Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Now and then someone expresses the desire “to enter your life.” Mine. It’s a little scary. They imagine that if they come into my house and ask me questions, they’ll be able to figure out what it is “to be me.” But this is an impossible goal. It’s taken me my whole life to be me, as I am today, and I’m still working on it. It’s not a matter of “life-style:” diet, clothing and interior decoration -- though the advertisers of better things than I have would like you to think so.

The way my life "is" consists of a way of thinking, but not according to advertising glamour. This way of thinking probably cost me and the UUA about fifty thousand dollars at seminary and the U of Chicago Div School. (I’m not counting undergrad. And the cost would be much greater now.) And yet any interested journalist or high school student assumes they can think about theological and churchly matters as well as I or others educated this way can. It’s not a matter of being smarter or “having more education,” both of which lead to the accusation, “You think you’re better than the rest of us.” It’s more like learning to speak a language.

It’s more about stepping inside a circle -- not a circle that encompasses faith-based believers -- but a circle that accepts a certain way of thinking and a certain body of assumptions. It wasn’t just a matter of money, but a matter of time and access, which can both be very expensive. So much so, in fact, that I think there is some argument to be made that all this “fundamentalism” in third world countries (Including ones internal to the US) is essentially about the lack of time and access to do what it takes to become a true theologian or ethicist or comparative religionist. Under straitened circumstances -- both censorship and poverty -- one can only repeat what one was told, without questions.

The response from the ordinary person might be that religion understood as requiring an elite education is a different kind of fundamentalism, that is a lot like snobby gate-keeping, creating an artificial priestly caste.

Theology (okay, and philosophy, since some argue that theology is always about the theos, which doesn’t interest me though I can talk that language) is about questions, but not idle or random questions. Rather, what one learns and uses is a range of protocols, what the U of C called “method,” as in, “what is your method?” Every argument is on two levels, one of which is the “method” (basically a justification and defense of why this specific method should be used for this particular inquiry) and the content, which is what the method turns up. My content never includes much about “theos” because it doesn’t start with any method looking for a big “Guy in the Sky.” If you start with “who is God?” naturally you end up with a description of God. “He” takes up the whole foreground.

So now I’m going to jump over to a different “discipline,” that of writing fiction, which we normally think of in terms of the novel. Maybe I’m going out of the frying pan into the fire.

For some reason we popularly privilege novels above almost any other kind of writing, though memoir -- which is supposed ambivalently to be a kind of novel that really happened -- runs a close second. In fact, lately we seem to be obsessed with the line between novel and memoir, that purports to be a difference in method, but which I would propose keeps slipping over into an argument about content. The key questions seem to be “did that really happen?” and “are you really who you say you are?” One is allowed, as a memoirist, to write only about one’s own certifiable ethnic, economic, gender, educational, and geographical self. If it’s fiction, though, anything goes.

These thoughts came to me in part because of Sunday’s review in the New York Times of a book called “A Happy Marriage,” by Rafael Yglesias who is capable of considerable eloquence on the problem. He chose to write “fiction,” about the actual fact of his marriage. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/books/review/Watrous-t.html?hpw There’s a link to a podcast interview. His thirty years of marriage ended with the death of his wife.

I called my book about Bob Scriver a “biographical memoir,” in an attempt to signal that it was fact-based, but filtered through my own experience. Some readers were “surprised” (as they put it) and covertly sneered that “so much of this book is not about Bob -- it’s about YOU!” Other readers were shocked that I told stories that did not contribute to the “legend” that so many expect when they read about “Western artists.” It’s a kind of dream that they feel I denied them. In other words, expectations rule. Readers are also tyrants.

The U of Calgary Press called it “uncensored,” but in fact I didn’t put in the worst things I could have included. And the U of Oklahoma Press wanted to exclude anything but the monetary value of the bronzes, the prizes it won, and praiseful gratitude to B. Byron Price and Charles Rankin, both of whom make their living as parasites on artists and writers. (Publishing, editing, institutional management) They also wanted to eliminate all four of Bob’s wives and the other “cloud of women,” for their own reasons. They would particularly liked to have eliminated me. Still would. This is not ivory tower stuff, elevated idealism.

All of which is funny/ha-ha, in a lot of ways, but also illuminating. Value in the arts and in many of the “soft” sciences like psych, anthro, sociology, and the like, depend upon reputation and popularity. Therefore, certain parties -- writers or not -- are always interested in enforcing their view because it affects their income which is based on their prestige. When memoirs sell better than fiction, they tout memoir. When fiction is selling better, they make the pitch for “brilliant” fiction. So these distinctions have real consequences.

But Yglesias was thinking about something different. As he said, he didn’t want readers to be dissecting analytically what happened in the past. Rather he was trying to create an experience (well, okay, the illusion of an experience) so that what the page told made it “happen” in the mind of the reader as he or she read. THIS seems to be the real power of good fiction: that for a little while one really IS inside that circle of consciousness shared with the author. Maybe this is one of the key premises of what is called “modernity,” which includes stream of consciousness and gritty reality. Post-modern, then, tries to occasionally step out of the circle of constructed reality into a constructed UNreality (magic realism?) or into a disillusioned analysis, a political point of view. Or just aesthetics, in which the prettiness of the writing adorns a story that is meaningless. The way some theology can be.

I don’t care a whole lot about the above, except that I want to increase my skill in managing the experience of the reader. I respect Barrus, who writes to create or re-create an experience for himself and leaves his readers to “try to get it.” It seems to me that this draws another narrative circle, an even tighter one, right on top of the boundary between fiction and memoir -- almost like story in search of an explanation, or an easing, even a therapy. It has cost him a lot, in time, money and pain -- and has taken his whole life so far.

It's not over yet. The basis of our ability to collaborate may be our interest in a method that is still being defined, neither fiction nor memoir. Strangely, the new element that has entered the circle is videotaped narrative, both stream of consciousness and surreal. It is a growing edge, possibly a new genre of what we used to call “writing,” meant for a new generation of readers.


Rebecca Clayton said...

Interesting essay, as usual. I think you give the "hard sciences" a pass they don't deserve when you confine your criticism of the "parties--writers or not--are always interested in enforcing their view because it affects their income which is based on their prestige."

In my experience (I worked in the fields of organismal biology, molecular genetics, and microbiology, in academia and in government) there is this same sort of intellectual gatekeeping unrelated to merit or "truth." I have no direct experience with mathematics or theoretical physics, but because the structure of academe and granting agencies is the same, I expect it applies there as well.

New and different intellectual genres are threatening, and are always ridiculed and discounted. Some survive anyway. I'm rooting for you.

Art Durkee said...

Increasingly, I don't care to make distinctions between kinds of writing. I move back and forth between lined poetry and poetic prose in the same piece. I do a lot of creative nonfiction, including some memoir, but more likely memory plus literary response plus mythology. All thrown together in the blender.

A big part of what does not work in "the poetry world" lately is all the categorizing, the drawing of boundaries and camps, complete with de facto battle-lines and picket fences. It's all rather silly.

For me, what matters is the quality and power of the writing, no matter what form or genre or style it falls into, or emerges from.

My favorite Japanese poetic form is the haibun, which is dense poetic prose interspersed with haiku. That's the only historical poetic form that really interests me; more often, I invent form as I go.

I think your points about how people are often uncertain of how to respond to invented forms—including the refusal to separate forms within a given piece—are good ones. My experience has been that rejection almost always precedes acceptance, with regard to any and every artistic innovation. Even the venerable prose-poem, a form now 150 years old, is still considered controversial in regressive neo-formalist camps. So it goes.