LITERARY NON-FICTION: THE WARP AND WOOF OF PUBLIC NARRATIVE.
Since 2005, I’ve been a member of the Advisory Board of the Mayborn Literary Non-Fiction Conference of the Southwest hosted by the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of North Texas in Denton. In its fourth year now, the Mayborn Conference has showcased a stellar array of literary non-fiction writers, including Gay Talese, author of Honor Thy Father, among other works.
What I have come to realize as a consequence of this encounter with literary non-fiction is that we live in a storied world. Everything about us as human beings revolves around “story”—that ancient act of “telling,” of marshalling words into a scheme of images that square with the experiences we seek to share with others. In a Sunday Times Magazine piece (February 1999:39), Bryan Appleyard wrote:
“We tell stories to ourselves; of our journey from birth to death, friends, families, who we are and who we want to be. Or public stories about history and politics, about our country, our race or our religion. At each moment of our lives these stories place us in space and time. They console us, making our lives meaningful by placing us in something bigger than ourselves. Maybe the story is just that we are alive, that we have to feed the cat or educate the children. Or maybe it’s about a lifelong struggle for salvation or liberation. Either way—however [extended] or [brief] the story—the human impulse is to make sense of each moment by referring it to a larger [public] narrative.”
Quoted in Narrative by Paul Cobley, Routledge, 2001: 1.
Story is always about representation. In this sense literary non-fiction is about representation and how to clothe the subject. That is, how to present it in the best possible light. In other words, present it most effectively. In its presentation, the writer must remember that Literary Non-Fiction involves a narrative chain of events (a sequence), intention, characterization, and reflection, and the 3 I’s of writing: Imagination, Invention, and Improvisation.
One can say that “literary non-fiction” is everything not covered by the term fiction. But that wouldn’t be necessarily accurate. While a recipe is not “fiction,” it isn’t “literary non-fiction” by itself unless it’s part of a narrative in Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel or A Taco Testimony by Denise Chavez in which a recipe actuates each of the chapters and additional recipes are woven throughout the narratives. A telephone book is not “literary non-fiction.” Like fiction, though, literay non-fiction is about telling a story, employing the strategies and techniques of fiction. And like fiction, literary non-fiction is essentially a narrative form.
If anything, literary non-fiction is part of the genre of prose. However, not all prose exhibits the characteristics of literary non-fiction; that is, telling the story from a personal point of view. Here the prose of journalism differs significantly from the prose of literary non-fiction. In journalism the preferred stance is the prose of objectivity: relating the facts of the story without embellishment. In literary non-fiction, the writer is an integral part of the story, telling it from a personal point of view, weaving personal first-person experience into the narrative. In guiding students through writing exercises, I encourage them to use the “I” personal pronoun rather than locutions like “In the opinion of this writer,” the locutionary shibboleths of schools of journalism.
Aspects of literary non-fiction include memoir, biography, autobiography, journals, letters, editorials, reportage, and the personal essay which is why Rene Montaigne, the French philosopher and essayist is considered the father of Literary Non-Fiction. For our purposes, Literary Non-Fiction covers essentially the waterfront of prose. But selectively. Tuman Capote’s 1965 “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood is a prime example of literary non-fiction. As is Norman Mailer’s 1,000 page The Executioner’s Song.
Literary non-fiction is sometimes referred to as “creative non-fiction” or “narrative journalism.” One description is that it is “the documentary film of the literary world” (http://queensu.ca/writing centre/courses/wri295/writ295.htm). In my journalism classes, I’ve stressed to my students the need to find the heart of a story, and that documentary fact is not a barrier to the telling of the story. According to Madeleine Blais, “literary non-fiction honors all the shibboleths of classical storytelling, but it also welcomes the best of other disciplines into the mix” (Nieman Reports, The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, Vol. 54, No. 3, Fall 2000). The point is that there are many ways to tell a story.
An early piece of mine in literary non-fiction was rejected because the editor exclaimed that the piece was all about me rather than the person who I was ostensibly profiling. That’s one of the difficulties of literary non-fiction: maintaining a balance between the topic and the writer’s presence in the piece. Today as then, literary non-fiction still lacks established conventions.
