Thursday, May 28, 2015

John Griswold: The Best Kind of Entertainment

Crux: The Georgia Series in Literary Nonfiction is a newly-launched book series at the University of Georgia Press, named for intersections and the heart of the matter. I’m grateful to Director Lisa Bayer and the Press for creating another publishing opportunity for nonfiction writers, and I’m honored to be Series Editor. Crux will build on UGA Press’s success and reputation publishing the AWP Creative Nonfiction contest winners since 1986, and the series board is just crazy-good: Dan Gunn, Pam Houston, Phillip Lopate, Dinty W. Moore, Lia Purpura, Patricia Smith, and Ned Stuckey-French.

The series will publish up to four books per year of personal and lyric essay, memoir, cultural meditation, and literary journalism. We’re open to the best literary nonfiction we can lay hands on, whatever its mode, form, voice, or topic. We like prose that’s intelligent and accessible, and as our mission statement says, “Engagement with the world, dedication to craft, precision, and playfulness with form and language are valued.”

Regardless of its manifestation, the best writing—line-by-line and as a whole— in my view entertains, in the sense that it holds something significant before the mind for consideration. I guess editors everywhere read in hopes of finding that, whatever else their mission statements say.

By “entertaining” I don’t mean, necessarily, “big action” or “spectacle” or “plot-driven,” though those things can be pleasurable, especially with triple butter, double salt, and a Diet Coke you don’t have to share with anybody, despite the price. W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, a quiet hybrid text marketed as a novel, is hugely entertaining, as are Didion’s essays, the calmly-told nightmare of Hersey’s Hiroshima, recent books by Sarah Gorham, Allen Gee, Nicole Walker, Brian Turner, and Claudia Rankine, and most anything written or anthologized by our series board members. Entertainment is legion, which is why we always need more publishing platforms.

But what constituent parts make something entertaining, in the best sense? My own editorial preferences are for qualities (in no particular order), such as:

  • The writer’s ability to see stories at every turn of the page. While anything can be of interest, nothing is more than existent until a mind turns it round in contemplation. Chapters, scenes, micros, and pointillist jots are made of significant human moments, and these moments in chorus become the books. Aurelie Sheehan’s Jewelry Box, another hybrid text, is full of them, e.g., the puzzlement over a potential beau at an arts colony, “his long hair…some kind of ‘long hair’ and his affinity for Elvis…some kind of ‘affinity for Elvis’ and his Dracula coat…a ‘Dracula coat’ and then also…the gun was a ‘gun’ but perhaps that’s where the irony leaves off, with the iron so to speak: all you’ve got left is why. Why did he show me the gun?” And: “[W]as he wooing me? Was this love?
  • An understanding that diction, sign, symbol, and image often add up to motif. That is, the writer rarely fails to hear metaphoric/poetic/thematic possibilities in her language, which might be the text essaying itself into meaning. A student of mine was working on a piece about her mother and used the odd word “ledger” instead of “diary” or “journal” to describe where she wrote her complaints re: mom. Except for its obvious connotation of bookkeeping [an accounting of their transactions, with credits and debits], “ledger” sounded like a mistake. But a glance in the dictionary revealed other useful meanings, such as a flat slab of stone over a grave [well, sure], and fishing [for truth] or angling [to get free]. When the rhetoricians say writing is a way of coming to know, this is what they mean.
  • A sense that the writer has read. Even if they change, and even if they’re meant to be shattered, literary conventions exist, and books are where we pick through older models of doing things to see what we want to use. A manuscript that calls itself immersive must balance the “I” of self with the “not-I” of others, else it’ll have to be called something else. Writing that accidentally beheads itself with the edged weapon of satire might be seen to fail.
  • Terence: Nothing human is alien to me. People eat different things, have different customs, are capable of all manner of meanness and good. Much writing I admire stays calm and nonjudgmental in the face of this, in order to best serve witness. Think of John McPhee or David Grann writing about truckers or sandhogs.
  • Turning Terence inward for the purpose of, say, memoir, the corollary might be: Not a whiff of self-pity, which is an odorous shitstain on our souls. If Primo Levi can write without self-pity, surely I can too.
  • On the other hand, there’s Emerson: “The foolish have no range in their scale, but suppose every man is as every other man. What is not good they call the worst, and what is not hateful, they call the best.” Not everything is relative. I have kids, and it’s done weird things to me: I believe in generosity, and the attempt, and fragile connection, and the dignity and sublime beauty of other people and places, and I believe in some plans working out better than others. Good writing convinces me I’m with someone who knows where to stand.
  • Emerson turned inward: Humility for our provincial selves in the range of human scale.
  • Signaling, however lightly, inner versus outer reality. I served as an Army frogman and deep-sea diver, and I’m here to report there is a physical world with consequences outside our bone helmets, and it will bite your ass. Dream, fantasy, the imagined, the conjectured—all the richness of inner life—of course are available to literary nonfiction, but they are not often the All. For me the best writing constantly checks itself against that outer world, from personal to political to environmental and back. I also appreciate writers acknowledging encounters with things that other people write and publish too.
  • After all, where inner and outer make contact, in language, is perhaps the most fascinating place to look. “[O]ne must work in fields if only for the sake of tropes and expression, to serve a parable-maker one day,” Thoreau says. I believe in experience in the world, and how it informs my inner life, so much that Crux was to be named “Curious Labor Books” until cooler heads prevailed.
  • Language as precision, compression, deadly in its effect. Even our heavyweights, Sontag, Eco, Gass, Steiner, Baudrillard, are clear and accessible.
  • Caesura, a term I’ve hijacked from poetry, for the pause to breathe, savor, ruminate, admire. Sometimes it’s a joy just to read and feel as if reading is the only necessary thing at this time in the world.
  • Writing that forces us to re-experience its own process. Montaigne essays forward, but the book in my hand is thought concretized centuries ago. The feeling that we’re making discoveries right along with the writer is a construction, but a vital one.
  • Writing that’s revised in different moods, at different times of day, in different qualities of light, creates intensity, not some watering to averages. The complex clarity developed over time helps it hold up in time.
  • A narrative mind is great, but so is an architectonic mind, an ethnographic mind, an anatomical mind, a lyrical mind, an epical mind, a moral mind, an empathetic mind, an investigative mind. The humorous mind may be rarest of all. All are most welcome. (The pollyannistic, boostero, axgrinderiste, village ecstatic, and recently- and angrily-converted minds have their own platforms, I understand, called social media.)
  • Memoir: a way of seeing patterns, making discoveries, of suggesting a life and showing processes, people, places, things. (What people know how to do is always interesting to me.) The ones I value most raise more questions than provide final answers, portray clear-sighted responses to being an individual with some sense of the sublime, of wonder, outrage, joy, sorrow, etc.

