Monday, January 11, 2016

On Truth, “Essayistic Fiction,” and Canine Thumping: A Roundtable Discussion

Over a leisurely dinner at the 2015 AWP conference in Minneapolis, several nonfiction writers, editors, and teachers revisited the issue of truth in creative nonfiction. The subject came up when Steven Church mentioned an essay slated to appear in The Normal School, the literary magazine he edits with Sophie Beck and Matt Roberts. Since then, “Apocalypse Garage: A Scenario for Not Going it Alone” by Nora Almeida, has appeared in print and is also available at The Normal School website, alongside an interview with Almeida about the essay.

When the dinner conversation occurred, most at the table had not yet read the essay, but a month or two after all involved were able to read the essay and accompanying interview, and then continue, on Facebook, their conversation about the pros, cons, and possibilities of “speculative nonfiction.” That conversation is transcribed below:

Steven Church: Lots of interesting things in this interview. Check it out. Dinty, Ned, Dinah. This is that essay I was talking about during our dinner at AWP.

Dinah Lenney: Steven, thanks for this. What I like is this idea that we’re asked to collude with the writer—“you ask us to do a lot of imagining [...],” observes your interviewer (Gilliann Hensley), “and in doing so you do a lot of imagining, yourself, on the page.” This sort of imagining is definitely a requisite —for readers and writers both, right? I guess each of us decides how far we can go before we declare ourselves: that is, when to tip our hats—or "thump," if you will. I'm quoting Peter Trachtenberg who wrote a piece for nonfiction writers called “Another Dog Story,” in which, by way of comparison, he described that move dogs make when they invite us to play—how they slam down their front paws in anticipation...

Ned Stuckey-French: Thanks, Steven. I like Almeida’s essay and the interview. How 'bout we call this “speculative nonfiction,” a subset of creative nonfiction. All those imagines in the middle seem to do enough signaling that this is not only imagined but about imagining (and its dangers). I forget, did you urge her to add the disclaimer at the end?

I'm siding with 
Dinah and Peter Trachtenberg (or at least partially with Trachtenberg) here because I think there are cues enough (though I've given it only one reading). I do think that the cues are the difference-makers, not that first axis he talks about. I don't think we're that separate from each other and while I agree that you can't lie about others, neither do I think you can lie about yourself. You may have to imagine but it should be in the service of trying to get it right. The allegiance to reality, history, events that actually happened must be the same whether you are alone or in the presence of a lynching. Guess I'm an old school hardass, and yet I like the Almeida piece and see why you published it.

Also, I too love Donald Barthelme’s
"Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning" [mentioned by Almeida in The Normal School interview] but I think it crosses over and is a short story that uses the form of a magazine profile. Barthelme’s "And Now Let's Hear It for the Ed Sullivan Show!" on the other hand, is, in my book, an essay. [“And Now Let’s Hear It for the Ed Sullivan Show!” appeared originally in Esquire in April 1969, and was collected in Barthelme’s Guilty Pleasures (1974).]

Dinty, if you've had a chance to read the Almeida piece, I'm curious to know if your take on it has changed or not.

Dinty W. Moore: Dammit, Ned, my copy of The Normal School is in my University office. Don't make me go back there in mid-summer.

NS-F: No hurry at all, Dinty. Just curious.

SC: You can read it here, Dinty: “Apocalypse Garage: A Scenario for Not Going it Alone

DWM: Okay then. Just read it. So how is “speculative nonfiction” something other than fiction? I remain baffled.

NS-F: For me this piece (again, after just one reading) is one that says, “I, Nora Almeida, a real person, am writing this in order to try to understand what went on the heads of these people by imagining what rationalizations and actions led to this real and horrible moment into which my research will take me only so far.”

A short story, on the other hand, would be told by a fictional first-person narrator or disembodied third-person narrator, make no attempt to separate research from speculation, and follow the narrative wherever it went rather than trying to investigate an actual moment in historical time. I'm thinking of Jo Ann Beard’s work, especially "Werner" [Tin House (Fall 2006)] or the shooting scene in
"The Fourth State of Matter." Or, again, I think there's a difference between "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning" (there was no near drowning in real life and the narrator isn't Barthelme) and "And Now Let's Hear It for the Ed Sullivan Show!" (which is about a real, albeit composite, TV show and is, as I read it, narrated by Barthelme himself). I want to be in your camp, Dinty, but, I guess, with a little more elbow room. I think I'm the same guy who wrote the Dear John letter and harrumphed at Anonymous (EJ Levy) and "The Facts of the Matter," but perhaps I've slid over to the dark side.

