I am bitextual.
I write fiction and nonfiction. But mostly fiction. So I enter into Bending Genre wondering how to apply its lessons and conundrums to my own writing, how my fiction can get bent.
There are lots of facts in my fiction. Did you know that Einstein had a daughter? He never saw her after she was two years old, and none of us know what happened to her. So I speculate. Did you know that Isaac Newton didn’t only name gravity (I claim you can’t discover what is already there, and yes I apply that logic to the continent I live on), he also invented calculus? Did you know Isaac Newton believed counterfeiters should be hanged?
You might not learn these facts from my fiction because they’re a bit buried, and it’s so obvious I’m making so much up that you might not read for accuracy anywhere in there. In other stories I imagine what would happen if gravity stopped. A character invents the “Patrician Portion,” the percentage of tax dollars acquired through luxury purchases which is allocated to the military, a calculation that doesn’t exist in the so-called real world. I imagine real things—keening women, sky burial—happening in the United States, a place where they don’t. One character ghostwrites suicide notes. One of my stories is made up entirely of Missed Connection entries; most of them are written by me, some were cut and pasted from Craigslist. In one story a teenager and her father go on a road trip together and she sees someone commit suicide, and tells her father this, but doesn’t tell him about the much older man she’s been having sex with; when the story was published I told my mom that yes, I went on a road trip with my dad when I was a teenager but I wasn’t having sex and I didn’t see someone commit suicide and she said, “I know. If those things happened you would have told me by now.” In my fiction I imagine Galileo during his actual house arrest, as if a female physicist is reading his diaries, which, as far as we know, were never written. In the story someone says to her what was said to me when I studied physics: “How does it feel to be a female physicist? So rare?”
I quit physics to be a writer.
In my novella, a character discusses taking a class while he was in prison. His teacher brought pizza on the last day, and when she realizes she could have brought a lot more and the men would have eaten it, when she sees how politely they all make sure they get the same amount—six slices each, ¾ of a pie, each, but they would have eaten much, much more—she nearly cries. He’s since been released, and remembers that he wanted to walk out of the classroom, or maybe slap her, when she reacted that way. When she nearly cries for not bringing them enough food, eight pies for twelve men not enough, he both likes and despises her. That teacher is me. I do not know how my students felt about me when that happened.
Speculative fiction usually means irrealistic. Speculative nonfiction just means essay.
One way to view my novel-in-progress is to see it as a speculative essay that considers how we as a collective might respond to climate change, once we all admit it’s really happening. I’d like to believe I invented a genre: pre-apocalypse.
In the novel, a filmmaker makes a zombie movie about pigeons. In the speech before the premiere, he names all of his influences—and since the novel is set 20 years in the future, I got to make some up. He says we don’t need climatologists anymore, we need artists to respond to the beginning of the end of the world. I think we need both—more science, more art.
In the novel, I write from the point of view of a woman who grew up on the land I grew up on, but who isn’t me. Her land burned, mine hasn’t yet. I write from the perspective of characters unlike me: biracial, bisexual, bilingual, homeless, animal. I observe characters unlike myself: genderqueer, non-American, indigenous. Every character is a way of thinking about myself.
A Response to Reality Hunger
Bending Genre begins with David Shields’ Reality Hunger.
He writes: “Nonfiction writers imagine. Fiction writers invent. These are fundamentally different acts, performed to different ends” (60). I fundamentally disagree.
The only genre distinctions I ever make: something labeled nonfiction means the author wants you to think it really happened, and something labeled fiction means the author wants you to read without worrying about whether or not this really happened. Neither label claims anything about the actuality of the events, just the expected perceptions.
David Shields writes, “Some of the best fiction is now being written as nonfiction” (26). I hope some of the best nonfiction is being written as fiction, also.
David Shields writes, “The novel is dead” (115).
David Shields goes on to say, “Long live the antinovel, built from scraps” (115), but I don’t know why that has to be called an antinovel. He writes, “The novel isn’t dead”; it just isn’t as “central to the culture” as it once was (22). He says that the convention novel “ignor[es] the culture around” it (87). Maybe that’s why it’s not so central anymore.
I believe, deeply, that the best fiction and the best nonfiction today deal with the real world, but make art out of it.
David Shields looks at the evidence, and is frustrated:
I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. […] It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that’s focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels. Collage works are nearly always ‘about what they’re about’—which may sound a tad tautological—but when I read a book that I really love, I’m excited because I can feel the writer’s excitement that in every paragraph he’s manifestly exploring his subject. (118)
And: “[S]ome seek with all their might to keep the novel fettered” to conventional plot (17). And: “In most novels I read, the narrative completely overwhelms whatever it was the writer supposedly set out to explore in the first place” (176).
