Monday, September 16, 2019

Natalie Villacorta: the Right Amount of Real

“I find I can listen to talk radio in a way that I can’t abide the network news—the sound of human voices waking before they drown,” David Shields wrote in Reality Hunger. Though the book was published in 2010, that sentiment continues to resonate in our current moment, when CNN and Fox News tell such different versions of the same events. Shields’ argument that we were living in a time when, less and less exposed to “reality,” we hungered for it, continues to hold up today. If anything, with our president continually claiming inconvenient truths to be “fake news,” it seems our reality hunger has only increased.
     Shields observed that our reality hunger was reflected by a growing artistic movement across a “multitude of forms and media” that aimed to include “larger and larger chunks of reality.” This art was characterized by:
a deliberate unartiness: ‘raw’ material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. ...Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.
Eight years later, this describes much of the art that’s popular today. Consider, for example, the convention of podcast hosts to “display an air of naiveté, and for audio to incorporate mundanities of the reporting process,” as Rebecca Mead recently wrote in the New Yorker. Or the popularity of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a series of novels which purport to reconstruct the author’s life, as well as the overall recent literary trend towards autofiction—novels in which the narrators often share biographical details—including names—with the authors, whose intention is to deliberately blur the line between fiction and nonfiction.
     But Knausgaard’s books have been criticized as “tedious” in their dutiful reproduction of his life events—no matter how trivial or inconsequential—and his faithfulness to reconstructing his reality over the laws of narrative structure and the needs of his readers. As critic Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out his recent review of the last installment of My Struggle in the Times, an account of teenaged Knausgaard trying to acquire booze for a New Year’s Eve celebration stretches over 70 pages (of the more than one thousand-page book).
     Mendelsohn’s criticism of Knausgaard raises a larger question for “reality art”: How unartful can art get before our audience rejects it? How raw? How unprocessed, how unfiltered, how uncensored, how unprofessional, how random? In brief, how messy can we, as artists, get?
     Perhaps part of the answer lies in a qualifier that Shields uses to describe reality art: it is “seemingly unprocessed” (my emphasis). Not unprocessed, but rather seemingly unprocessed. In other words, the rawness of the art may be a performance. And perhaps it must be. Even if it’s nonfiction. As Shields quotes in Reality Hunger, “good nonfiction has to be as carefully shaped as good fiction, and I’m not bothered at all by this artifice.” Readers want what they’re reading to feel real and, as part of that, to feel “raw” or “unprocessed,” but they don’t actually want it raw and unprocessed, because then it would just be a mess, too difficult to make sense of, too specific to engage with.
     The first form that Shields lists in his long list of reality art is the lyric essay, and it is this form that I’d like to use to explore this question of how messy we can get because, while lyric essay is by no means a new form, it has increased in visibility and popularity since the term was coined in 1997, which seems representative of our “reality hunger.” “I want books to be equal to the complexity of experience, memory, and thought, not flattening it out with either linear narrative (traditional novel) or smooth recount (standard memoir),” Shields writes; this is what lyric essays do—they embrace complexity, rather than smooth over it, and thus may be more reflective of real life.
     But this complexity also makes lyric essays difficult to define. Practitioners of the form, including myself, often struggle to explain what a lyric essay even is. If you’re reading this you likely have a solid grasp—or as solid of a grasp as is possible for this slippery form—but just in case, here’s how the form’s namers, Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, describe it:
These "poetic essays" or "essayistic poems" give primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information. They forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.
The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.
     Well, this is confusing. How can Shields claim that lyric essay belongs to this artistic movement defined by a deliberate unartiness, while D’Agata and Tall argue that lyric essays “give primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information”? Indeed “shapeliness” and “distillation of ideas and musicality of language” sound quite artful, quite processed, quite filtered, quite censored, quite professional.
     And yet, D’Agata and Tall mention other characteristics of the lyric essay that seem consistent with the reality art Shields is talking about: lyric essays contain gaps, they meander, they are storyless, they set off on an uncharted course, they may arrive somewhere that might still leave questions, they leave pieces of experience undigested. And so, lyric essays are contradictory: both artful and unartful. This brings us back to the word seemingly. The unartfulness is part of the performance. We want our art to seem real, but we don’t want it to be too real.
