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.
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.
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.”
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.
the subject. How many essay anthologies does one need to be happy?
How many essay
anthologies do we own already?
Are we a better
human being now, having been exposed to these writers?
I believe so,
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?
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.
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.”
a conspicuous absence of D’Agata in here.
You mean foxy Fox
Mulder’s kid brother?
think that joke’s getting old.
don’t think it’s a joke.
we should ask Hollars ‘bout that.
“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
“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.”
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.”
suggesting that all poems are essays but not all essays are poems?
I think I’m
suggesting all essayists are squares.
does our man Hollars think about all of this?
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
“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
9. Any last first impressions?
isn’t marketing itself as tub reading.
anthology is not a shoulder massage.
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.
Saturday morning, don the robe, pour the coffee, slink towards the hammock—with
Blurring the Boundaries?
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
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—
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.
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.
here lead by example.
teach Martone’s Touchstone Anthology of
Contemporary Creative Nonfiction don’t we? Is Blurring the Boundaries going to replace it on the syllabus?
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.
Are Not Frogs, Says B.J. Hollars in the Introduction, Possibly in Response To: “Why aren’t there any frogs
in this book, yo?”
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.
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.
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.”
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
here make life better.
Like cream in
A dram of
Drambuie in the evening.
Epsom salt in
probably gone on long enough.
You get the
It’s worth picking up just for Michael Martone’s bio. Page 262.