I began the first part of this newsletter with the somewhat daunting title, “On Moral (Non)Fiction: Ethics in Life, Ethics in Storytelling.”
Words like “moral” or “morality” make us all a little nervous, yes? With a title like this, some readers might recognize that I was riffing on a book some of you may be familiar with: John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction. It was required reading in college (along with a good many other texts about the purpose of writing). I read it, argued and fought with it, agreed and disagreed with it. And later, I was grateful I had read it (although I still had a few quibbles).
Gardner had a lot to say about the subject. He wasn’t talking about religious morality or any form of didacticism, but rather a sense of humanity and values (regardless of whether your characters are “good” or “bad.”) A few lines in particular feel carved in my heart. “Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy,” he wrote, and “Art rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.” And further, “Art, in sworn opposition to chaos, discovers by its process what it can say. That is art’s morality.”
John Gardner was talking primarily about fiction. Of course, this all applies to literary nonfiction as well, particularly that tenuous balance between ethics and aesthetics.
Let’s take the grocery store anecdote I related earlier. Here it is again: “I was standing in the self-checkout lane in a smallish grocery store. The store was very busy, lines were long. The man in front of me, probably in his mid 70’s, looking a bit worn, finished bagging his groceries and walked out of the store. When I reached the kiosk, I realized he hadn’t paid. The amount due was $27.32 . . . I realized, as I exited left through the main entrance of the grocery store, that the man had walked out a small, single-door side exit on the right, just past the registers. It looked like the fire alarm had been disabled and it was apparently being used by employees, although, as I mentioned, there were no employees in sight (except one clerk at the regular checkout). The man had walked out very quickly, and I had not seen his face.” How, I asked my readers, would you react?
This is a factual account. I have no idea what the man was thinking or what his intentions were. However, just as in fiction, the pacing of the action and the choice and placement of words, particularly adjectives, will affect how the story is interpreted by the reader. I might have said the man surreptitiously slipped out the side door which was just out of view. I could have implied that he deliberately hid his face. Or I could have described his worn-looking jacket in more detail, or mentioned his faded winter cap. Any one of these details might incline the reader toward one interpretation or another.
Is the point of literary nonfiction to always try to get at the “truth,” to separate fact from imagination, to write with firm authority? Is that even possible?
Was this man shoplifting, or was he truly in need, faced with unfortunate circumstances? I don’t know. There is no way to know. But relating this small anecdote made a lot of people think about human values, the experiences of others, and how we might judge others with compassion or derision – or even indifference.
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I believe that memoir, biography, and literary nonfiction are at the crossroads of literature, scholarship, and good storytelling technique. Storytelling has always been how we gain knowledge about life, about the human condition. I read and write to understand what it means to be a human being traveling through the world, and I write to understand my own experiences and the experiences of others. The best fiction and the best nonfiction reveal individual lives in the broader canvas of human experience, lives that we as readers can relate to in some intimate way, even if only briefly.
The beautiful “aha” moment in storytelling is when the reader realizes, “Oh, this is why this story matters! It makes me think, and not only that, I’ve learned something -- about a character, about myself, about the world of human interaction.” And, the real kicker in literary nonfiction: “This is something that really happened.”
In sum: Regarding technique, as writers we have to pay attention to word choice and word placement, pacing and timing, and all the subtle nuances of what words can do on the page and how they affect meaning, implied or otherwise.
The point: Stories matter, and literary nonfiction resonates in the real world in all sorts of real ways.
This has been a big topic this week, so I will end with best wishes as we begin the holiday season. Here’s a photo of my writing companion, Emma! Thanks for reading.