     In The Essay Review, Amy Bonnaffons writes that the lyric essay “might resemble chaos and formlessness at first, but upon closer look, might accurately represent the bright mess of a particular mind, inside a particular body, inside the vivid confusions of our shared world.” Here the word “resemble” is as important as Shields’ “seemingly”—the essay ought to look like chaos, but when you look closer, you see that it is controlled chaos. But will readers look closer to see that the chaos only looks like chaos and is, in fact, crafted chaos? How messy should our lyric essays be?
     To explore these questions, I’d like to examine the work of Sei Shonagon, an 11th Century Japanese writer who served as a court lady to Empress Teishi. Her collection of observations from court was published during her life time under the title The Pillow Book, to popular acclaim. Shonagon was writing long before 1997, when the term “lyric essay” was coined, of course, and so she would not have called her work lyric essay, so it may seem odd to use Shonagon—to turn to the past, that is—to think about how lyric essays—and, more broadly, reality art—should work today. But I think The Pillow Book possesses many of the characteristics of lyric essay as described by D’Agata and Tall—as many other writers have pointed out, writers were combining essay and lyricism long before 1997; what D’Agata and Tall did was give something that writers were already doing a label and the label gave the form more visibility, and allowed writers to write into the form.
     Shonagon’s The Pillow Book is at once artful and unartful. And yet Shonagon claims that the work wasn’t written with an audience in mind. “It is written entirely for my own amusement and I put things down exactly as they came to me,” she claims, at the end of the book. “Everything that I have seen and felt is included.” In other words, Shonagon is insisting that The Pillow Book is real: raw, unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, random. “I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material,” she writes. Do we actually buy what Shonagon is claiming?
     Shonagon’s words recall those of Michel de Montaigne, who is considered by many to be the father of the essay. He begins his 16th Century Essais with a letter “To the Reader,” in which he warns that he has set “no goal but a domestic and private one. I have had no thought of serving either you or my own glory.” Instead, he insists, he has written it for his family and friends so that when he is gone they can “recover here some features of [his] habits and temperament.” His evidence for his lack of a public aim: “If I had written to seek the world’s favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture.” Like Shonagon, Montaigne insists that his project is real; he presents himself in his “simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice.”
     Of course, these claims to unartfulness are part of the art. They encourage a reading of material that feels “real,” though when you look closer, there is much about both Shonagon and Montaigne’s writings that indicate plenty of artfulness. Here’s Montaigne, as quoted by Shields in Reality Hunger, admitting to this, contradicting his statement from “To the Reader”: “Painting myself for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made me.”
     The goal, then, seems to be to clean up reality enough so that it’s clear for the reader, but not clean it up so much that it loses the feeling of realness. Shonagon, who Shields does not cite, is a master of finding this balance between artifice and authenticity. In other words, her writings feel “real,” but not too real. They strike a wonderful balance between honoring her own amusement and paying attention to the needs of a larger audience. The Pillow Book possesses many of the qualities of Shields’ reality art, including randomness/spontaneity and material that seems unfiltered/uncensored/unprocessed. And yet there are other characteristics that suggest Shonagon was shaping her writing for a larger audience, including its organization, her use of repetition, her use of the second person, and her mix of generalizations with particular details. As such, Shonagon seems to walk the line between too messy and not messy enough to feel real.
     There is a playful sense of spontaneity in Shonagon’s writings that do suggest an allegiance to the movement of her own mind rather than the needs of an outside reader. For example, her list “Depressing Things,” begins: “A dog howling in daytime. A wickerwork fish-net in spring. A red plum-blossom dress in the Third or Fourth Months. A lying-in room when the baby has died.” The list seems presented in the order in which the objects occurred to Shonagon. There is no connection between a dog and a fish-net and a dress to the nursery of a dead baby—other than the fact that Shonagon finds them all depressing—or, if there is a connection, Shonagon does not bother to explain. Perhaps, we might imagine, if Shonagon was writing for a reader, she would link the objects in her list or explain their connection. But if she did, then the writing would lose its quick pace, its sense of surprise, the delight the reader takes in seeing where Shonagon’s mind will go next, unable to predict its course.
     In another example of her spontaneity, Shonagon breaks the form she has established for herself. In “Hateful Things,” she catalogues all the things she finds hateful. But at the end of the essay, she breaks the form and moves away from the hateful things lovers do to the wonderful things that lovers do: “A good lover will behave as elegantly at dawn as at any other time,” she writes, going on to describe a scene in which a lover reluctantly takes leave of his beloved. This break suggests spontaneity; it doesn’t fit with the form, but she goes with it anyways, and for the reader, this movement is refreshing, a delightful surprise. Perhaps we are growing weary of all the hateful things Shonagon sees in the world, and find it pleasant to end on a positive note.
