David Ulin, the new editor of the Los Angeles Book Review, has a thoughtful – and right on – essay about the line between truth and fiction in memoir. He points out that a number of accomplished memoirists – Anne Dillard, Vivian Gornick, and Hunter S. Thompson, have admitted over the years that they massaged the truth to reach something deeper in their books. But what James Frey did still stands out.
“For writers like Dillard, Gornick and Thompson, what's at issue is emotional truth, the need to re-create the sensibility, the tenor, of an experience in a reader's mind. This is the essence of literature, which like all art, operates at a level beyond the rational, according to rules of its own. In literature, truth is not so much known as it is felt, and empathy is as important as understanding. In literature, the logic of the story can sometimes trump the logic of the world. If this sounds disingenuous, it's not meant to — on the contrary, it's what makes art resonate.
To tell a story is in a very real way to cast off the veils of genre and simply see what works. That's particularly the case in the nebulous category known as creative nonfiction, which exists somewhere between truth and invention, in a territory that's still taking shape. You'd be hard pressed to find a work of creative nonfiction that didn't involve some degree of reinvention, whether in the construction of scenes (description, dialogue) or the interpretive filter every writer brings to his or her version of events. Is this dishonest? No more so than memory, with its vagaries and false turns: a narrow, flawed and ultimately subjective window on the world.
For a lot of people, the very phrase "creative nonfiction" is an oxymoron. There's nothing creative, they would say, about the truth. But the more you think about it, the more such an argument becomes specious or (worse) unsophisticated, a misunderstanding of how creative writing works. The decision to tell a story is a fictionalizing impulse: to take the chaos of reality and shape it, looking for order, meaning, where none inherently exists. This is as true of memoir as it is of the novel. Genre distinctions aside, most writers try to tell the truth as they see it, to reveal something lasting about their experience. Frey, we now know, had other intentions; he lied, pure and simple, and for reasons that had nothing to do with literature. It was not emotional truth that he was after, but emotional untruth, a willful obfuscation in the interest of appearing to be something he was not. Still, for all the pathological aspects of his story, it does touch on more important — and more interesting — questions, reminding us that every piece of writing is, at bottom, a construction, an attempt to frame a moment and present it in cohesive form.”
In another LA Times matter, the new magazine West was unveiled on Sunday. As a California writer, I am excited about West’s ambition to cover the entire state, to engage its history and future and run pieces that illuminate the puzzle that is California.
Rick Wartzman is the new editor, and he brings the eye of a journalist and author to his position. I met him briefly last summer at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and was impressed by his willingness to try new things. Next week, Berkeley author Carla Shrapreau will have a piece on violins – their creation and the black market for stolen ones. She brought the piece to be workshopped at Squaw. Wartzman was assigned to edit and comment on it and he liked it so much he bought it on the spot. That’s what I call a good editor. Here’s a bit from his editor’s note.
"The state is an immense canvas, and we aim to capture it in the grandest sense imaginable: our dreamers and pragmatists; our mountains, deserts and coast; our endless urban sprawl; Hollywood, Silicon Valley and the biggest farm belt in the nation in between; our multiethnic stew; the challenges brought on by our exploding population; style, design and fashion; music and literature; and on and on and on....
From time to time, we'll also cover subjects that shape the larger Western region. And we'll write from locations that practically seem like suburbs, given their nexus to California. Think Las Vegas, the Pacific Rim, Latin America."
I am a fan of the San Francisco Chronicle, but both its magazine and book review section are on life support. The poor Chronicle is bleeding money – it lost more readers last year than any other newspaper – and it clearly isn’t dedicating many resources to the sections of the paper it deems non-essential. That said, the paper had a great piece this Sunday on certain violent police officers. I also liked the recent series on how global warming is affecting the Pacific Rim.