Creative nonfiction, though not exactly a new genre, is an elastic one. If we agree with John D’Agata, it begins with the Sumerian king Ziusudra, and leads into the form zuihitsu (“to follow the brush”) from the Heian period, made known to many by Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book. Creative nonfiction, to me, is marked now by multimodal collaborations like Claudia Rankine’s “Provenance of Beauty” performance and poet Matthea Harvey’s audio walking tour of Staten Island.
THE PROVENANCE OF BEAUTY. from Sunder Ganglani on Vimeo.
As the nonfiction editor at Better, I look to shelter nonfiction from whatever troubled past an author may have come from: the poet turned essayist, the journalist pushing form to length, the fictive addict looking to a fact or two for a new thrill. When I open a submission, I’m on a first date. I read looking to fall in love. I consider what politics the essay supports. If there is a point on this date, during ice cream, maybe, and rarely after PBRs, where I ask myself, “Is it me or the essay?” I know this probably isn’t going to work out. But occasionally it does. Reading is subjective, we all know, but it is also sometimes mean-spirited. It is also context-driven. My kid died so I’m more open to your grief essay, for example—or I’m bored and I want something light.
What holds a person’s attention in a first sentence and why? Reader-response theory has something to say about this, and affect theory, and my therapist, probably, and what I know is I’m a subjective, temperamental reader who tries to be empathic, and is thankful she has other editors to talk with. I love what I love and yet I watch this loving, too, from a distance. What plagues me as an editor is that I’m just one reader. I ask myself, “Am I not liking this because I haven’t napped? Because I have a preference for language? Because it is raining? Because I hate the smell in the coffee shop’s cleaning products?” When I first heard Johanna Stoberock's audio essay, I was in the shared experience of listening with my mother-in-law—we put it on and my living room filled with corn mazes and the prison system and a daughter who was losing weight and trying to find work and the landscape of eastern Washington. It was an essay that became loved by two women separated by two generations and I knew I had to publish it.
Not all the readers on staff have preferences like mine, thankfully, so where I have a long leash for language, others may prefer more narrative structure. We discuss. We all are looking to push against things, I’d say, and that is partly why we loved Joy Katz’s essay in Issue 4, how she explores racism via one interaction with a home security salesmen, in an essay that complicates the idea of knowing and of conclusiveness. And it is why I love how an essay can rove and wander, complicating the false idea of truth, such as in Shena McAuliffe’s “This Human Skin” in Issue 4.
Better came about because a group of us, led by Sean Bishop, had a desire to use online media in more versatile ways than we saw happening in the world of literary journals. We have a real weakness for audio essays, video essays, essays using images in complicated ways, like Sebald’s photographs that defy meaning rather than support it, and wilder forms that conceive essays as experiences you take on with your whole body. The essay that comes to me in printed words feels very different than the essay that comes to me through the voice of the author, or the video of the author reading and singing and performing their work: watch Elena Passarello’s performance in Issue 1. There is an intimacy that can be formed, or a distance, really, with these audio essays, these digital essays, these centaurian essays. Better is inclusive, Better is post-page.
Bonine Nadzam asks in “A Simple, Declarative Sentence”: “What is the one thing in there you cannot, or dare not, say?” What does it say that, if I were the author, I might do or think but dare not utter? I want that essay in Better.
And Better got it with the humorous confession of David S. MacLean in “That You Ever Saw” from Issue 2:
One morning I was walking the dog, yakking on the phone with a girlfriend with whom my relationship was flailing, and I saw this gorgeous couple canoodling on a bench. I sat down on the bench opposite from them, continued yakking on my cell phone and because I thought it would be funny, I held my middle finger up at them for a good three minutes. In my brain, I thought it’d be seen as a sort of ridiculous act of obscenity and taken as absurd. The woman’s face, though, immediately went into a kind of twisted up surprise look, which gradually unraveled to one of offense, finally unspooling completely into one of disgust. I kept my finger up through all her expressions. To this day, she still looks past me at parties. Part of me says, ‘fuck her, fuck everyone who can’t take a damn joke’ and the other part of me knows that she knew I kind of meant it.Sometimes it can be shocking, but it could also be mundane. Consider Perec’s infraordinary:
What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist.Perec argues for the ordinary, for lists of what you ate for a whole year’s time, for a catalog of what you see while sitting at a park. The essay that does this is vulnerable because it might be extremely boring, and it knows it. I want that essay in Better, too. Not truth, exactly, but pursuing truth. This can imply confession, but I think what it has to do with is vulnerability. What makes us vulnerable? And when looking at essays I do often ask, How is this text vulnerable? How am “I”?
TaraShea Nesbit is the nonfiction at Better: Culture & Lit. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, Quarterly West, The Los Angeles Review of Books, on NPR, and elsewhere. Her first book, The Wives of Los Alamos, was an Indies Next Pick and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Booklist. She lives in Colorado and teaches at the University of Denver.