     But while Shonagon’s writing possesses an exciting sense of spontaneity, a willingness to chase a thought or an idea, it is not too random, it does not meander so far that the reader asks: how did I end up here? What does this have to do with the topic? She balances the spontaneity with thoughtful organization. Not only does she group her observations into lists (“Depressing Things,” “Splendid Things,” “Rare Things”), within those lists, observations are grouped based on theme. In “Hateful Things,” for example, she groups all the hateful things related to language, all those related to noises, and all those related to the annoying things lovers do. This grouping makes the observations easier to follow; we don’t feel constantly lurched from one subject to another. And yet it might also be faithful to the movement of her mind, the way memory works: one memory of a distasteful thing a lady-in-waiting said gives way to another memory of a distasteful thing a high-ranking official once said.
     Further suggesting attention to a reader, Shonagon’s writing has a considered pace, with short observations alternated by long ones. After a series of lengthier observations of hateful uses of language, for example, she breaks into a bunch of short observations: “A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him but who speaks in an affected tone. An inkstone with such a hard, smooth surface that the stick glides over it without leaving any despite of ink.” This mix of short and long seems to suggest an attention to a reader’s attention span. Perhaps the reader is growing weary of these long ruminations, and so she changes the pace with short observations. She also seems aware that during these long ruminations, a reader might forget the original idea of the essay, and so, she reminds her. Shonagon does this by repeating, with slight variation, the theme of the essay at the end of observations. For example, throughout “Hateful things,” she reminds us that’s what we’re reading about: “Hateful!” she concludes after an observation of children who take advantage of one’s kindness, showing up at one’s house without invitation and displacing one’s things. “Very hateful.” (when a maid wakes one with a look on her face that says, “What a sleepyhead!”) “—disgusting behavior!” (when someone interrupts a story you’re telling) “—most hateful” (when someone forces unsolicited advice upon you). These repetitions are like crumbs for the reader to follow through the forest of Shonagon’s mind.
     True to her end note, much of the material of The Pillow Book feels uncensored, or unfiltered, or unprocessed, which creates a sense of intimacy: we as readers are being let in on something secret and thus, something true. She discusses in detail personal subjects, such as rendezvous with lovers. She freely admits malicious feelings she has about people. She does not shy away from admitting petty things about herself. For example, in “Hateful Things,” she admits to detesting “anyone who sneezes, except the master of the house.” Similarly, she admits: “If I am travelling in someone’s carriage and I hear it creaking, I dislike not only the noise but also the owner of the carriage.” Shonagon’s willingness to admit things that paint her in an unflattering light again suggests a “realness” to the writing.
     In addition to feeling uncensored or unfiltered, the material often feels unprocessed. That is, Shonagon thinks on the page. Sometimes she will pronounce a judgement on something and then, thinking about it more deeply, she will revise that thinking. In “Flowering Trees,” for example, she writes that “the pear blossom can be compared to the face of a plain woman; for its coloring lacks all charm.” But then she revises this thought: “Or so, at least, I used to think.” After recalling that the Chinese laud the pear blossom, which populates their poetry, she looks more closely and is “surprised to find that its petals were prettily edged with a pink tinge.” This pulling back of the curtain, the revealing of her thought-process, too creates a sense of “realness.” She’s not giving us the final, polished thought. She’s showing us the sometimes-messy process of arriving there.
     But while her material feels uncensored, unfiltered, and unprocessed, faithful to what she finds interesting, there is also evidence that she has considered what an outside reader might need to find the material interesting. For example, only rarely does Shonagon write in the first person. The rest of the time she frames her experiences in the second person: “One is just about to be told some interesting piece of news when a baby starts crying.” The second person makes Shonagon’s personal experience more universal; it enables readers to put themselves in the shoes of an 11th Century court lady and see the commonality of their experiences, the truth of her words. Shonagon also mixes the particular details of her life with more general observations, which suggests an attention to relatability. While few people, for example, might be able to relate to the story of a “hopeful candidate who fails to receive a post during the period of official appointments,” and understand why it’s depressing, most of us can agree it’s distasteful “to envy others and to complain about one’s lot: to speak badly about people; to be inquisitive about the most trivial matters…”
     Here, Shonagon is demonstrating another characteristic of essay: self-consciousness. She knows that it is distasteful to be inquisitive about trivial matters, as she is being in The Pillow Book and yet, she can’t help it, and neither can we—that’s why we’re reading The Pillow Book. We crave the trivial, the everyday, the real. In her end note, Shonagon expresses surprise that people wanted to read her “casual jottings.” “How could my casual jottings possibly bear comparison with the many impressive books that exist in our time?” she wrote. But it is the book’s very sense of casualness that attracts us. A casualness balanced by craft. Sei Shonagon: an early reality hunger artist.
