Monday, November 3, 2014

Jen Palmares Meadows On Chinua Achebe and The Truth Of Beneficent Nonfiction

Confession: I am not a great Catholic. Though I do attend church on Sunday, admittedly less often than I’m supposed to and more often than I’d like, during mass, I’m more likely to be found maligning the discomfort of my pew than analyzing the symbolic merits of biblical texts. I mean, I get the gist of most biblical passages, but deciphering abstract concepts of good and evil, love and hate, humility and forgiveness, is straight up tough and often a formidable task.

For me, it’s always taken more than a few lines of verse to make much moral leeway, and though I am not one to throw down verse, I appreciate how words and stories can influence the mind and the spirit. The essay, for example, with its lengthier discourse has always attracted me. Read me, the essay invites, all three or four thousand words, in which I explore pros, cons, yeses, nos, maybes, and let’s not forget to throw in some concrete facts with works cited, a few personal anecdotes and jokes for good measure.

I’ve always been a collector of essays.

My computer’s bookmarks folder has served as a bible of sorts, collecting an odd assortment of links to my favorite ‘go-to’ essays. Depending on my mood, inspiration is just a click away. If I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll read Ray Bradbury’s, May I Die Before My Voices. When motherhood demands a hiatus from the page, I channel Joy Castro’s, On Length in Literature. After a slew of rejections, I might read Brian Doyle’s No, and because giraffes on roller-skates are always worthy of a laugh, Seth Fried’s, How To Interpret Your Rejection Letters. As writers, our bookshelves are cluttered with tomes we’ve saved from grad school theory classes, bibles that we write by, staples like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, or Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet. Inside, our favorite pages have been dog-eared, our favorite verses and chapters, sentences and paragraphs, underlined and then highlighted in funky fluorescent inks because what we’ve read needs to be absorbed into our skins. We all have bibles that we live by, stories that we share, words that shape us, whether they be essays of discourse or come with a leather cover bearing an embossed cross.

An essay I revisit often is Chinua Achebe’s, The Truth of Fiction, circa 1978, in which Achebe champions literary fiction and coins the rather wonderful concept, beneficent fiction. While reading his essay, I cannot help but be in awe of its writer, and the definitive authority with which he speaks on beneficence, decency and truth.

In The Truth of Fiction, Achebe writes, “there are fictions that help and fictions that hinder. For simplicity, let us call them beneficent and malignant fictions”. The term beneficent fiction he reserves for literary fiction, whereas malignant fiction, he assigns to negative concepts such as racial superiority or gender inequality. Achebe says that the success of beneficent fictions lies in the ‘self-encounter’ in which a reader vicariously experiences a story. Of beneficent fiction, he writes:

“Things are then not merely happening before us; they are happening, by the power and force of imaginative identification, to us. We not only see; we suffer alongside the hero and are branded with the same mark of “punishment and poverty.”

According to Achebe, the imagination, and ‘our reflective humanity’ allow a reader to experience another’s circumstance by traveling alongside them, thus sharing in their suffering. The end game, I think, to all this shared experience, is to give the reader a deeper understanding of humanity, and make the reader more receptive to recognizing herself in others.

While in The Truth of Fiction, Achebe equates literary fiction to beneficent fiction, I’d like to explore specifically the potential for beneficence in creative nonfiction. What makes nonfiction beneficent and if such beneficent nonfiction exists (I think it does) how can we employ Achebe to determine its parameters? In a wonderful Conjunctions interview by Bradford Morrow, Achebe further clarifies beneficent fiction:
“The notion of beneficent fiction is simply one of defining storytelling as a creative component of human experience, human life, as something we have always done which has positive purpose and a use.”

But wait. Positive purpose and a use? That’s not really our job is it? As writers? As essayists? Isn’t our purpose to assay? To try? To attempt? To use discourse? In Kirk Wisland’s three-sided argument, The Essayists Conundrum, he ponders whether writers are obligated to be good people. Wisland asks, “Is good writing tethered to good intention?” He responds, No, “the artist owes us nothing beyond devotion to the form, the writer unbound except by diligence to the word, the line, the paragraph. Art for art’s sake—the “purist” argument.” (Later, his answer will flip to Yes, and then again to Maybe.)

But we’re not talking about any nonfiction or any essay. We’re talking about beneficent nonfiction, so let us consider the adjective itself. Beneficent is defined as: resulting in good, or doing good, its synonyms being: benevolent, charitable, humanitarian, public-spirited, philanthropic. At its core, the term beneficent describes something positive which often serves others. Therefore, we must ask, does the pursuit of good trump ‘art for art’s sake’? In beneficent nonfiction it does. Achebe asks:

“Why should art have a purpose and a use? But it seems to me that from the very beginning, stories have been meant to be enjoyed, to appeal to that part of us which enjoys good form and good shape and good sound. Still, I think that behind it all is a desire to make our experience in the world better.”

Well, hell. That’s a lot to take on when writing an essay. Isn’t the essayist’s job difficult enough without having to worry about improving people’s lives, or more ambitious still, making the world a better place? I’ll let you decide. Or maybe it all comes down to what Achebe says about beneficent fiction and the self-encounter. Does ‘our reflective humanity’ allow a reader of nonfiction to experience another’s circumstance, thereby making them more receptive to recognizing themselves in others?

Again, you decide.

So, now that we’ve suitably defined beneficent, and for the sake of the argument, let us assume that the term nonfiction simply mean that the work in question must be true, beneficent nonfiction need only have two rules:

  1. Have ‘a positive purpose and a use.’
  2. Be true.

Does that mean beneficent nonfiction need be all sunshine and rainbows? Certainly not. Nonfiction lends itself to revealing human experience in all its wonder and frailty. Whether the stories linger in horror or darkness, the sharing and study of these experiences creates a positive purpose and a use. To my mind, the most positive purpose and use beneficent nonfiction can serve occurs when the reader completes it with a deeper understanding of humanity, making the reader more receptive to recognizing herself in others, thereby encouraging an improved intent to treat others with dignity. And because I mention human dignity, it should be no surprise that women and people of color are creating the most influential beneficent nonfictions, perhaps because they have the most to gain in the telling, despite concurrently having the most to risk. Beneficent nonfiction employs many faces and many means. Whether you are reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, or Dave Egger’s Zeitoun, or Junot Diaz’s MFA vs. POC, or Roxane Gay’s What We Hunger For, or Christine Hyung-Oak Lee’s I Had a Stroke at 33 or Margot Singer’s Call It Rape, the positive purpose and use of each of these beneficent nonfictions is up to you to discover.

So, what are your beneficent nonfictions?

We all have our bibles that we live and write by. Gather them, your beneficent nonfictions, your good truths, whatever you wish to call them. Beat your breasts and deliver them from your pulpits. Go door to door offering them to all who might answer your knocks. And when faced with malignant fictions, pull the pamphlets and essay printouts from your fanny packs and backpacks, and ask, “Have you read this?” Go ahead. Take them to church.

Jen Palmares Meadows writes from the Sacramento, California area. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Memoir Journal, along with other publications, and is also forthcoming in Brevity. She is currently at work on a collection of Vegas stories, where she writes about sex, gambling, and church, not necessarily in that order, but sometimes all at once. You can visit her at

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Jen, for the mention. And for putting me in such amazing company.