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Everyone's life is interesting: Defending confessional nonfiction

The Reading Life

January 07, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • "Still Life With Typewriter" (1951) by Renato Guttoso.
"Still Life With Typewriter" (1951) by Renato Guttoso. (Handout )

There’s a fundamental flaw in “Journalism Is Not Narcissism,” Hamilton Nolan’s recent Gawker post deriding confessional nonfiction: The first-person essays he finds so self-indulgent are not journalism.

Sure, they appear in newspapers and magazines, but so do comics, op-eds, commentary — none of which are exactly news. That’s the beauty of mass market publications, that they can encompass a range of approaches, that one form does not have to preclude another, that, ideally, there is something for everyone.

Nor, for that matter, are such pieces necessarily narcissistic, although I agree with Nolan that many are. (Elizabeth Wurtzel's piece about her “One-Night Stand of a Life,” which went live on New York Magazine's website over the weekend, is a perfect case in point.)

Still, the power of personal essays, when they’re working, is that they break down the boundaries that divide us by making individual circumstances universal, allowing us to share an experience in the most important sense.

I think of, say, Emily Rapp’s  “Notes From a Dragon Mom,” which appeared in the New York Times in late 2011 and traces, with neither pity nor self-absorption, the author’s situation as the mother of a child dying of Tay-Sachs. There’s no way to read such a piece without internalizing its essential message, which is to appreciate the moment since the moment is all we ever have.

Nolan’s post was written in reaction to another New York Times piece, by essayist and writing teacher Susan Shapiro, who describes her use of “the humiliation essay” as a way of getting students to open up. It’s a valid strategy, one I’ve used myself in the classroom, although Shapiro’s purpose is only partly aesthetic: More to the point, she wants to help her students sell.

It is this to which Nolan objects most strenuously, considering it a symptom of a literary landscape where “the only way … [to] get published and sell stories and books and have careers as professional writers is to exploit every last tawdry twist and turn of their own lives for profit.”

He continues: “Her takeaway from editors’ and agents’ demands for interesting stories is, ‘Sharing internal traumas on page one makes you immediately knowable, lovable and engrossing.’ She is teaching a gimmick: the confessional as attention-grabber. Her students could just as well include naked photos in their essays, for the same effect.”

What Nolan is critiquing is the culture of confession, which has without question run amok. Blogs, Twitter, reality television — everywhere we look, people expose themselves.

And yet, the paradox is that the more mindless the narcissism with which we are confronted, the more we need relentless confessional work. It’s the difference between art and artifice, between self-expression and self-importance, and it gets at the key conundrum of this sort of writing: You have to be willing to reveal everything to get outside yourself.

Nolan’s inability (or unwillingness) to recognize this has provoked its share of pushback; late last week, both memoirist Jillian Lauren and Rumpus editor Stephen Elliott weighed in. “It’s never the form that’s the problem and it’s never the subject that’s the problem,” Lauren writes, and this, I think, is exactly right.

As for Elliott, he hits a little harder: “Hamilton,” he writes, “talks about writers struggling to be read and editors using personal essays as link bait. At last count his essay had 40,737 hits and 182 comments. Blog posts attacking memoir also make for good link bait.”

That’s true also, and it points to another cultural conundrum, that in a world of constant cross-reaction, we are often guilty of what we rail against. This is what the best confessional writing opposes, offering instead a rigor, an insistence on getting below the surface, on exposing our motives as well as our acts.

Like Elliott, I disagree with Nolan’s assertion that “most people’s lives are not that interesting”; on the contrary, everyone’s life is interesting, although not everyone can tell his or her story well.

But that’s the point, isn’t it — that literature is difficult, that it requires insight, honesty, courage to tell our stories, that, as Raymond Chandler wrote in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” “There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.”

Chandler, of course, was defending detective fiction, another unfairly maligned form. I can’t help thinking, though, that he refutes Nolan’s argument most eloquently when he writes, “It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with. … Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.”


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