     But since Shonagon’s time, perhaps art has gotten too real, too messy.
     While reading Durga Chew-Bose’s essay “Heart Museum,” published in her 2017 collection Too Much and Not the Mood, I kept thinking of Shonagon’s lists and making comparisons between the two writers’ work—despite the unfairness of the comparison due to the huge differential in time and culture, publishing industry, and more. In “Heart Museum,” Chew-Bose catalogues the circumstances that she is amazed to find her heart capable of beating through. A Shonagon-style title for this essay might be: “Things that inspire awe” or “Things full of wonder.” Chew-Bose uses many of the same techniques as Shonagon to walk the line between real/too real, including mixing randomness/spontaneity with experiences grouped based on theme (sports, movies, music) and mixing longer blocks of text with short, punchy sentences and fragments. She also reminds the reader when she heavily digresses that it’s the heart that unites all the things she’s writing about, lest they forget “Our heart never stops.” “My heart does not stop beating,” “my heart doesn’t stop.” Similarly, she uses anaphora—the repetition of sentence beginnings—to link her ideas, which is helpful.
     And yet Chew-Bose’s essay feels messier, less friendly to readers, than Shonagon’s. This is because of the essay’s wide breadth (and thus its length at 93 pages) and the particularity of its material. The frame of the essay is quite broad, including everything that she is amazed that her heart can keep beating through—both positive and negative experiences, a mix of cultural experiences (art, movies, music, books, etc.) and personal experiences (friends, family, lovers, strangers)—as well as multi-page digressions, such as one about her paternal grandfather, or another about her grandmother. At first, it is amazing to see how Chew-Bose’s imagination moves from one thought to the next, from euphoria to dread from one paragraph to the next—from the joy of meeting someone who loves the same movie as you do to “bills, deferred goals, and all the boring bits [of life]”—from poetry to her friend Jackie crying to Broadway plays to cake batter to music videos. And indeed, this movement is Chew-Bose’s goal: “Why not want a little mania? The thrill of change, of what’s weird….” she writes. But the essay feels like it contains more than a “little mania.” The reader can only endure so much movement before she grows nauseous. The essay exceeds my desire for spontaneity and surprise. I wonder if readers would have been better served if Chew-Bose had organized the material within the essay more by subject matter or narrowed the focus of the essay, broken the material up into separate essays. If Shonagon had been writing this essay, I think she would have divided these observations up into more specific lists. And, in fact, Shonagon did write her own versions of this essay. Some of her lists: “Occasions that induce half-heartedness”; “things that make your heart beat fast”; “things that make the heart lurch with anxiety.” All these things—and more—can be found in Chew-Bose’s 93-page essay. A few sub-lists I imagine being drawn out: “Movies that thrill” or “Things my father’s plaid shirt from the ’70s smells like” or “What ‘nook people’ are like.” But with its wide breadth, the essay feels like it something that could appear on Shonagon’s list “Things that make the heart lurch.”
     The breadth of the essay leads to its exhausting length. And while it’s a feat for Chew-Bose to sustain this series of associations (“Endurance is a talent that seldom worries about looking good… The intention shouldn’t only be to polish what we start but to acknowledge that beginning again and again can possess the acquisitive thrill of a countdown that never reaches zero,” she writes.) the essay feels like it begins too many times, and is not polished enough, in terms of choices made about what to include and exclude. I grew weary of the deluge, of pages and pages of dense (though often delightful and musical) text without any line breaks. While I was reading, I continually caught myself asking: how much longer will this go on?
