Excerpts from a Reading Journal, 2010
Yet more Mark Doty. This time in the form of a collection of essays he edited: Open House: Writers Redefine Home. I want to say something sensible and vaguely grown up here… but that’s just not going to happen, so instead there’s this: yay and big ups to this collection! I loved the diversity of topics all themed around ‘home’; the lyricism; the keen observations; and the wide array of writing styles. And the sense of honesty. I loved that too. Maybe that’s the deal about essays; they’re a chance to get honest about stuff that we’re all interested in (i.e. the human condition) but we’re not always encouraged to talk about. Montaigne was onto a winner when he sat down and detailed himself within his world. But maybe, 450 years later, that impulse has been taken up by a society obsessed with fame, and bastardised by the mass media — so now we’re more concerned meditating on certain exceptional elements within humanity, rather than a humanity that is reflected in the musings of a non-exceptional individual. But, maybe I’m a sceptic. And as the man said, Que sais-je?
But, back to Open House. Maybe I’m looking for confirmation that working on personal narratives which capture the vulnerability and uncertainty of the human spirit are readable. If so, I found that in this book. Two of the most resonant essays were ‘Freud’s Couch’ by Karen Brennan and ‘This Grass Is Very Dark To Be From The White Heads Of Old Mothers‘ by Michael Joseph Gross. Brennan captures the craziness of psychotherapy, and Gross captures the tricky landscape of the grownup relationships between parents and sons/daughters. Reading these, I understood that anything is writable-aboutable. And after finishing the book, I realised that if an essay is a complete unit it can sit next to something that seems incongruous and unrelated yet still work as a unified part of the whole collection. Each essay is another accordion fold in the bellows that make up the human condition.
I seem to be wallowing in memoir. And this is despite promising myself that I will not be shackled to this form. Methinks I kid myself. Kidding aside, it took me a chapter or two to get into Inga Clendinnen. Reading the first pages of Tiger’s Eye, I’m thinking this woman is uptight, superior and just annoying. All those complaints about the people in her hospital ward. But then she cracks into recollections of her childhood and by the time the Misses Wan turn up, I’m hooked. This book has a lot of narrative in it and that makes for great reading. I’m never sure about the use of dialogue in nonfiction — this is based on some notional fixation of mine about the retelling of truth, i.e. unless I was there taking dictation, how can dialogue be authentic when it is, probably inaccurately, recounted? (I think I picked this up from something I read of Sebald’s…) — but Clendinnen slides a bit of reported speech into the narrative and it works — not so much dialogue as single statement comments.
It’s an interesting book, this one; kind of like a meta-memoir with all those references to writing about self writing about self. And then there were the fictions threaded through. The presence of those short stories challenged me — in that ohoh, I’m gonna have to use a different set of neural pathways to make sense of this short story after reading all this memoir. And that really made me think about all those categories, and those labels, and all that truthing and lying that people get so caught up in. It made me think I’m a hypocrite. I’m all for the abolition of borders between fiction and nonfiction but when someone slides a few short stories into a memoir, I’m like, whoa… hold on a minute there, partner… this isn’t the deal here. And that’s even after the setup, where you’re told, ‘I got into writing fiction and here it is’.
Some days my small-mindedness bothers me. Other days I just hope the world doesn’t register the size of my latent hypocrisy.
Wrestling with a powerful amount of self doubt… I’ve ended up writing about myself more than I thought I would… and let’s assume that one of the intentions of writing essays is to have them published, I’ve just had this moment of thinking, well isn’t this just the most self indulgent activity that a girl could do — short of being Paris Hilton publicly promoting Paris Hilton … This fenced me into a corner of thinking about truthfulness — which is just an abyss of fretfulness, really…
A memoir moment: Coetzee has written Boyhood in third person. He’s written about himself in a way that works. In a way that has a compelling narrative thread. In a way that doesn’t have all the madness of Gertrude Stein’s Alice B Toklas.
I like the idea. I have none of the skills of Coetzee but reading Boyhood, I get a sense of the freedom of the third person narration of a memoir. It seems to provide liberty for the writer as well as a sense of distance for the reader. It reads like fiction but it is the truth — or, at least, the writer’s take on the truth (but I’m just letting that rat’s nest rest for a minute…).
I’ve just read that Boyhood is categorised as a fictionalised memoir so that makes sense of the novel-like prose as well. This got me thinking about what the reader brings to the party. Coetzee (like Sebald) is writing about himself from a distance but never stating that he’s writing honestly about himself, even though he’s writing about a boy called John Coetzee. As a reader, even though I know what I am reading could well be fiction, I prefer to assume that what I am reading is the truth (or at least Coetzee’s take on the truth) and this gives the book some greater sense of authenticity and gravitas for me.
And then I’m thinking about why people write memoirs… because even though this book has an anchor in the observation of life in post-WW2 South Africa, most of what it describes is a man’s observation of himself as a child, particularly the interior life of a child; the thoughts, uncertainties and insecurities that are, perhaps, a universal response to growing up. Perhaps it was just me reading an interior monologue on childhood awkwardness that I know uncomfortably well.