One thing that does characterize literary non-fiction is that it is not fabricated—or at least is not supposed to be fabricated in the way that fiction is (presumably). A work of literary non-fiction should be grounded in fact, verisimilitude, and credibility. While some sections of Capote’s In Cold Blood were invented, the basic story was grounded in fact.
This means that literary non-fiction is an open-form. That is the “genre” has few, if any, limitations. However, in her book The Art of Fact, Literary critic Barbara Lounsberry suggests four characteristics of Literary Non-Fiction. The first is that of “Documentable subject matter chosen from the real world as opposed to ‘fabrication’ from the writer’s mind.” By this, she means that the topics and events discussed in the text verifiably exist in the world. The second characteristic is “Exhaustive research,” which she claims allows writers to use the perspective of the novel on their subjects” and “it also permits them to establish the credibility of their narratives through verifiable references in their texts.” The third characteristic that Lounsberry claims is crucial in defining Literary Non-Fiction is “The scene.” This stresses the importance of describing and revivifying the context of events in contrast to the typical journalistic style of objective reportage. The fourth and final feature she suggests is “Fine writing: a literary prose style”. “Verifiable subject matter and exhaustive research guarantee the nonfiction side of literary nonfiction; the narrative form and structure disclose the writer’s artistry; and finally, its polished language reveals that the goal all along has been literature” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_nonfiction).
In many ways, this allows for a variety of approaches to a topic. In other words, the writer of literary non-fiction is free to experiment with the form. This freedom oftentimes engenders startling creative results. The strength of post-structuralism in literary non-fiction is that wile structuralism focused principally on the text for the revelation of meaning, post-structuralism has brought the reader into the equation of negotiating the meaning of a text. The writer of literary non-fiction is, therefore, always aware of the reader and his or her centrality in the construction of meaning in texts.
Since every reader constructs his or her own meaning of a text, the writer of literary non-fiction “tailors” his or her work for the sensibilities of readers, aware of the evaluative judgment of texts by readers. For this reason, writers of literary non-fiction craft their works as “conversations” with readers, hooking them, so to speak, into the story much the way writers of fiction hook their readers into their stories. You might consider writers of literary non-fiction as deconstructionists, tearing down the façade of structures inhibiting reader responses to texts and their inherent ambiguities.
Railing against these ambiguities, led to the spate of Chicano countertexts in the 60’s and 70’s, Chicano texts countering the spuriously defamatory characterization of Chicanos in mainstream texts by Anglo writers. One of these early countertexts was Occupied America by Rodolfo Acuña. Another was Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature by Felipe de Ortego y Gasca. Other countertexts by Chicano writers of literary non-fiction spurred Chicano consciousness of a Chicano Renaissance, the efflorescence of Chicano literature.
The significance of that renaissance is not on the great outpouring of Chicano texts in all genres, but on the declaration that Chicanos would say who they were, not the Anglo mainstream. This was, indeed, a revolutionary posture for Chicanos. For Chicanos, the purpose of Chicano literature was to create a Platonic platform of instruction for the moral amelioration of Chicano existence through Chicano literature which would reflect the realities of Chicanos in the United States.
The Chicano Renaissance was, therefore, not only a surgence of self-validation by Chicanos but a repudiation of Anglo texts that had claimed validation of Chicanos, however distorted, defamatory, slanderous, libelous, and stereotypic they were. These Anglo texts were part of that cache of the Black Legend in the United States, the legend that has plagued Hispanics with stereotypes. The deconstruction of the dominant Anglo cultural discourse about Chicanos became the paramount objective of Chicano writers of all genres, but especially the Chicano writers of literary non-fiction.
In the “heteroglot interzone” of the U.S.—Mexico borderlands, as Alfredo Arteaga called the multilingual space between Mexico and the United States (Chicano Poetics, 1997), the dialogic nature of the hybrid Mexican/American relationship was undergoing serious stress as Chicanos announced their liberation from mainstream validation (cf. Armando Rendon, Chicano Manifesto, 1971). In Chicano narratives, Chicano writers were speaking in propria persona, not shielding their identities as public narrators, whatever the genre, calling into question the entire structure of canonical texts that purported to reveal the truths about Chicano existence.
And that’s where we are today—weaving truths about Chicano existence. _____________________________________________________
Copyright 2013 by Dr. Philip De Ortego y Gasca
To contact Dr. Ortega write: Philip.Ortego@wnmu.edu