It’s easy to be cynical about the money-making, lessons-learned school of nonfiction. Everything seems so facile; the reading experience and the learning experience both made too smooth. But really, isn’t there something to be said for nonfiction that teaches? Don’t we all have a lot to learn?
Much has been made about how literature promotes empathy—great! Let’s do it!—but empathy isn’t the only quality literature has to offer. One thing I’ve noticed in seeking nonfiction texts for the classroom—texts that can be interpreted rather than texts that deliver information—is I end up overloading on more experimental (for lack of another word) work, simply because the more traditional texts seem to come prepackaged with the author’s interpretation. What my colleague Kate Schmitt calls the South Park ending (“You know I’ve learned something today…”) in which writers state their meaning all too clearly, usually in the last paragraph.
Confession: I’ve done it myself. But why, I wonder? Why did I think my essay wasn’t done until I’d said what it meant?
Like me, you probably grew up with the fables of Aesop in illustrated editions with tidy lessons appended to their end. And this structure is one that essays increasingly seem to lean on. Recently though I discovered Aesop Without Morals by Lloyd Daly which separates out the morals into a long appendix at the back—579 morals all in a row. And 579 fables open to interpretation.
As Daly writes in his introduction:
Fables have been pap for children in schools for so many hundreds of years that it is perhaps difficult to think of them in any other light, but the cynical vein of the stories themselves runs so strong that it must be obvious they were not intended for the edification of youth, and it is in such a light that I would present them in this new translation freed from the encumbrance of the added morals, which are at best supererogatory.
If we dispense with the morals, which are little more than an insult to our intelligence, how are we to understand the existence of such a collection of tales? If these fables were not intended to serve a moral and instructional purpose, were they brought together to serve any other purpose? The answer to this question is not, perhaps, too difficult to divine, for we know something of the place that fables occupy in our own consciousness. Pointed stories capable of a wide variety of applications have always been in demand. (Daly 12)A pointed story capable of a wide variety of applications. What an interesting definition of the essay.
Consider the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady wins the race, right? I use it a lot myself. On myself and on my students, who are often twentysomethings writing novels. But consider this tortoise and this hare:
A turtle and a rabbit were arguing about their speed. Before they parted, they settled a time and place for a race. Because he was naturally speedy, the rabbit didn’t take the race seriously, but lay down beside the road and went to sleep. But the turtle knew how slow he was and kept right on running, and so he outran the sleeping rabbit and won the bet.Seems to me this is suddenly a story about knowing your true nature more than it is about persistence.
Or consider BJ Novak’s tortoise and hare, in the hilariously funny short story, “The Rematch,” from his book One More Thing, in which the hare “in the aftermath of an athletic humiliation on an unprecedented scale” trains obsessively for a rematch and, of course, of course, obliterates the tortoise. I do not exaggerate when I say this story rocked my world view. Slow and steady doesn’t win every race. Of course it doesn’t; how could I have forgotten that?
It seems easier to avoid the moralistic ending in lyric essays or other forms that have a disjointed quality built into their structure. Readers of those essays are expecting to be a little off-kilter from beginning to end. But it is the more straightforward narratives, events clearly told, that ironically seem to lead to overly explanatory endings. Because, perhaps a nervous writer such as myself might think, if this essay seems simple the reader may fail to look for meaning at all.
But perhaps if so, so be it?
Daly, Lloyd W. editor and translator. Aesop Without Morals. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, Publisher, 1961.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak teaches in the MFA program at Florida Atlantic University. She has published prose in a wide variety of journals, including Brevity and Creative Nonfiction, and her short fiction has been selected for the O.Henry and Pushcart Prizes.