favorite could possibly be looking for art, and it’s now obvious I value the genre for its ability to distill and disseminate information.

So to sum up: I think that a bunch of leather-elbowed professors and critics sitting around trying to decide whether CNF is a bankrupt genre is silly. It’s different from fiction. The two genres aren’t in competition with one another. People whose natural instinct it is to chide CNF are probably just coming at it from a different viewpoint: they’re not looking to experience voice, or sometimes even emotion in nonfiction; they’re looking for (at times clinical) information. And if that’s your primary motivation for reading nonfiction, it’s difficult to really compare it to fiction in any favorable way. Nor should you.

Advertisements