DWM: Ned, I would absolutely agree with you on this, but I don't see where she tells us "I, Nora Almeida, a real person, am writing this in order to try to understand what went on the heads of these people by imagining what rationalizations and actions led to this real and horrible moment ..." She implies it with the end note, but to use Peter Trachtenberg's idea, I don't see any doggie paws thumping down in anticipation. Or maybe just a little, but quite obliquely, in the middle, where she uses imagine sixteen times, but up until then, I'm thinking, "all of this must be based on research."

NS-F: I agree and, as Dinah suggested, that thumping might have come earlier but it is there and I guess I can feel tricked for a while as long as I'm cued clearly and at some point and can then read the whole piece in that light (the disclaimer at the end, on the other hand, does seem to me to definitely be too late and to express discomfort that could belong to the editors rather than to the author, and if it belongs to the editors then I read it as a kind of flinching or uncertainty that calls even the 16 imagines into question).

SC: I think it's interesting that Peter makes the analogy between the dog's "thump" signaling "play" and the writer's obligation to "signpost" when, for me, the most interesting moment is when the boy, believing the truth of what he saw, "reported" to the cop that the dogs where fighting. Was he lying? When did this cease to become the facts of what he witnessed? Isn't calling it "lying" already begging the question?

NS-F: Not knowing how to read the cue and as a result misreading (and misreporting) what the dogs were doing isn't lying. It's just poor or unsophisticated reading, right?

SC: Yes, exactly. So how much is the writer responsible for addressing the different levels of sophistication for different readers? Is your audience the kid or the cop?

NS-F: Good point. You don't want to talk down, for sure, and sometimes you want to thump for both, sometimes for one or the other. I do think a lot of "perhapsing" [to quote Lisa Knopp] can signal widely and unobtrusively (e.g., “Let's call him…”, “As I recall…,” etc.). But, yes, it's tricky and I'm always looking for good pieces that show students (and me and the kid and the cop) how to do it.

DL: Hey, that's a gorgeous essay... Feels very true if not entirely "nonfictional" and I do appreciate the endnote. Though also I wonder about endnotes, how necessary they are—they feel like disclaimers, or backpedaling... How might we signal our readers upfront or within a text instead? In this case—it's obvious she's imagining, yeah. (The most "nonfictional" part of the piece, I'd say, is when she frankly asks us to "imagine,” too.) She wasn't there, duh — she has to be making so much of this up (in an informed and creative way)—and she's not implying otherwise. But does the reader wonder how much of the piece is researched, how much is her invention? And would we like to give her credit either way? Well, yes and no. Some—many, most—of the details she could only have imagined, that's all... (But what about those others, hmmm...) That being true, I'm pretty much willing to go along for the ride.

Anyway, anyhow. This piece has been published, and rightfully so. It's terrific. But what if the word imagine had been employed a bit earlier on—just once, maybe. As a harbinger. Or like anchovies in puttanesca. You don't even taste them, but if it's the real thing, you know they're there. On the other hand. Maybe the word "Scenario" in the title does the trick. Yes. It does. Ta da.

NS-F: "Or like anchovies in puttanesca." !!!

SC: I'm glad we're talking more about "how" to signpost, or how in terms of craft, we "dog thump" to signal our play, rather than whether "playing" is allowed at all (and I thank you, Dinah, and the Trachtenberg piece for getting us there). That, to me, is at least part of the really interesting question here and one that I feel obligated to discuss with my students. For me, personally, the "disclaimer" or “author’s note” as sign-post is like trying to paint with a hammer. I think it ignores the fine art of the signpost and absolves both the reader and the writer from the responsibility of creating and recognizing them on the page. So, future AWP Panel, "The Art of the Dog Thump: Signposting in Nonfiction"???

DL: Peter Trachtenberg, where are you? When are you going to weigh in??

