"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

AWP 2012: Nonfiction and the Essay

I've been waiting for Carl Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French's book, Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, since I found out it was coming out (and I will write a more detailed review when I've finished it, rather than flipping through it as I've done so far). I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out why essayists--and nonfiction writers in general--spend so much time trying to define the genre, rather than spending any time talking about anything else. Nonfiction is still the genre used to write about other genres, the mode of criticism for other genres--and this, I posit, is part of the reason that nonfiction still feels like the redheaded stepchild. Also, I'm beginning to be able to articulate another reason why nonfiction isn't taken as seriously: the first few essayists I read in the Essayists book describe the essay as playful, as an experiment, as a loose thing, a meandering of the mind--and no wonder it's not taken seriously. Or why it feels like we're not taken seriously.

Here's the point I want to make, the questions I would like to pose: Why isn't there more criticism on nonfiction? Why isn't there an outlet for it? Why are we, as nonfiction writers, not encouraged to write it?

And here's my reasoning. I'm in a PhD program where most of my writing time has been devoted to critical writing. I've spent as much time honing my critical craft as I have with my own creative work--and the unfortunate reality is that I haven't written anything creative since classes started last August, being so wrapped up in my classes and preparing for my comps (which involve two critical papers, based on my lists). Why do we spend so much time in a program concentrating on the criticism and then not value it outside of classes? I've heard too many times how much of a waste of time it is to write these seminar papers that we're never going to do anything with.

As the MFA becomes more ubiquitous and most job postings are now requiring a PhD in addition to a published book, it's clear that the standards for those seeking academic positions are changing. I would venture to guess that most of us in PhD programs--even those that offer creative dissertations--are writing a lot of critical work. At the moment, I'm putting together both my Field paper (on the contemporary Essay) and my project for my Women's Rhetoric class (I think I'm looking at how women write the Plains--specifically looking at Gretel Ehrlich, Kathleen Norris, and Deb Marquart...I think)--and so far, I've found one solid critical article on Gretel Ehrlich, I haven't done much looking for Kathleen Norris, but I'm fairly certain that I won't find any on Deb Marquart. We're being asked, as students, to write these critical papers on topics that fit with our educational path, but we don't have the critical resources to support them. This is what I found while trying to put together my Field list--and what happens every time I try to write a critical paper on a writer who's not Didion, Mailer, Dillard, or the like.

Following this PhD student angle (and the angle of the increasing number of creative writing teachers with PhDs), how many editors of literary journals have PhDs? And editors of nonfiction journals, specifically? Since this is the direction that academia is going, and these editors having critical experience, is it time that the nonfiction genre starts valuing criticism? Or do we feel like it's selling out to The Dark Side (as a friend put it recently). Is it time that we, as nonfiction writers, start proposing panels to AWP on nonfiction scholarship, delivering papers that do the work of articulating this wonderful thing that is our chosen genre? How many creative writing teachers require craft and criticism of their creative writing classes?

There is so much value in complicating our genre, bringing various writers (new and old) into the larger conversations of the genre. As has been obvious with the pre-AWP kerfuffle over John D'Agata's latest exploits, we only seem to come together to talk critically about what's going on in the genre when there's something large to argue about--and, unfortunately, usually those argument boil down to old, tired back-and-forth over the continuum of truth and fact. Why aren't we considering our nonfiction in terms of the genre itself, the craft of the work, nonfiction and rhetoric, nonfiction and ecocriticism, nonfiction and gender studies, and more? It feels like one can find isolated articles here and there that do this--but why are such articles so isolated?

Possibly a better question is if this kind of criticism is being published, have I missed it, where is it and where can I find it? It's entirely possible I'm looking in the wrong places and I would be eternally grateful if someone would enlighten me--I'm not afraid to be wrong here.

It seems like the great majority of the books on nonfiction are craft, closer to textbooks for beginning writers than they are geared to higher levels of nonfiction writers. I don't mean to say that these books aren't wonderful and valuable, because they are and I love them. I'm saying that there's a hole in our genre for critical work, written by the writers who also write in the creative sphere, because this is the next step in a full exploration of the genre.

But I hope we can start talking about the future of our genre, not just in terms of what constitutes and defines nonfiction, the essay, the memoir, persona, truth and fact, the lyric essay, and whatever else we seem to gravitate back to--towards considering the intricacies of what those nonfiction works and writers are doing.


  1. Really interesting, Karen. I'm teaching creative nonfiction in both my lit-comp and creative writing classes right now, and I'd like to posit two theories based on their reactions:

    1. When the author is so integrally entwined with the text, it's easy to simply say "Oh, that's just one person's opinion" rather than discuss the greater social and psychological implications. In fact, as Americans, I think we're trained to do this at a very early age. In a culture that's a constant shouting match between a million televised, radio-borne, and print voices, we tune into those with who we already agree. So in a way one of CNF's greatest strength's - the direct way it can handle material - is really one of its weaknesses when it comes to establishing both critical and casual audiences.

    2. Speaking to style (in my not-uninformed, but certainly limited experience) so much published CNF seems to fall either into a relatively tame essay format or really reach for the margins. Rick Bass' "Oil Notes" is one of the few exceptions I can bring to mind, and I think that this lack of mid-ground (which, again, I'm sure is there but certainly isn't showcased) drives away a lot of potential critics and writers. They find writers like Zadie Smith (last collection of personal essays I read) too dull, too everything-on-the-surface, and writers like Lia Purpura too out there, so they turn back to fiction.

  2. Thanks, Karen, for buying and mentioning the book I edited with Carl Klaus, and for urging essayists, scholars of the essay, and others to take seriously the question of how we might write critically about our genre. I think (hope at least) that you'll find a lot of ideas and leads in Essayists on the Essay, which includes a substantial bibliography, a thematic guide to that bibliography, and a full index. As Carl and I say in the preface to the book, the whole project came out of a recognition (not unlike the one you're expressing here) that the critical work and theoretical language dealing with the essay is thin.

    My own book, The American Essay in the American Century, is another attempt to begin to fill this gap in literary scholarship and cultural criticism.

    All good luck to you in your work, which sounds fascinating, and thanks again for this thoughtful post.

    @mjurak - Regarding the essayist's persona you might look at Carl Klaus's The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay. As for essays that stretch the form a bit, you might look at the anthology, Between Song and Story: Essays for the 21st Century, ed. by Sheryl St. Germain and Margaret Whitford; and though I recently butted heads with him at AWP, John D'Agata's excellent anthologies from Graywolf.