1. Brief Q&A With Self
The new B.J. Hollars anthology is finally out. Blurring the Boundaries it’s called. Subtitle: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction.
Why is there always a subtitle? Why don’t titles just give us enough to know what the book is about? Novels never seem to have this problem.
Because like the genre itself, the titling is a blend of art and information. The title is the art; the subtitle is the information. It’s a conceit that mimics the genre. You’re so dense sometimes.
2. Good Things Come From Pudding:
Hollars: “While I was in graduate school, Dinty W. Moore swung by my university to teach a three-day class on the nonfiction short-short. Prior to his visit, I’d never really tried my hand at nonfiction writing, but when the three days were up, I was captivated by the genre.
“One afternoon during his visit, Dinty and I were plowing through some barbecue at a local rib shack, and somewhere between the sweet tea and the banana pudding it occurred to me that while I suddenly wanted to study every essay that stretches beyond the normal limits of nonfiction, I didn’t know where to begin. Sure, I knew a few names—D’Agata, Shields, Monson, Biss, and my mentor Michael Martone—but I didn’t know where I could find these kinds of genre-bending essays in a single volume. So, with bbq sauce dripping from my face, I said, “Dinty, if I solicit you for an anthology would you contribute a piece?” He said Sure. I said Great. Then, to celebrate, we ordered some more banana pudding.
“All in all it was a 2-3 year project.”
3. I suppose the question really is: Do we need another essay anthology? Another essay anthology touting lyric essays and “exploring” the slip from truth into personal truth into personal revelation into claptrap?
Sure. Why not? Trees are a renewable resource. Also, I’ve noticed you really like the word “claptrap.” I suspect your projecting your own insecurities.
Don’t change the subject. How many essay anthologies does one need to be happy?
How many essay anthologies do we own already?
Six, I think, so we’re almost there. But anyway, each anthology offers something different. For instance, this new one features some writers we weren’t familiar with before: Brian Oliu, Naomi Kimbell, Paul Maliszewski, Wendy Rawlings…
Are we a better human being now, having been exposed to these writers?
I believe so, yes.
But how so exactly? Besides more names, and so more books piled onto the already teetering piles of books-we’ve-just-absolutely-got-to-read, really, what is this anthology doing for us? What is it adding to our life? Isn’t there enough “blurring the boundaries” claptrap out there already? Isn’t this conversation, you know, like so 2012?
4. Pogs Too Were Pretty Cool For About A Year:
“Yeah, I’m not sure this ‘blurring the boundaries’ phenomenon (if in fact it is a phenomenon) is anything new. In fact, these boundary-pushing anthologies seem to be flooding the market. It’s like suddenly people can’t get enough of this wonderful weirdness. Maybe that’s proof that there is some traction to this sort of thing, that this is more than a flash in the pan. Then again, pogs were pretty cool for about a year… Let’s just hope genre-bending essays don’t go the way of pogs.
“I would never be so bold as to claim that I’m offering anything new. Writers have been blurring the boundaries, probably, for as long as we have had established boundaries to begin with. In Amy Hempel’s story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” there’s a great line in which one of the characters remarks, ‘Did you know that when they taught the first chimp to talk, it lied?’ I’ve always loved that line, probably because I’m pretty convinced humans (or at least nonfiction writers) suffer from a similar inclination. Now, maybe we’re not lying entirely, but we’re certainly shaping a version of truth that’s most convenient for our work. I used to be the guy who slammed his fist on the table and promised, ‘Every word here is true!’ Now I’m the guy who shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘I tried to make every word here true, but what about all the words that aren’t here?
“This is the long way of saying that my anthology should not be confused for a manifesto. I am not calling for the destruction of everything that has ever come before. Quite to the contrary, I think the essay form has an incredibly strong history. All I’m asking is for writers of nonfiction to envision new structures and styles and strategies that might allow for an innovative approach to storytelling. Sometimes I like to naively believe that the nonfiction writer’s struggle to home in on ‘true truth’ is just the result of our inability to approach it from the proper trajectory. As if maybe if we were given the perfect pitch, at the perfect velocity, and we swung the bat forward at the perfect angle, then maybe, we could knock truth out of the park.”
5. There’s a conspicuous absence of D’Agata in here.
You mean foxy Fox Mulder’s kid brother?
I think that joke’s getting old.
I don’t think it’s a joke.
Anyway, we should ask Hollars ‘bout that.
6. Foxy Fox Mulder
“To be absolutely clear: I am not the trailblazer; I’m just the guy who didn’t want to walk the trail alone, so I solicited 20 writers to amble into the forest alongside me.
“I certainly solicited John D’Agata. He was probably the first person I asked (after my barbecue-fueled fever dream with Dinty). But I get the feeling he’s a busy guy, and when I never heard back from him, I figured he was overwhelmed with other projects. Also, since he’s already edited some incredible nonfiction anthologies himself, I figured my own might be viewed as a ‘competing’ book, though I’m likely flattering myself.
“It’s funny you refer to Lifespan of a Fact as ‘brouhaha.’ I get what you mean. Few nonfiction books test the limits of these boundaries so fearlessly. And as a result, whether we liked the book or hated it, we’re nevertheless talking about it. I think the conversations that come about as the result of books like Lifespan of a Fact and David Shields’s Reality Hunger do a lot of good for the genre just by existing.
“I’m currently at work on my own genre-bending book (I call it a ‘hybrid text’) in which I attempt to ‘faithfully’ report 100 stories about local drownings. But of the 100 dispatches included in the book, only 75 are actually reported faithfully. The other 25 are complete fabrications. I never differentiate between them though, and I’m curious how this uncertainty affects the reading experience. That is, if a nonfiction writer promises unreliability…what then?
“D’Agata does a great job bringing this point (and points like it) into clearer focus. My own humble efforts to continue these genre experiments are likely a reflection of my own continued grappling with all the questions I still don’t have answers for.”
7. Anyway, these days, I’m not even really interested in the question of truth or Truth or to what degree we’re blurring the boundary between nonfiction and fiction. I’m more into exploring the boundary between nonfiction and poetry, which this anthology does sort of implicitly, in that a lot of the essays included are so-called lyric essays. These days, that seems like the more interesting boundary we're encroaching on.
Is no one else worried about essayists usurping poetry’s literary righteousness? The day an essayist wins an NEA grant in poetry, the world is going to end.
A lot of essayists have won NEA grants in poetry, you poop. A lot of essayists are poets. Essays have a lot in common with poems. Maybe essays are poems?
I think it’s more like that old saying, “All rectangles are parallelograms but not all parallelograms are rectangles.”
Are you suggesting that all poems are essays but not all essays are poems?
I think I’m suggesting all essayists are squares.
Anyway, what does our man Hollars think about all of this?
Who’s Hollars again?
B.J. Hollars, you doof, the editor of the anthology we’re looking at. Remember too how much we enjoyed his book Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America. It’s still on our mind, months later. It’s moving stuff, as in, you know, it really moved us. Maybe you should read it again?
Hollars says what?
8. Parallelograms May Or May Not Be Essays
“I think we in the nonfiction world often find ourselves blathering on about the blurring lines between nonfiction and fiction, but it’s easy to overlook the overlap between nonfiction and poetry, which is equally of interest to me. In fact, what some people call the nonfiction short-short others might deem a prose poem. Where’s the line?
“As I was soliciting writers for the anthology, I made a point of trying to include poets as well. For instance, while we know Beth Ann Fennelly mostly for her poetry, her essay “Salvos Into the World of Hummers” provides a pretty strong case for how one’s use of poetics can translate quite easily into the essay form. I’ve always been jealous of poets. I’m convinced their precision of language makes them the most versatile writers.”
9. Any last first impressions?
This anthology isn’t marketing itself as tub reading.
For sure—this anthology is not a shoulder massage.
It ain’t no Tana French novel.
Still, I would say I enjoyed it. Eula Biss’s “Time and Distance Overcome” is an old favorite. Ditto Steven Church’s work here. Wendy Rawling’s epic essay of General Hospital. Monica Berlin’s “The Eighteenth Week.” There’re lots of fine essays, essays fine in their own right. Life improving-type essays, if you know what I mean.
That said, Saturday morning, don the robe, pour the coffee, slink towards the hammock—with Blurring the Boundaries?
Probably not. Really, this book seems meant for the classroom.