In three days I have watched another entire season of The Wire. Am I powerless over the compulsive viewing pleasure of DVD box sets…?
I’m trying to understand ways of creating sustained narratives. I’ve (perhaps a little unhelpfully, if I’m trying to develop my skills in sustaining a story) spent the past few weeks looking at Shields-inspired writers — especially David Markson and Nicholas Baker (U and I). I found Markson in the fiction section of the library; ergo he is classified as a fiction writer. However, he has done this rather fantastic thing with fragments, which blurs the boundaries between absolutely everything. It’s truly inter-genre and quite baroque. It lacks conventional form and it makes the reader work quite hard. But it was weirdly entertaining and lots of fun. And full of eclectic facts, which I just love. And, in a curious twist, Markson died the week I discovered him in the library. If I had issues about being all-powerful and having the psychic strength to inadvertently kill off writers I had recently discovered by merely borrowing their books from the library, this could be a problem. But I don’t, so it’s not. (And what about my use of ‘discovered’ — it reeks of Columbus ‘discovering’ America, while all the groups of people who had been living there for millennia had not even realised that they were lost… I think ‘I came across a writer new to me’ would be a better way of saying ‘I discovered’.)
Baker writes about writing — but not in some sort of Melody Beattie Self-Helpish kind of way. He tells a great yarn about his obsession with John Updike as he writes about writing about a writer. It’s another book full of cute vulnerability (in a geeky kinda way).
A bit more public transport reading (train, this time): Lauren Slater’s Opening Skinnner’s Box. I’m not going to write much about this because it’s not too relevant to where I’ve been heading with my folio, but I picked this book up because I like Slater’s style. One of the best essays I’ve read this year was Slater’s ‘Three Spheres’ (from In Fact: the Best of Creative Nonfiction). I photocopied it and gave a copy to my mum because I wanted her to read an exquisitely written essay about mental health. Opening Skinner’s Box is a collection of essays that are very accessible, a little bit of fun, full of info, a splash of cynicism and a lot of thought. The first time I’d heard of this book was when I came across an article on the public denunciation of Slater’s book by Deborah Skinner. At a guess I’d say Deborah Skinner never read Slater’s book, and if she had, her response might have been better informed.
Slater explores various aspects of the ‘great’ psychological experiments of the last 100 years. She makes something that could be oh, so dull entertaining. And she does this through putting herself in the picture, with all her curiosity and humanness (this is the stuff that also makes it widely accessible). The biggest laugh-out-loud moment was the conclusion to the book’s eponymous essay (not sure if that’s an appropriate use of ‘eponymous’…) — Slater leaving her teeth marks in the remainder of the preserved piece of chocolate Skinner was eating just before his death.
But, literary merits aside, this book made me think about wider things. Specifically, it made me think about the relationship between the reader and the writer. These thoughts have nothing to do with Slater’s writing, but rather with the experiments she is detailing. In the Milgram experiments, subjects ‘shock’ an unseen man in an experiment promoted as a study in learning styles (do people respond to punishment in learning?) but the experiment was actually a study of obedience (and no one was actually shocked). While I was reading this I got to thinking just what it was people had found most offensive about being misled in the experiment. Slater never really covers this aspect as she writes of her struggle to find a subject willing to talk about what took place sixty years earlier — instead her focus is on the validity of the experiment, and whether anything quantifiable came from it. But why did people who agreed to the scenario (including the psychology department of Harvard and the volunteers who were tested) generate a backlash that saw Milgram lose his job? Sure, there’s something in there about the ethics of someone being asked to electrocute another, but maybe it has more to do with people feeling duped after the event – an event that demonstrated the inherent weaknesses of being human. Despite saying we don’t do bad things, we may do and even if we don’t, we all have that capacity within us. And the shame of it. It’s a bit like (and here we are back in the thick of my unresolved argument) reading a book of creative nonfiction and then finding out it’s a lie.
It was when I was reading about Milgram that I understood that the need for genres within prose writing is for the reader, not the writer. It’s all about fulfilling the expectations that the reader has — ‘this text will perform in a given way’. When a reader buys a nonfiction book a contract has been established with the writer. That’s what David Shields is about; he’s saying to writers, subvert the contract, steal stuff, claim it as your own (or claim it as open source) but create something new with it. Make it art. But maybe the reader isn’t ready for this… maybe that’s the problem. And that’s why I find David Markson and Lydia Davis in the fiction section of the library.
And this would be why we should stick to labelling jars not books. But… maybe we should stop labelling jam as well. Imagine that, every time you bought a condiment it would be an exercise in the unexpected. Jam Risk.
There’s a facebook page dedicated to subversively moving Tony Blair’s memoir from the biography to the crime section in a bookshop.
And that would be the end of this particular argument from me. Finally.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
During the last year Sarah McCallum spent uneven amounts of time mowing lawns, watching DVD box sets of The Wire, glazing windows, sitting on Intercity buses, and writing a series of creative non-fiction essays for an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML. She also had the excellent fortune to spend parts of 2010 sequestered in a small space with nine poets and a memoirist.