Another guest blog post, this time by fiction and nonfiction writer Lydia Paar.
Literary Journal Review
When I initially started this project, I was looking into the magazine Creative Nonfiction, produced by Lee Gutkind, to see what kind of work was in it. After I read a few of the pieces, however, I decided most of them, while well-written, were in the traditional memoir vein, and I wanted to see what kinds of other things were out there. I picked up an old (Spring/Summer 2006) copy of Subtropics and was attracted to what I saw as a deliberate non-distinction between fiction and nonfiction throughout the magazine; works were not classified or titled for us by genre, they simply stood alone. Some works, I could tell were nonfiction either because of the content of the piece or the tone, and others, I thought could probably be either fiction or nonfiction and still hold value for the reader for both learning and entertainment. I have decided to parse a few of these pieces apart to discuss the way they work and give an illustration of the wide variety of work accepted by Subtropics in the loosely nonfictional form.
The first essay I immediately identified as nonfiction is by Harold Bloom, and seems to be an interesting mix of historical/biographical content on Hans Christian Andersen and his peers crossed with cultural/literary commentary. Bloom’s tone is interesting—this piece, called “Trust the Tale, Not the Teller: Hans Christian Andersen,” does not read like a typical scholarly essay. Bloom does not shy from the use of the “I” or “you,” and his own voice comes through aggressively, perhaps overbearingly, and he makes a lot of assertions and assumptions about literature (and Andersen and other authors) I find rather…unfounded: “JK Rowling and Stephen King are equally bad writers…” (38, from his opening statements).
He goes on to dissect six of Andersen’s children’s tales, as he says he will, but not with limitations around focusing on the tales alone—he reads very much into who Andersen was as a person via the details he interprets in the tales. The format is very discussion-esque, in that Bloom moves from tale to cultural commentary to personal commentary on his subject (Andersen, more so than his works, I think) in a meandering way, and the quotes he uses from the tales are huge (one takes up almost two pages).
Again, as I read, I found more and more tumbling and unsupported assertions: “Andersen, whose project was to remain childlike, tapped into the energies of the sexual past and derived from them the verve and pace of his art” (47). I assume from Bloom’s incredible critical stature that he must have reasons for making the kinds of broad claims that he does, and at the same time I find it interesting that he assumes his readers will read enough of Andersen (and Freud, Kierkegaard, Whitman, and others he mentions) to validate or disqualify his arguments in their own minds. It seems most unusual to me that a critical giant would write a largely unsupported essay, and yet here is the place for it: a magazine that does not advertise itself as academic, but primarily creative. And surely, Blooms authoritative and still conversational voice contributes to his ability to be trusted by the Subtropics reader.
Another interesting piece is entitled “Grasscolored: A Threat Documentary,” and it’s by Anne Carson. Now, this piece is very short (one and a half pages) but written in such a dense and unconventional way it took me twenty minutes to make it out. It begins:
Little tough ones, some taller than others…There is no reason for you to wonder about this. Keep listening. Keep glancing out at the driveway…little grasses…in time can overtake the whole driveway and how strange this voice you don’t recognize is using your name, talking about you in the third person. Very bad accident…He? You? No ladders go up to this moment when you perceive the second person cut from the third person within you…you didn’t know the blades hung in your mouth (20).
WTF? Parts of speech all over the place, and how is this about threat, specifically? Well, it isn’t yet, but the piece goes on in a very strange, impressionistic way to rotate around the concept and emotional impact of feeling “threatened.” It reminds me of the scaffolding piece from Next American Essay, only maybe even less cohesive. It reminds me of those fabrics you can’t afford at the yarn store where there’s more negative space than fabric, and the fabric that is there barely hangs on, like the frayed rope on a fisherman’s net. And yet, the piece has appeal, if only because it is a puzzle, mental chewing gum, and one can spend an inordinate amount of time trying to tell if it’s “fake” or not, to disprove the validity of it, to dispute whether or not the structure really holds and constructs the meaning we expect or don’t expect (it’s like a game).
The third piece I’d like to discuss is the most typically memoir-ish in its construction, but it, too, is done in a slightly unusual way that seems to linger between formalism (the defining and rational discussion of terms and ideas) and story/poem/unfounded artistry. This is by Kent Annan, entitled “Sketches of Scarcity,” and is divvied up into sections, each titled by “Scarcity of…(fills in the blank with a different term: Birth Certificates, Pocket Money on the Morning Commute, Pride, Medical Inhibition, etc.) (24-33). The content under each caption is written differently: some in first person, story or anecdote form, some in second person, as in instructions, some in third person with a random but seemingly relevant anonymous subject. I haven’t figured out the significance of the rotation in perspective entirely, but it seems to lend itself toward keeping the readers’ attention and taking it from a fresh, new place at the start of each blurb. It’s also more sensory than all the other pieces (one might even say “lush”), and includes more facts, statistics, historical and personal event than either of the two other pieces. Go figure. This one had the effect of making me very wary at first (memoirs make me wary on principle, as I myself am aware of the self-indulgent purging the writer can attain and the risk of pushing: “look at this, my story is so important, it is so big, it is so deep, blah blah blah). I was especially wary since this was about Americans traveling (for godssakes, will we ever stop traveling and spitting out our two cents about third-world cultures?). However, I found the unique form snapped me out of my skepticism long enough to read, and in the end, I did learn a lot about Haiti.
The pieces, I think, certainly each had a place in this magazine, and I tend to think their juxtaposition with works of fiction and poetry did them a justice, as did their forms (unconventional) and their “unlabelledness.” Here, genre-crossing has had the effect of slipping new information or at least questions into my mind where, if they’d been presented in conventional form, I may not have been forced to pay such hard, careful attention to them. I tend to see this as a success both in collecting/selecting and in presentation on the part of Subtropics, and have sent a piece of my own work (“Spirit String,” revised) to the magazine, in the hopes that it may be included in an interesting and actively unusual issue as well.