I say tomato, you say “Creative Nonfiction”
Or, what are genres good for?
For a long time now, Dialogue has subdivided the prose in each issue into Articles and Essays, Personal Voices, and Fiction. These divisions are strained by current submissions.
The division between Articles and Essays always seemed pretty nebulous to me–”Articles” is, I think, meant to signify academicishness, while “Essays” are, presumably, thinky but not necessarily heavily footnoted. But since most academics younger than 40 (50?) don’t feel the need to scrupulously avoid the first person or affect the semblance of “objectivity” that once characterized scholarly writing, and since postmodern theoretical frameworks in many disciplines actually encourage the self-conscious articulation of one’s subject position, a good deal of academic writing seems less formal and more “Essay”istic than in decades past. Still, since these two categories have been lumped together for a long time, it’s easy to just leave them that way, without too much fretting about what’s an article and what’s an essay.
The distinctions between “Personal Voices” and “Fiction” are blurred by the newish category (is it a genre yet, or still?) of “creative nonfiction.” There is, of course, a whole (sub)genre of writing devoted to the exploration of what creative nonfiction is, but this is the sort of thing that even someone who managed to tolerate an entire graduate seminar on the definition of postmodernism (and its discontents), can hardly wade through for more than a few dozen pages without starting to mutter things like “ivory tower”, “navel gazing”, “job security for English majors” under her breath. If pressed for a shorthand definition, I would say that “creative nonfiction” organizes itself around a narrative sequence, where a personal essay grows out of the exploration of an idea or a theme. [I know that's not a terribly satisfying definition, and I hope it will lead to plenty of interesting quibbling in the comments].
So far, I’ve lumped one creative non-fiction piece in with the fiction, and put one into Personal Voices, which used to mean “Personal Essays.” But the Table of Contents is not really the problem, of course–such practical issues of categorization are easily managed. What troubles me is that I think Creative Nonfiction may eventually edge out Personal Essays altogether, and Mormons will join the rest of the world in creating slightly detached, ironic memoirs, heartbreaking works of staggering genius, and non-fiction that is so “creative” as to create epic scandals on Oprah.
This, it seems to me, would be a terrible loss. My sentiment may be merely the midlife nostalgia of someone whose early intellectual life was nurtured by Eugene England, Laurel Ulrich, Marden Clark, Louise Plummer, Elouise Bell and other mid-20th-century Mormons who found the personal essay form apt for the function of exploring the tangled intersections of their own thoughts with Mormon theology and culture, and, in essaying those heights and depths, laid down a thin golden thread for me to follow home after venturing into my own wildernesses. Certainly Mormon artists and thinkers have used other genres to accomplish some of the same work–there were the novelists of the 1940s, historians and biographers whose narratives of the Mormon past took on the contours of a founding epic (or myth, if the word can be tolerated), poets and hymnodists who made both art and theology, folklorists and storytellers, and always autobiographers and journal-keepers. One could argue, in fact, that the sine qua non of modern Mormonism, Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision, was itself a work of creative non-fiction, and that the proliferation of that genre is thus wholly appropriate and ought to be welcomed as quintessentially Mormon.
And still, I want to argue that we need the Mormon personal essay, for another couple of decades, at least. It is an important mode of resistance against the tropes of post-post-modernism: irony, satire, parody, snark. We like our memoirs biting–David Sedaris vivisecting his family for our amusement, Augusten Burroughs mining addiction and ruin for dark comedy, Elizabeth Wurtzel and Marya Hornbacher making depression and eating disorders into lurid spectacle. Always, the narrative “I” is disconnected–the story is always in the past tense. Wherever these authors were then, they are not now–now they are on book tours (which will later be cynically described and illustrated with sketches of amusingly pathetic audience members), allowing readers a faux-intimacy with a literary version of their past selves. Sincerity has somehow come to be seen as antithetical to the “authenticity” of such rehearsals. And Mormonism could lend itself perfectly to the wry, sardonic-but-affectionate tone of the memoir/sketch/vaguely parodic short story. What could be better, funnier, more authentic then poking a little fun at your own religious convictions and practice? How better to show that Mormons are not weird, that we are good Americans, that we get the jokes in Big Love, too, and ought to be allowed to hang out with the cool kids now? Maybe we could even get Ira Glass to do one story where the Mormon character is not a bigot or a rube!
But we are weird. We believe (or wish we could) in angels, gold plates, prophets in bad suits and conservative ties, sending our children to faraway places to do that most unhip thing of all–proselyting! We spend three hours (!) every week talking didactically [I would say sermonizing, except that "sermon" implies a liveliness and polish we eschew in favor of unskilled sincerity] about our doctrine, debating the significance of grammatical errors in holy writ, exhorting each other to repentance, enduring “special musical numbers” [seriously, how could you possibly parody something that unironically calls itself "special"?], organizing do-good-y projects of all sorts, testifying in tearful, clumsy words and acts of pure grace. We are earnest.
And so is the personal essay–it’s not properly “authentic”, because the author deigns to invite the reader into the creative thicket with her. The invitation only works when it is sincere, when the author cares about the reader, recognizes that author-ity is always a gift, whether by the laying on of hands or of eyes and reading glasses. Creative nonfiction can be “truth…independent in that sphere where [the author] has placed it.” If a memoir falls in the forest, it makes a noise whether or not anyone hears it–its narrative is still “true.” Not so the essay–it is meaningful only in community, where two or three (well, at least two–a writer and a reader) are gathered. It is tentative, pensive, incomplete, partial; it believes in and relies on that which is yet to be revealed. [Like blog posts by certain writers, it may overuse the em-dash, the semi-colon, and the parenthetical aside]. It works only when it is earnest, unabashed, when the writer is willing not only to confess her indiscretions, but to abandon discretion and announce her convictions as well as questioning them. Belief and hope are terribly out of fashion just now, and look to be so for a few years yet, and that is why Mormon literature needs a literary form that allows us to “believe all things, …hope all things,” to “seek after” things that are true and lovely, not from the artist’s garret or the therapist’s couch or the book tour lectern, not in the safety of the ironic past tense, but in the earnest, present willingness to subjugate narrative authority for the sake of communal pursuit of ideas.