Peter Trachtenberg: Hi, Dinah, Steven, Ned, world. I'm flattered to be invoked. I'm with Dinah, it's a gorgeous piece, and to me its hybrid nature is signaled by its intimacy with the thoughts of a dead prophet. What it reminded me of are the "essays" of Eliot Weinberger, the ones that mimic the form of medieval Icelandic sagas and perhaps contain borrowings from them. I'd probably be more satisfied if Almeida and Weinberger offered keys to their sources, but maybe that would defeat their purpose. Obviously, there are lots of ways to thump at the reader, and one needn't do it at the outset of play. But, still, the reader doesn't want to feel gamed. I often invoke crime fiction for the way the best practitioners lay down clues – subtly enough that they don't announce themselves as such but clearly enough that, on having them called to his attention later, the reader feels a small frisson of satisfaction.

DWM: Okay, here’s what I think: this is lovely writing, and fiction. Almeida says it herself: "This isn’t a stance of some kind towards or against objectivity; blending fact and fiction is just part of the way that I think through an idea." That's what a fiction writer does, blends fact and fiction to think through an idea. I know, I'm an old fuddy-duddy still married to the 20th century notion that the word nonfiction has meaning, but that's me.

DWM: The end note makes me feel cheated. Harumph.

DWM: Oh, and while I'm being cranky, the interview uses "lead" for "led."

DWM: And you kids, get off my lawn.

SC: How about if we call it “essayistic fiction”? We can liberate "essay" from those 20th century notions of genre. [smile emoticon]

DWM: “Essayistic fiction” is a fine term, and I'd be happy to call it that. Because, as Dinah rightly points out, it does read like an essay. It is just the term nonfiction that troubles me when the signals are, to me, ambiguous.

DL: It's confusing, isn't it, because it isn't exactly "a story" though it contains a story (a few of them)—what makes it an essay as opposed to a story? The narrative stance? The odd thing about it is that we don't know who the narrator is, do we? "Essayistic fiction." Hmmm. Well. There's plenty of that. But we just call it fiction, don't we? Is it different from a fictional essay? This is definitely not that... Right? Oy.

DWM: Oy vey!

SC: I guess I like that it resists classification. In the French publishing industry, there is an entire popular sub-genre of “fictionalized memoirs,” and nobody really attaches things like morality and betrayal to their inability as a reader to clearly delineate the line between fact and fiction. So much of our insistence on the "factuality" of nonfiction and the "fictionality" of fiction seems not only Western but American and quite new.

DL: Yeah, that's what people keep telling me, that it's American and provincial to want the labels. Sebald didn't need labels. Modiano doesn't call for labels... But that French thing—"auto-fiction"—that's some bullshit, too. I mean: is So Long, See You Tomorrow [by William Maxwell] auto-fiction? NO! It's a novel! I'll shut up now...

PT: Here I’d add that the categories of fiction and nonfiction are relatively new. When did bookstores and libraries first begin to categorize their inventory as one or the other? How are we supposed to classify a work like Herodotus’s The Histories, which I often teach in nonfiction surveys? On the one hand it uses—it originates—what we think of as the methodologies of history, and this is centuries before the card catalogue let alone Google. Herodotus compares multiple versions of events and decides which one is most likely, usually on the basis of common sense. But he also straightforwardly declares that in Central Asia there is a race of people whose faces are situated in their stomachs and that in Egypt women pee standing and men pee sitting down. So why do we call The Histories nonfiction? Is it because the factual material outweighs the fantastic? Or because the author seems to have believed his crackpot assertions about the Sogdians and Egyptians? Most scholars think he believed them. I add that I teach Sebald as creative nonfiction.

DWM: Well, just to stir the pot one more time, and invite Steven back onto my lawn, before I shout at him to go away again: If I lived in the time of Herodotus, or if I lived in France, or any country where I was not given a certain expectation—by years of seeing fiction labeled and reviewed as one category and nonfiction as another (meaning not fictionalized)—I probably wouldn't be of this mindset. If I knew the work in front of me was either/or and that if I really wanted to know if what I was reading is true or not true I would have to do my own independent research, then I would live within those rules and that system. But after 100 or so years (post Twain, for instance) of living within a publishing ecosystem that makes it a point to sort one from the other, when John D'Agata or another writer tries to fool me, pretending the terms are meaningless, I reserve the right to say, "No sir, that's not how it works here."

SC: Sorry to stir this old pot again, but thanks for playing along, gang!! I like how this comment feed has turned into it's own kind of essay/panel discussion. I'll get off your lawn, Dinty, and put down my boom box.