We spend the first month of our Intro to Creative Nonfiction class just trying to convince students that “essay” doesn’t mean “5-paragraph critical analysis.” It’s a trick to convince people that to write creative nonfiction really means you can DO ANYTHING.
Caveat: as long as it’s interesting enough.
For sure, yeah, true. And I imagine this particular anthology would help move that conversation forward a lot. Here, we get—
Kim Dana Kupperman assembling fragments; Biss & Maliszewski stacking facts and experiences into essays not unlike impressionistic paintings; Ander parsing via outline, as in essaying in outline, essaying outlines; we get Kimbell with footnotes and a page of references; Dinty W.’s essay is ostensibly “Four Essential Tips for Telling the Truth in Personal Memoir and Securing That Blockbuster Book Deal”; Michael Martone gives us his text in a single right-aligned column that mirrors (or at last suggests a mirroring of) the paralysis that has left one side of his face unresponsive; Marcia Aldrich dissects a mother-daughter relationship via a series of definitions of “trouble” that break down in metaphorically rich ways. And there’re more traditionally-styled essays, too.
This anthology makes obvious the many ways that form can accentuate content.
The ways form can add to content.
Form is content.
You can say anything—that’s what we tell our students. You can write anything. And you can use nontraditional, unconventional forms. So try a new form, we tell them. Just try something different. And see what happens. Usually, the world cracks open a little bit.
These essays here lead by example.
We already teach Martone’s Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction don’t we? Is Blurring the Boundaries going to replace it on the syllabus?
Maybe eventually. I imagine we’ll put them both on the syllabus, at least for while. The Touchstone is farther reaching, but the tighter focus of Blurring is useful too. And every piece included in Blurring the Boundaries is also accompanied by a Behind-the-Scenes mini-essay. And there’s a stack of essay-specific writing exercises at the back of the book. It’s a useful practitioner’s anthology, for sure.
10. Essays Are Not Frogs, Says B.J. Hollars in the Introduction, Possibly in Response To: “Why aren’t there any frogs in this book, yo?”
“The behind-the-scenes” mini-essays that accompany the essays themselves are actually something I implemented in my first anthology, You Must Be This Tall To Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside the Story. After teaching enough creative writing classes I eventually came to realize that while the students and I did a lot of head scratching about authorial intent, we never really came to any solid conclusions. This was frustrating for the students, and pretty soon, their frustration wore off on me as well. I wanted to give them some solid terrain, and if that meant finding a way to bridge the void between author and reader, then that was a bridge I wanted to try to build.
“As you can probably guess, not all writers are too keen about revealing their magic tricks. I get that. And I agree that part of what makes a story or essay so great is the ability to see the end result without having to see the struggle that went into it. Still, sure, no one wants to watch how a hot dog is made, but plenty of people want to watch film commentary to better understand how a particular movie is made. Which leads me to this: Movies are not hot dogs.
“But back to the question. When I asked writers to offer a behind-the-scenes look at their work, they always agreed. They, too, I think, wanted to provide something more for young writers. And their insight has proved invaluable. It doesn’t stifle classroom discussion; it gives us terra firma.
“While I always expected the world of academia to find at least a little use in the book, I’ve been really excited to see that these essays seem to transcend the ivory tower. Ultimately, I think all readers want to feel something when they devour an essay, and thankfully, just because some readers don’t immediately recognize the form doesn’t mean they’re unwilling to try something new.
“My own fascination with boundary-blurring essays is related to this notion of ‘feeling.’ As someone whose writing often veers into the realm of sentimental melodrama, I’ve found that boundary-blurring essays often help me tamp down some of these excess emotions and have the potential to leave readers feeling both raw and renewed. That’s what I aim for—negotiating between emotional highs and lows to provide readers a full and emotionally rich experience.”
11. Strangely, I do feel emotionally enriched.
That’s what I’m saying. That’s what good essays do. They dissolve anomie, defend epiphany, salve loneliness by showing us that we’re all in it together.
So they make life better?
These essays here make life better.
Like cream in the coffee.
A dram of Drambuie in the evening.
Epsom salt in the bath.
This has probably gone on long enough.
You get the idea.
Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction, edited by B.J. Hollars—
It’s worth picking up just for Michael Martone’s bio. Page 262.
See you there.