Monday, April 04, 2011

Steinbeck : Memoir : Reportage

THOUGHTS OCCASIONED BY THE NYT STORY ABOUT STEINBECK'S TRAVELS WITH CHARLIE:

I STILL say that the spine (i.e., the founding element in the invisible infrastructure) of memoir needs to be good reportage and I'm unhappy Steinbeck couldn't be bothered with it. And people who think that it's ok to make up stuff in memoirs seem to me confused about one point: using "techniques of fiction" does not mean "fictionalizing." All the techniques of fiction may be used with non-fiction material without making anything up.

For a writer to master non-fiction/memoir means for that writer to bend him/herself to the dictates of the material, NOT the other way around. Writing is a high-wire act. If an inherent claim of a work is that it's 'real life' then it should be real life. Yes, this is more difficult. But to invent episodes or massage memory to be friendly to one's aesthetic design or themes is to exercise an arrogance I find less offensive than I find it uninteresting, which is a much greater sin. I would rather see a nonfiction writer/memoirist occasionally fail aesthetically when tackling complicated memories than aesthetically succeed by manipulating those memories (I mean manipulating those memories in ways that the audience can't follow: a writer can certainly announce his or her manipulations ad hoc--as thought experiments--as long as the reader knows they are such.) There's a lot of pressure from writers I know to accept invention as part of memoir writing but I continue to resist.



My position on "reportage" as part of non-fiction/memoir writing feels uncomfortable to me because I've always risked accusations of unsubtly or philistinism. But I keep digging for a deeper, more interesting commitment to be made by writers.  Not that I've been willing to walk this walk myself:  I write blog posts, not books, so perhaps I'm (in part) disqualified from critiquing, since I've not facing this writing challenge myself.*

*(This post is cribbed from my side of the debate in a long Facebook thread.  A blog is one way to get the last word!)

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