     And though Chew-Bose, like Shonagon, mixes particular personal experiences with the general, the essay is heavy on particulars, so much so that I as a reader began to feel left out. I felt very connected, for example, when Chew-Bose talked about the pleasure of listening to a good album for the first time or the momentum gained from reading a great book, or the satisfaction of lacing up ice skates (“the firm tug of hooking the top part of the boot”). But much of the essay consisted of cultural references to art that I hadn’t experienced. Often a writer can write about art I haven’t experienced in a way that makes me want to go experience that art—put down the book and go watch a movie or listen to a song—but the effect of Chew-Bose’s allusions was often just a feeling of exclusion. At first, I admired Chew-Bose for being so omnivorous—in fact, I envied her. And when she described a cultural artifact that I had experience with— a memorable one being her description of Leonardo DiCaprio ogling Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet—I felt like I was part of her cool club—a feeling similar to how I felt when the hip, black-clad, New York-bound girls in my college writing workshop complimented something I had written. But, as she continually described art that I hadn’t experienced—Cassavetes movies I hadn’t seen, Michael Jackson songs I hadn’t heard, Annie Dillard books I hadn’t read, Frank O’Hara poems I hadn’t read—I started to feel ignored, left out, unintellectual and uncultured even. The essay was so littered with cultural references to the extent that, in parts, it starts to seem like we’re being shown Chew-Bose’s “Viewing Activity” page on her Netflix account or her Goodreads “Read” list or her Spotify library. Take this series of artists to whom, Chew-Bose says, she has written out of admiration for their art:
I’ve written to Claire Denis, Maren Ade, to James Gray’s New York, to Mia Hansen-Love’s yearning boyish-girlish unease. To her films as photo albums. To her regard for a person’s things. I’ve written to Abbas Kiarostami’s ballads.” And then, a few sentences later, “I’ll send notes, again and again, to Wong Kar-wai. To Wim Wenders and his roads, and those questions that can only occur in cars. To Maya Deren! To Jane Campion! Andrea Arnold! Desplechin!
     I have no idea who any of these artists are, and she doesn’t tell me enough about them to understand what about them inspires her, and so it’s unclear to me the purpose of this riff, other than to illustrate her deep knowledge of non-mainstream cinema. I had a similar feeling when Chew-Bose describes, for seven pages, “nook people.” “I don’t require much to feel far-removed; to impose my wanderings on what’s close,” she writes; people who share with her this tendency are fellow nook people. The feeling I had reading this catalogue of the characteristics of nook people was that they were superior to what I’ll call us “Wide Open Spaces” people (that’s a Dixie Chicks reference, by the way, and listening to the song as a recent college graduate made me feel like the world was my oyster). In sum, while Shonagon insists that she has faithfully recorded only what interests her, Chew-Bose seems to have taken this too far, not regarding her reader enough. Indeed, Shonagon seems to have thought more about an outside reader than Chew-Bose, even though she supposedly wrote them for herself, while Chew-Bose clearly intended to publish her writing from the get go.
     But this lack of regard for the reader is intentional. Her book of essays is entitled Too Much and Not the Mood, which comes from an entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary in which she described how exhausted she was of laboring over her writing, the “cramming in and cutting out” to please other readers. Chew-Bose doesn’t want to change her writing to please readers, and I respect this. But I believe that it will cost her some readers. (Knausgaard, who I mentioned earlier, writes quickly, without much revising, and his books are read widely, but I wonder if he gets away with his prolixity because his books are so narrative, full of vividly detailed scene). And she is aware of this cost. We know she thinks of her audience and how they’re reacting, as she writes: “I digress intentionally…Testing the reach of my tangents. Likely failing.” In sum, I think that Chew-Bose’s essay is too real for some readers, who may feel that it is too much and not be in the mood for its digressions, its length, its attention to the particular.
     This is our challenge as “reality hunger” artists. To find the right amount of digression. The right amount of randomness. Material that’s unprocessed but not uncooked. Unfiltered/uncensored but not too much. And so, I’m not sure I agree with Shields that “We want work to be equal to the complexity of experience, memory, and thought, not flattening it out.” I do think we want work to be complex, but I don’t think we want it to be equal to the complexity of real life. Work ought to be real enough that our readers listen to us, trust us, relate to us, but not too real that they see a mess, chaos, and walk away. We want to start somewhere and end elsewhere, as Chew-Bose writes, but we don’t want to give our readers motion-sickness along the way, take too long to get that elsewhere, and end up too far away. We want our endings to be satisfying but not too neat. “Writing that clinches,” Chew-Bose writes, “lacks incandescence—the embers have cooled.”

Natalie Villacorta is a writer from McLean, Virginia. Her stories and essays have appeared in Hobart, DIAGRAM, The Offing, and Moss. She is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.

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