Sifting through the Phantasmagoria

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When I was younger—a twenty-something graduate student working on a creative dissertation and teaching intro-level creative writing classes—I considered myself something of a creative nonfiction purist.  I knew, of course, that trying to write absolute, Capital-T “Truth” that everyone could recognize was impossible.  Our perceptions are inherently subjective, and language—useful as it is—is sometimes insufficient when it comes to capturing reality’s complexity.  Nevertheless, I thought, we essay.

I took it as something of a personal insult when a best-selling memoirist turned out to have deliberately embellished his experiences with addiction and incarceration, or when another supposed nonfiction writer turned out to have invented her criminal background for the sake of drama.  “Here I am,” I thought, “struggling to find those conflicts and contradictions that shape my life, that inform who I am, that make me me—and I’m trying to write it well, without fabrication, so that others will find this work worth reading.  And then there are these people.  They cheated.”

It was an issue of ethics, I thought.  Phillip Lopate wrote in the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay that, in an essay, “a contract between writer and reader has been drawn up: the essayist must then make good on it by delivering, or discovering, as much honesty as possible.”  I believed then—and, frankly, believe even now—that the same could be said for other nonfiction forms, including memoir and literary journalism.  The fraudulent nonfiction writer, I reckoned when I was obsessed with a type of “artistic integrity” that bordered on narcissistic contempt for those who disagreed with me, was a threat to serious literature (and thus, a threat to humanity in general).  And I used to make this point clear to the students in my workshops.

I wasn’t completely wrong, but I probably didn’t need to be quite so pompous about it.  Lopate also reminds us that “[t]he enemy of the personal essay is self-righteousness”–   such smug self-regard discourages honest and nuanced reflection about our own lives and minds.  And make no mistake, I was smug when it came to discussing—and writing about– the perceived ethical shortcomings of other writers, when I probably should have been using that time to work on my own flaws as a writer.

I still prefer to not read the works of dishonest nonfiction writers—those who have been caught lying and publicly shamed, as well as those who are still believed to be credible but whose books caused me to roll my eyes and proclaim (to myself, to my wife, to my cats—whoever happens to be around) “There’s no way this happened.  Not like this.”  I think I can tell when someone is lying in a work of nonfiction.  Joan Didion tells us that, for a while at least, “We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”  A writer of Didion’s caliber, of course, isn’t satisfied with a simple story, a narrative line that is too neat or convenient; she  reexamines, she calls into question, she complicates.  A less honest writer, though, keeps things tidy, simple, and uncomplicated.  The work winds up too perfectly shaped—the result of having the narrative line imposed rather than having disparate strands of thought presented together and explored without an attempt to force them into a structure that resembles an inverted checkmark.  When things in a memoir or essay seem too neat—or too familiar, or too predictable—I tend to feel that the work has failed on an important level.

Keep in mind, I’ve never had a problem with writers who employ exaggeration or sarcasm for comedic effect—there’s a difference between joking and lying, after all.  And I’m not talking about writers who try to expand nonfiction’s horizons—those writers like Ander Monson, Steven Church, and Lauren Slater who experiment with these forms in order to see just what they can do, and how we might use these forms to explore complicated, personal truths.  No, I’m talking about the writers who adopt manufactured identities and describe experiences that didn’t happen in an attempt to mythologize themselves.  I still tell my students to avoid these writers, but not necessarily because I feel like a dishonest memoir will inevitably lead to the fall of western civilization.  Instead, I simply point out that it’s been my experience that such books—with their tendency for the formulaic and clichéd– almost always represent a failure not of ethics, but of aesthetics.

But, as I said, I try not to be a jerk about it.  These days.

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 12/1/11]]

About the Author
William Bradley’s nonfiction and commentaries on nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and journals, including The Missouri Review, The Normal School, Brevity, College English, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the Assistant Editor of the magazine River Teeth, and he teaches at St. Lawrence University.