I don’t know if we’re just reading different books, but I look at the evidence and conclude that hybridity is alive and thriving.
Reality Hunger ends up being a memoir about a really smart man bored by most fiction. I’m excited by how much good writing there is in the world.
The first time I read Reality Hunger, I wrote in the margins: “I desperately want to write a book David Shields will fall in love with.”
David Shields says some things I really disagree with. “Nonfiction, qua label, is nothing more than a very flexible (easily breakable) frame that allows you to pull the thing away from narrative and toward contemplation, which is all I’ve ever wanted” (124). But fiction can do this too!
“Essayists are a species of metaphysician […] Novelists go about the strenuous business of marrying and burying their people” (133). But I love metaphysics as much as I love physics!
“Someone once said to me, quoting someone or other, ‘Discursive thought is not fiction’s most effective tool; the interaction of characters is everything.’ This is when I knew I wasn’t a fiction writer, because discursive thought is what I read and write for” (145). You’ve been talking to the wrong person about fiction writing!
David Shields says some things I really agree with. “‘Fiction’/‘nonfiction’ is an utterly useless distinction” (63). “There’s no longer any such thing as fiction or nonfiction; there’s only narrative. (Is there even narrative?)” (110). “Maybe the essay is just a conditional form of literature—less a genre in its own right than an attitude that’s assumed amid another genre, or the means by which other genres speak to one another” (139). “[A]ll writing is autobiography” (152). “It’s all about you and yet somehow it’s not about you at all” (160).
Reality Hunger came out the same year as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, which has a (fake) Powerpoint presentation as a chapter; and as Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape From a Leper Colony, which, in part, imagines a false history of a real place. Since then, Kyle Minor published Praying Drunk, a book of “stories” that does not distinguish between fiction and nonfiction within the same cover; and Tim Horvath published Understories, which includes nonnarrative studies of cities that don’t exist and a novella about the friendship between an invented person and Heidegger; and Claire Vaye Watkins published Battleborn, where the first story is about a character named Claire Watkins whose father was a part of the Manson gang and whose mother committed suicide—both true facts from the author’s life—who is visited by her half-sister, Razor Blade Baby, whose birth was assisted by Charles Manson’s use of a razorblade (the reality or not of which I have not looked up). Before Reality Hunger, Junot Díaz published The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel with footnotes about Dominican history, and a lot of inaccurate references to videogames; and Kevin McIlvoy published a novella that is three revisions of an essay supposedly written by a fifth-grader, his teacher’s notes included; and Don DeLillo published Libra with this author’s note:
This is a work of imagination. While drawing from the historical record, I’ve made no attempt to furnish factual answers to any questions raised by the assassination [of John F. Kennedy].
Any novel about a major unresolved event would aspire to fill some of the blank spaces in the known record. To do this, I’ve altered and embellished reality, extended real people into imagined space and time, invented incidents, dialogues, and characters. Among these invented characters are all officers of intelligence agencies and all organized crime figures, except for those who are part of the book’s background.
In a case in which rumors, facts, suspicions, official subterfuge, conflicting sets of evidence, and a dozen labyrinthine theories all mingle, sometimes indistinguishably, it may seem to some that a work of fiction is one more gloom in a chronicle of unknowing.
But because this book makes no claim to literal truth, because it is only itself, apart and complete, readers may find refuge here—a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years. (458)
I’m not sure if these examples enhance David Shields’ argument, or not. They definitely strengthen mine: hybridity is alive and thriving, within the genre we typically refer to as fiction.
I am trying very hard to do in my fiction the things David Shields is looking for, and typically finds in nonfiction, because that’s the kind of writing I want to read.
But many (most?) people don’t want to read fiction like that.
Recent rejection letters I’ve gotten: “[Your story] offers a fascinating glimpse into an unusual profession, but the plot could use more work/development.” “Your writing is beautiful and the line you tread between reality and not-quite reality is very interesting. The end of the story, however, lacks the same grace and ease of storytelling.” “Readers generally admired this story for the writing—as well as the conceptual nature of the piece. However, we worried about thematic coherence and a narrative through line.”
[Speaking of narrative through-line, Stalcup’s essay will be posted in three sections. This section is the first.]
Erin Stalcup’s short stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Sun, PANK, H_NGM_N, Hinchas de Poesía, Novembre(Swiss), and elsewhere, and she has creative nonfiction forthcoming in The Laurel Review. Erin received her MFA from Warren Wilson College’s Program for Writers, and later served as the Joan Beebe Fellow at Warren Wilson. After a decade of teaching in community colleges, universities, and prisons in New York City, North Carolina, and Texas, she recently returned to her hometown of Flagstaff, where she has joined the creative writing faculty at her alma mater, Northern Arizona University.