Thursday, September 17, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, James Miller and Lawrence Weschler

Read non-corrected proof of Ilf & Petrov's comic follow up to "Twelve Chairs": "The Golden Calf," (temporarily?) online! It's a Soviet classic (the kind that poked fun of SU).

My last week at Skidmore, James Miller, the author of a controversial biography, The Passion of Michel Foucault, a former Newsweek book and music editor and critic, and many other things, staged a conversation about non-fiction with Lawrence Weschler, who is an equally controversial writer and a director of the Institute of the Humanities at NYU. The topic was nonfiction.

Nonfiction is a kind of a topic that means very different things to different people. Memoir, biography, newspaper reportage, criticism, theory, perhaps even novels can be united under its shiny new umbrella. Jim Miller, for example, bashed all memoir writing as *bad* writing. His idea was that memoir became in vogue after Frank McCourt's success with "Angela's Ashes" (The news of Frank McCourt's death had been announced only a few days before and William Kennedy, if I remember correctly, read a very heartfelt eulogy to his deceased friend). Is memoir creative non-fiction? Miller wondered. What, if any, obligation to tell the truth does non-fiction have vs. fiction and poetry?

He contextualized his line of questioning in two ways: 1) Literary: Recent excitement in memoir world, scandals of made up memoirs;

2) Journalism: Continuing influence of new journalism (Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Lawrence Weschler). New journalism: "Subverting claims of objectivity by highlighting the subjective position of the writer." + Period after WWII, George Orwell: real risk in modern society: man, media, totalitarian dictatorship of media that within a democratic society creates a pseudo-reality (ex: airbrushing Trotsky out of Soviet history; Abu Ghraib photos; reading NY Times and taking it as a reality)

3) Philosophy/Theory: Derrida, Foucault, etc: alertness of the fictional aspects of all texts, infinite meaning in all texts. Richard Rorty formulating the question of the "Value of truth as a category."

Lawrence Weschler started his answer with the description of a course he teaches in NYU, "The fictional non-fiction." He said that he doesn't read "memoir." (Implication: "memoir" is bad, selfish? lit.) "It doesn't have to be you," he said.

Derrida & Foucault, that strain of intellectual life: "it was fine in chimpanzees in Paris, but when it crossed the ocean it created a new species." (My quote is close, if not exact.)

"I am interested in the fictive elements of non-fictive writing in the context of reportage: structure, irony, voice, etc." (As a true representative of new journalism, I suppose) Weschler also wanted to "demolish expectation of objectivity." He said, "I insist on 'I' voice not in reference to self, but out of modesty, an acknowledgement of subjectivity."

"Borgesian line: Reality and Language do not intersect at any point & fashioning one in terms of another is already a fiction." "Fiction comes of fashioning a representation of reality that's already crumbling." "Borges: any representation of real world is fiction." (I am a devoted Borgesian myself, but even I would abstain from taking anything Borges wrote as a dictum. Or did I miss a humorous strain in this professor's rambling?).

'There needs to be fact" -- but "no objective reality."

An anecdote about the English language: "there is verb 'to lie' but there is no verb for 'to tell the truth'." This words for Russian, too. I think so, for German. And maybe for French.

So, according to Weschler, a non-fiction writer should strive not for truth but "being true to life," and doing so with "accuracy, transparency, humor and judgement." I have no idea what he meant by the expression "being true to life." Again, this is a case of restating an universal statement in different but equally universal terms.

Non-fiction writers must "aspire to a narrative, a story -- a representation of the world in narrative." When Weschler came back from South Africa, people asked him very simply "What was it like?" Which he interprets as them basically asking, "tell me a story." "Our brain secrets stories -- this is how we appropriate the world."

He made a side point about how he refuses to use tape recorders while conducting interviews. When people ask him for permission to record a conversation with him, he answers, "I don't mind it at all as long as you don't quote me verbatim." The important question that an interview attempts to answer is "What was it like?", "it implies what we already talked about -- body language, eye contact." He says with pride: "I've never once quoted people verbatim. I quote what I remember people said." He also says that he always places conversations in interesting places, a real scene requires that you really see things.

"Non-fiction writer aspires to authority, exact opposite of authoritarianism."

"To speak with trustworthiness (humor, voice, modesty) presupposed that people have to learn how to read." The anecdote he provided as an example was a comparison of American readers in the 80s with the Polish readers (his wife is Polish). In Poland, people learn how to read between the lines of newspapers. In the States people were ignorant about the true state of the Cold War because "they believe what they read in the paper." This is an interesting comparison, I think. The problem with this, though, is reading the blank space between the lines one can never reconcile the information with anyone else.

James Miller responds. Borges example is not very useful, he says, because it provides no distinction between fiction and non-fiction whatsoever. "Getting something right? But how do you know what's right."

"Authority is a slippery term."

"I think category of truth telling is foundational to all civilization. Thou shalt not bear false witness."

"Author of non-fiction enters into a contract to tell the truth -- not all truth & nothing but the truth." "Fact needs to be established by interviewing all kinds of eyewitness accounts."

Lawrence Weschler responds: "Every individual must try to tell the truth, without making a claim to objective truth."

"The worst evidence is eyewitness -- it's notoriously bad."

"I don't read novels." (?) "In fiction nothing is ever made up." (He might have quoted somebody to say this." "Non-fiction -- we almost never know the truth of what happened. The facts of the imaginative fiction are always true. The facts of non-fiction are always suspect, in doubt."

From this point on, my notes become muddled as to who speaks. I think, most of the following quotes belong to Weschler. But I might be wrong.

Herodotus & Homer (non-fiction vs. fiction): Distinction is made in retrospect. It's a modern distinction. 17th C. Robinson Crusoe. Frank McCourt. Basis of marketing. It's a distinction made for the consumer. "Writings about philosophers -- the first autobiography and biography in the West." "No hard distinction between truth & fiction until the 18th C." Then, "sharp line is drawn -- what's superstition and mythology in the quest for the *historical* Jesus."

"Big divide of fact vs fiction: what are the political stakes?"

"There are at least 5 strands of non-fiction, some of which are at war with each other."

"The order of being & the order of knowing are different." "Fiction is invention, non-fiction is selection."

"Nietzsche thought historiography destroyed myths. Fact telling can uproot & destroy what is created by myth." What remains is the "mythical significance of the universe."

The conversation ended with another assault on memoirs. "There's a world out there beyond yourself," the two wise men told the crowd. "A lot of the early autobiographies were meant to inspire." These days, autobiographies are written by people "who have no personality." The two unanimously encouraged the non-fiction writers in the crowd to go out and interview the poor or go to the conflict zones in Africa and South America to collect material there. To many of us in the crowd (including several journalists in the crowd) these recommendations seemed very smug and coming from a place of unacknowledged privilege. Because, of course, where is any of us going to get the money to go to South America to observe the conflicts there? And isn't it at least just a little bit wrong, to take on someone else's subjectivity in writing? To go to a conflict zone with an intention 'to observe'? A writer doesn't even have a photo lens to hide behind.

On a related note, I'm heading to Poland on Saturday, and hopefully will blog about my travels from a very subjective point of view. Fictional or non-fictional, I cannot say.

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