Dispatches | May 03, 2005
On Reading Nonfiction
[By Michael Piafsky]
There are a few of us here at the Review who read both fiction and nonfiction submissions and periodically we discuss which genre we prefer on that day. The answer, of course, changes based on the relative merits of recent bundles, but currently I find myself leaning towards nonfiction. Partly it is because of what these pieces can teach me—I almost never put down a manuscript without having learned something factual—which is handy in impressing people or while watching Jeopardy. But I am also coming to admire nonfiction because of how strongly our nonfiction submitters’ compulsion to write comes through. Even if we can’t ultimately use the submissions, I am invariably able to pick out the kernel of truth and yearning that compelled the author to write the piece, the eulogies to lost loved ones and foreign cultures in distress, the granting of closure to childhoods both nightmarish and idyllic.
More often than not when a submission falls short of acceptance the editors’ notes on the envelope ask: “Is there anything new here?” or “Is the writing quite there?” At its best, an essay or memoir will tell me something new beautifully, as Samuel Johnson famously penned: “the two most engaging powers of an author are to make something familiar new and to make something new familiar.” This is a high standard. Sometimes we publish a piece because its strengths in one area overwhelm its weaknesses in another. We often accept an amazing life experience that is conveyed competently if not lyrically to our readership. I myself am partial to its inverse, a piece so skillfully crafted that despite its seeming mundanity, the author is able to bring to life for me something I’ve seen a million times but never quite looked at so closely, a piece whose writer could rivet me detailing an ant’s walk across my front yard. I take as much joy in learning something about the world I traverse every day as I do in visiting by proxy the exotic locales of the globe. Of course, in its best moments, creative nonfiction combines the experience and the aesthetic seamlessly, reaching me in a way that no other genre can.
It strikes me that the personal essay has received short shrift in the literary world. The contract between its writers and readers seems more rigidly enforced and weighted than the contracts agreed to by fiction writers or poets: we readers are emphatic in demanding the unadulterated truth and ruthless in demanding that it be unique and compelling. We at the Missouri Review seem to recognize the plight of the essayist more than most literary magazines do—we pay a higher sum for our nonfiction than most any other magazine on the market (a thousand dollars) and have recently instituted a nonfiction contest to join our annual prizes in fiction and poetry. Tom Ireland’s memoir, “My Thai Girlfriends,” inaugural winner of our Jeffrey E. Smith Prize, is a perfect example of the synthesis of experience and aesthetic, with Ireland’s lyrical descriptions of Chiang Mai giving texture and substance to my understanding of Thailand’s intricacies. What makes this memoir so moving to me is the combination of all the minutia of a travelogue reinforced with the subtlety of insight into the human condition.
Every night I take home bundles and read them, religiously. That is, I suppose, the right word, religiously, for there is a way in which I feel a bit like a priest must when he receives confession. And each nonfiction piece I read does seem to me confessional (I suppose literally they are,) something deeply personal that the writer has agreed to share with me. Each night I return home with my arms full of life stories, all wrapped in self-addressed stamped envelopes and I feel honored to have been chosen to hear them all.
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