And the burgeoning Crux?

The first title in the series will be Debra Monroe’s My Unsentimental Education, which will be out in October this year.

[My Unsentimental Education is a] smart and lyrical take on the isolation that occurs when people switch social classes quickly.... Both the story of her steady rise into the professional class and a parallel history of unsuitable exes, this memoir reminds us how accidental even a good life can be. If Joan Didion advises us “to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be,” Monroe takes this advice a step further and nods at the people she might have become but didn’t. Funny, poignant, wise, My Unsentimental Education explores the confusion that ensues when a working-class girl ends up far from where she began.

(A proto-chapter appeared on my blog when the book was just a twinkle in Debra’s eye.)

Debra is the author of four books of fiction and two memoirs. She teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University.

Sonja Livingston’s Ladies Night at the Dreamland will be the second Crux title, due out Spring 2016. A collection of essays that “combine history, speculation and memory,” it’s about women and girls whose “lives range from the time of the English colonists to present-day America. [...] Some have names you might recognize, though most are shadowy figures lost to time—women and girls slipping through the world unseen.” Their “collective invisibility” becomes “the real story.” The very reason for being of this book seems to be: “saying that nothing was really lost forever—can there be anything so captivating in all the world?”

Sonja is the author of Ghostbread, which won the AWP Book Prize for Nonfiction, and the newly-released Queen of the Fall. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Memphis.

Entertain me, I say on the phone to my closest, oldest friends, and they ask the same in return. We mean a putting-aside of ego and an attempt to tell tales that encapsulate something true. It’s what the writers in the Crux series do too, holding something significant before us for consideration. I hope you’ll read them and consider joining us if you write yourself. Either way, I look forward to hearing from you.


John Griswold is assistant professor in the MFA program at McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Editor of The McNeese Review. His latest book is a collection of essays from the University of Georgia Press, called Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life.

His work has appeared in War, Literature and the Arts; Brevity; Natural Bridge; and Ninth Letter. He’s also written, as Oronte Churm, for McSweeney's Internet Tendency and Inside Higher Ed, where he’s blogged since 2006. Contact him at <>.

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