DL: Put down your boom box first! Then run like hell! Thanks, Steven—this was fun and interesting all over again. It really was.


And after the fact, Steven Church adds:

"We accepted Nora's essay without hesitation or any concern for the "truthfulness" of it because we thought it was beautifully written and that's really all we care about. During the copyediting/factchecking process a couple of questions came up concerning specific "facts" mentioned in the essay. I contacted Nora and told her that I still wanted to run the essay as nonfiction; but I said that, if only because she's writing about a somewhat notorious and extensively reported news "story," we were in a position where anyone doing a quick fact-check online could find reason to question the "facts" in the essay and, thus, question whether we'd done our due diligence for all of the nonfiction we publish. We do a pretty extensive process of copyediting/factchecking not because we're concerned about rules of a particular genre, but because we think writers appreciate the attention to their work. The Normal School is staffed and run primarily by graduate students in the MFA Program at Fresno State, so I brought the question to them, and a student suggested that we run the piece as is with a short end-note directing readers to a follow-up interview on our website where we let the author speak for herself about her craft choices in the essay. When I approached Nora with this idea, she made it clear that a blend of fact and fiction was part of her process of essaying on a subject. She was OK with doing the interview and our decision to put in the end-note, but I don't think she wanted the piece to be labeled as "fiction," which was fine with us." 


Steven Church is the author of four books of nonfiction, most recently the collection of essays, Ultrasonic. He's a founding editor and nonfiction editor for The Normal School and teaches in the MFA program at Fresno State.

Dinah Lenney wrote The Object Parade and Bigger than Life, and, with Judith Kitchen, edited Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (W. W. Norton, 2015). She teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars and the Rainier Writing Workshop, and serves as the senior nonfiction editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. 

Dinty W. Moore is author of Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals as well as the memoir Between Panic & Desire. He is quite content to be the “old-fashioned” fellow upholding the notion that the word nonfiction has a specific meaning.

Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is the author of The American Essay in the American Century, co-editor of Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, co-author of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, and book review editor of Fourth Genre. His essays have appeared in magazines such as In These Times, The Missouri Review, The Normal School, Tri-Quarterly, culturefront, Guernica, and The Pinch, and been listed five times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays.

Peter Trachtenberg is the author of 7 Tattoos, The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning, and Another Insane Devotion, a 2012 New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. His essays, journalism, and short fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, BOMB, The New York Times Travel Magazine, A Public Space, Virginia Quarterly Review, and StoryQuarterly. His commentaries have been broadcast on NPR’s Dinty W. Moore is author of Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals as well as the memoir Between Panic & Desire. He is quite content to be the “old-fashioned” fellow upholding the notion that the word nonfiction has a specific meaning.


  1. I've been thinking about this issue as I reread one of my all-time favorite memoirs, Fierce Attachments. It alternates beautifully between the writer's remembered childhood past and her more recent, adult past as she and her mother walk around New York. Vivian Gornick has said she invented one of the latter scenes with her mother. It has never bothered me too much because of the nature of memory and because her goal seemed to be to more fully and honestly portray her mother.

    What's different for me this time is that I'm reading Gornick after slogging through a traditional, chronological memoir and while trying to read a traditional plotted novel and finding it likewise heavy going. Gornick's writing, in contrast, at the sentence and structural level, excite me. But would I be loving it if it were fiction? If it had been written and sold as a novel? How much does my enjoyment owe to its labeling as nonfiction?

    Setting her admitted fiction aside, I have decided quite reluctantly that much of the appeal of Fierce Attachments is its nonfiction status. It probably wouldn't be exciting enough as a novel, except maybe as the most rarified literary fiction. But as a memoir depicting the forces and especially the mother that forged the writer, wow! Hewing as much as possible to nonfiction's promise to be nonfiction is important because that promise is an inherent and important part of nonfiction's appeal. Someone like you or me, though maybe a better writer, is working hard to understand and convey her life. Since we're pretty much all walking around doing that in our heads, it's compelling to read someone's shaped but real and real-time account of this task.

    This drives me into the DWM camp, as I understand it, even as I still give Gornick a pass on minor embroidery in a work of genius.

  2. The issues raised here inspired my blog post on what honesty means in nonfiction beyond being a mere label: