Against a Literature of Fact (Part I. Dave’s Take.)

categories: Cocktail Hour


 One phrase that I’d like to bury for a while is “the literature of fact.”  Though I’m a fan of  John McPhee, I think those words he created have now done more harm than good. They do a disservice to all the exciting things going on in nonfiction, and they say, “Okay, you fact guys line up on one wall and you James Frey-types line up on the other.”

In the limited sense that the phrase it is too often taken, it just means a newer, shinier type of journalism, the sort of nonfiction you see reviewed in the Times.  What am I suggesting in its stead?   Not memoir per se.  As a teacher, too much of what I see all day is some variant of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” (or, sometimes, “What I Did on My Cancerous Summer Vacation.”)  No, what I’d like to see and read is nonfiction that doesn’t tell a life so much as it uses life experiences, that is, nonfiction that picks up a part of a life and examines it, smells it, maybe chews on it a little.  That to me is what’s missing.  Fact is important; fact is vital.  But it is just the foundation, the place to build up from.“The mind is a burrowing organ,” wrote Thoreau.  And that’s just it—just what I’m looking for.   Burrowing literature. I want facts, sure, but I also want something that tunnels below the facts.  I want to watch a mind in action, a person using his or her mind to work down through those facts, hording the ones they need and tossing aside the ones they don’t, and, most of all, putting those facts to use. That is what excites me.  That is what gets me turning pages.

How can I get so excited about reading writers who at times seem preoccupied only with working out the algebra of their own lives? The standard explanation seems to be that by plumbing their own depths, by so well exploring themselves, they let us look into our own selves, and there is something to this.  But there’s more. What we discover when we read, and really interact with, these writers, even the dead ones, is that they are living—yes, still living—human beings who are burrowing deeply into their own lives and the world around them.  They are trying to make sense of both the world and themselves, and they are trying hard. (Why wouldn’t they try hard?  This is their one and only life!)  Why am I so concerned with this burrowing literature?   Maybe in part because it’s so exciting to me.  This is the excitement of quest, though this quest is not after a dragon or a pot of gold, but for the answer to a question.   That question is a simple one: how to be on earth during our short time here?  What should we spend our time doing?  Who should we become?  And, that question at the heart of the mystery again: How to be?

These are the questions that keep me on the edge of my seat, curious, rapt, engaged, and if we read these writers for a while we find that these concerns are contagious.  By watching their burrowing minds in action, we begin to see that we can burrow, too.

* * *

This is not to say I’m against research.  For a book about ospreys I read all I could about the birds, did dozens of interviews, and spent the better part of a year sitting out on marshes studying the birds with binoculars, telescope and my bare eye.  But I wasn’t there to write a field guide.  I was out there to learn about the birds but, obviously, to also find out a thing or two about myself.

I know I am consciously misconstruing McPhee here.  But toward a purpose and toward an end.  The nonfiction that is featured in today’s book reviews, the nonfiction that gets by those goalies we call marketers and publicists and editors, is often the much bolstered equivalent of a book report.  Book reports are nice and much needed.  But to my eye, ear and mind, there is something deeper, something better.  Something that feeds a part of us that we don’t even know needs to be fed until we encounter the right book.  It is the literature of Montaigne, of Thoreau.  It is burrowing literature and in witnessing the burrowing of others we may even begin to dig a little ourselves.  Which is an exciting, and hopeful, thing.

P.S. If you are interested in this stuff, I recently finished a longer essay on the topic.  I sent it to a couple of magazines but learned, to my surprise, that I was a little behind the curve in my thinking, and that someone named David Shields had cornered the market on these type of thoughts.  I’ve since started to read Shields’ book, Reality Hunger, which, ironically points out just how un-original we all really are and how heavily we lean on others (something I agree with [see Talking to Ghosts] and find freeing.)  Since I haven’t finished the book, I don’t yet know if Shields is also prescribing “Burrowing Literature,” but when I do finish I’ll write up my reactions in Reading Under the Influence.

  1. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Enjoyed your long essay, Dave. And I think the times are on your side. There’s a hunger for personal accounts to make sense of our fractured world and of all the unmoored journalism that surrounds us. Your essay deals much with self, and that’s appropriate since one can’t have art without an artist. Not that writing has to be autobiographical or even overtly personal, but art–true literature–is personal, deeply so, and that sets it apart from an article.

    As for Reality Hunger, you can bend it to your point or take it on: the book, while stimulating, is that incoherent. I believe that to really place Mr. Shields’ stance, one must read or reread Annie Dillard’s Living by Fiction, which has much more to say about fiction, nonfiction, and literary trends. And her insights will stick with you!


  2. Dave writes:

    Dear Jess, Steven, and JJ,

    Thanks for the great and thoughtful responses. I was out for drinks (a recurring theme) with some grad students the other night, and when they said they read the blog I asked why they never wrote responses. They said, in effect, that the responses that were already up were too smart and therefore intimidating. So if you could make your responses a little dumber it might help. Maybe just once in a while go with “Shit ya!” or something like that. (But, jokes aside, keep them like they are please!)

    Jess: yes, I agree about college students! And to see that essay, “Against a Literature of Fact,” that I refered to you can just click on “longer essay” in the last graph of the post. I should have been more clear about that.

  3. Jess Robert writes:

    Much of what’s been said above resonates with me. My children 10 and 13 do get more excited when a book or movie claims to be based on a true story. I tell them most stories are. I say, what’s the difference a good story is a good story. I find that my college students have not read a lot of nonfiction and do not care to. They say, we’ve had enough of reality. All good literature aims a truth.

    Great nonfiction and great fiction both burrow and circle a subject until it’s been squeezed and carressed on all sides.

    All great literature helps us answer the question, How do we want to live our lives. Or as you say Dave, “How to be.” I’ll read Reality Hunger, but I would also love to read a copy of your longer piece on the subject. Loving the blog!

  4. Steven Stafford writes:

    Great post! I’m with you 100% on this one. I (try) to write (something like) fiction and I’m sick of people asking me if it’s autobiographical. That’s beside the point! Why can’t the book be judged as a book and not have to compete with reality? It’s sort of like when movie trailers positively boast that such-and-such is “based on a true story.” Why should this make me more motivated to see this movie? How about telling me if it’s a good movie or not?

    So, it seems both autobiography and fiction are misunderstood. On the one hand, people accost Nathan Zuckerman saying he surely couldn’t have made up the stuff in Carnovsky. On the other, doing any writerly work with “true stories” is considered somehow authentic or cheap sexification (if I may coin the term here).

    All the great writers used their experiences; they also did not use their experiences. The object of writing is to write something good; if drawing on memory helps, do it! If it is a kind of cage, don’t!

    Writers also can’t waste time worrying about such things. It often becomes navel-gazing. Our job is to write something good, not fit into someone’s doctoral dissertation.

  5. John Jack writes:

    Creative nonfiction I like does what fiction I like does, transports me into the meaning spaces of viewpoint characters’–and/or setting situations’–insuperable struggles and resonates with my experiences, but with a caveat of actually real proxy reality participation mystiques underlying nonfiction.

    Actually real proxy reality doesn’t easily jeopardize willing suspension of disbelief, though Frey, I believe, challenged and was laid low by running afoul of that implicit contract. He told the biggest lie to himself, that no one would notice he embellished the truth of events as even he knew them. I understand he continues to enjoy a successful fiction writing career.

    I prefer literature that transports me into a magical telepresence of a fellow traveler’s mind and meaning space. Like a phone call. If a caller is unknown to me, a cold call, I’ve very few prepositioned cues to go on. Rapport with strangers isn’t automatic. Actually, the presumptiveness of an unexpected telephone intrusion tends to alienate me from the get-go. Telephone solicitations have pat and predictable rapport-building routines guaranteeing my alienation.

    Personable strangers calling enjoy the benefit of doubt. If a caller is known to me, I’m visualizing appearances, prospecting for clues to mood. If I know the setting the caller calls from, I’m transported into the caller’s presence. Rapport. Deep, deep rapport so strong I’m there within a reality proxy of the caller’s reality. I see the caller’s expressions, gestures, surroundings, feel the caller’s emotions as really as if I’m there interacting in the flesh with the caller.

    In short, I want what narrative art does better than any other media, a private, intimate emotional experience I can make into my own, vicariously. Call me selfish, an emotional vampire perhaps, though in my considered opinion, nonconscious reader expectations are universal in that regard.

    About the only appreciable difference I see between fiction and creative nonfiction (or journalism) lies where personally taking responsibility and revealing personal vulnerability arise. Fiction passes personal responsibility and vulnerability onto ficyional narrators and characters. Journalism impersonally passes responsibility, at least, perhaps vulnerability, judgment, and blame too, onto implied readers. Creative nonfiction bravely owns personal responsibility and vulnerability.