Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The "Writing" Essay

I just finished reading the Spring 2011 issue of Gulf Coast (I'll probably put up a review a little bit later on) and there was one specific essay that has been bothering me: "Nobody's Friend" by Molly Giles. The essay is about how Molly wrote an essay where her daughter and granddaughter show up as characters, and how her daughter--even though she was presented positively in the story--swears she will never forgive her mother for it. The essay explores typical memoir territory (do we have a right to tell other people's stories? Do we ask permission to write on certain subjects? James Frey, libel, etc) and how it applies to Molly's particular experience as well as writers everywhere.

There was nothing particularly wrong with the essay, and maybe this is my editorial impulses talking, but it didn't feel right appearing in Gulf Coast. I wouldn't mind if this article had showed up in Poets & Writers or some similar venue, but showing up in a literary journal felt somehow inappropriate.

Here, I should admit my bias: it's not that I dislike writing "on writing," but I hate when it appears in literary journals/creative venues. Admittedly, it is mostly (if not entirely) writers who are reading literary journals, but that doesn't mean we should be publishing work that would be of little to no interest for a casual reader. I think literary journals should be pushing in the opposite direction--looking for ways to bring in readers from outside of academia--and the inclusion of writers writing about writerly subjects feels incredibly insular.

Writing this, I feel like I'm being a bit harsh on Molly, and I don't mean to be, but I am wondering what y'all think about the "on writing" essay: does it belong in literary journals? If not, where is the appropriate venue? Does publishing this type of nonfiction close off the genre from the mainstream?

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Nonfiction Reading List

I was just reading this post over at HTMLGIANT and it occurred to me that I've seen a lot of these lists for fiction, but I've seen very few nonfiction equivalents (and, to be honest, those lists all seemed fairly inadequate in terms of variety of styles/gender/ethinicity/nationality/etc).

Anyway, the last week of my nonfiction workshop is next week and I'm going to try and compile some type of master reading list over the next few days to give them all as a going away present. With that said, I'm not nearly as well read as some of y'all here and I'm wondering: what books you would include if you were making a list that adequately covers the entire spectrum of creative nonfiction?

Post your lists/ideas in the comments section or email me and I'll make a master list that I can share with anyone who's interested.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Georgia Review – Bringing the Finest Writers to the Best Readers

At first glance The Georgia Review looks like the type of journal you'd want to spread across your living room coffee table: glossy, showy, and professionally constructed with attention to the finest details, a journal almost worthy of holographic Christmas giftwrap. The cover of every issue is artfully decorated with paintings, sketches or photographs that beg passersby to pick them up. Inside, the magazine only gets better, as one would hope. Each issue—approximately 175 pages in length—contains essays, fiction, poetry, book reviews and, of course, more eye-catching art (the Spring 2009 issue, for example, subtitled Culture and the Environment—A Conversation in Five Essays, contains a painting of bikini-clad woman cowgirl-straddling her hunky boyfriend on top of a motorcycle while wearing an American flag helmet—need I say more?). Not only does each section contain several submissions—except art, which only displays one artist per issue—varying from one to forty-something pages, but they reap with quality: recent issues contain essays by Albert Goldbarth, Lia Purpura, Scott Russell Sanders, and Barry Lopez; silhouette art by Kara Walker and poems by Stephen Dunn and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, just to name a few. Don't be discouraged to submit your work, though, as the journal claims to debut between one and five new authors every issue.

As nonfiction goes, the essays range from the academic, literary-types—Anne Goldman's “Questions of Transport: Reading Primo Levi Reading Dante,” Spring 2010—to straight forward memoir, as in Reg Saner's “Back Where the Past is Mined,” Spring 2008. At 35 pages, Saner's essay recounts his Korean War tour as an army soldier, focusing heavily on his self-diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and often drawing comparisons to returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. But his essay is not just a psychiatric analysis of war but a funny, insightful case study on what it means to wear a soldier's boots during a “Forgotten War.” He writes about all the expected war-related themes—machine guns, booby traps, blood and death—but he also provides stories that will make most readers laugh, cringe and turn away simultaneously, leaving the essay with a nauseating smile and puckered asshole. In one anecdote, Saner tells of how he always carried the most recent letter from his stateside girlfriend in his helmet, an ubiquitous habit in all combat zones. During a nasty drought when his soldiers drank oily water used to cool machine gun barrels and toilet paper supplies ran low, and with what he now thinks was a serious case of hemorrhoids, Saner resorted to using his girlfriend's love letters to wipe his behind because the feathery paper she used comforted his bleeding asshole. Thankfully, warfare technology has improved in the past fifty years, so now soldiers fighting the war on terror feel the cool caress of moistened baby wipes and not college-ruled paper.

In another issue (Summer 2009), Judith Kitchen uses her mother's 1930s European travel journal as the basis for a researched essay. Although the essay is eerily reminiscent of Louise Steinman's wonderful book The Souvenir, Kitchen's essay, titled “True Heart”, reconstructs her mother's post-adolescent European travels from her mother's diary entries, sometimes guessing wildly to decipher the meaning of what seems more like coded hieroglyphics than prudent record keeping. The essay, which contains photographs of her mother and actual scans from the pages of the diary—both of which provide a nice visual supplement, focuses on her mother's possible love encounter with a man known for most of the essay only as “True Heart.” Throughout the essay, Kitchen presents herself as her mother's cheerleader, rooting her along as she meets True Heart—a polite, Yale educated Southern gentleman—and engages in a sexy relationship after only a few days. One aspect of the essay that I found especially interesting, beside her mother's inscription “2 Ys U R, 2 Ys U B, I C U R, 2 Ys 4 Me,” was a scan from a boarding ticket given to Kitchen's mother after boarding a United States-bound ship on her return home. The ticket, a warning against contraband possession, lumps tobacco and cigarettes with heroin and other chemicals that in today's America would secure you a prolonged stay in one of Arizona's grimiest jail cells. From what I can tell, passengers carrying heroin, tobacco, or firearms only needed to report their contraband to ship officials; contraband confiscation is not mentioned on the warning flier. Rounding off at 28 pages (including pictures and scans), Kitchen presents the reader with an insightful, passionate essay about a daughter trying to understand her mother's early life—a read worthy of every page.

Although it's tough to judge the quality and scope of a journal from a handful of essays, The Georgia Review appears to be a top echelon publication, the type serious writers should gravitate towards. Perhaps the journal's only vice is that they do not accept unsolicited manuscripts between May 15th and August 15th, but I imagine this is typical of most literary journals. And at $8.25 per issue (with subscription), The Georgia Review really delivers “the finest writers to the best readers.”