• A.Word.A.Day

    Check out my favorite daily treat, A.Word.A.Day : The magic and music of words.

vocabulary lessons: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard had me quite active with my note-taking for later looking up. I have included only the highlights here for you.

anchorite: “An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold.”

discalced: “[The effort to] gag the commentator, to hush the voice of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing… marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West, under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod.”

spate: “I live for… the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”

oriflamme: “The flight [of a flock of starlings] extended like a fluttering banner, an unfurled oriflamme…”

sonant and surd: “The wind shrieks and hisses down the valley, sonant and surd…”

scry: “…I had better be scrying the signs.”

eidetic: “…we have feelings, a memory for information and an eidetic memory for the imagery of our own pasts.”

obelisk: “We run around under these obelisk-creatures, teetering on our soft, small feet.” (She’s referring to trees.) and, 20 pages later: “A tree stands… mute and rigid as an obelisk.”

pavane: “An even frailer, dimmer movement, a pavane, is being performed deep under me now.”

neutrinos: “I imagine neutrinos passing through [a bird's] feathers and into its heart and lungs…”

racemes: “Long racemes of white flowers hung from the locust trees.”

a two-for-one, etiolated and lambent: “The leaf was so thin and etiolated it was translucent, but at the same time it was lambent, minutely, with a kind of pale and sufficient light.”

eutrophic: “The duck pond is a small eutrophic pond on cleared land…”

phylactery: “…the microscope at my forehead is a kind of phylactery, a constant reminder of the facts of creation that I would just as soon forget.”

cofferdam: “…pouring wet plaster into the cofferdam…”

stet: “If the creature makes it, it gets a ‘stet’.”

shmoo: “Generally, whenever he was out of water he assumed the shape of a shmoo…” (referring to a muskrat).

enow: “The Lucas place is paradise enow.”

lorn: “A bobwhite who is still calling in summer is lorn…”

See other “vocabulary lessons” posts here.

Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 17-25; conclusions

(See my first two reviews: lectures 1-7 and lectures 8-16.)

First I’d like to share another example of something that I wished to debate with this professor. The discussion below contains spoilers regarding For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is probably my very favorite book ever ever (possibly competing with The Odyssey and The Jungle), so if you haven’t read it, you might skip this part of my review.

Spoiler begins

At about 32 minutes into lecture 19 (“For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Part IV), regarding the scene late in the novel when Robert Jordan’s leg is broken and Pablo is going to lead his small band onward without him:

The symmetry here is between Robert having a broken leg and Pablo having much head. He is the brainy one. This is the ultimate rewriting of the power dynamics in For Whom the Bell Tolls. We’ve been going along with the assumption that it’s the person with the knowledge and the technology, the person with the knowledge of the world, the person that speaks several languages, we’ve been going under the assumption that that person is going to be on top, that the future belongs to him. The ultimate irony of this novel is that in fact this is the person who’s going to lose out, who’s going to have no future at all.

While I see her point about the disruption of power between the educated, foreign-empowered Robert and the rather much maligned and dissipated Pablo, I couldn’t disagree more about the disruption of the reader’s expectations. I realize I can only speak for myself, but I think I can find some Hemingway to back up my impressions.

When I read this book for the first time (in a beach camp in the little town of Sayulita, Nayarit, Mexico), I had a strong sense of foreboding about Robert’s fate, and indeed, the fate of Pablo, Pilar, and the rest. Robert’s daydreaming of his life together with Maria in other times and places – in Paris, in the United States, as the wife of a professor entertaining undergraduate students – has a tone of wistfulness, as if Robert suspects this will not come to pass. He likewise daydreams about suicide – his father’s, and the avoidance of his own – and is increasingly pessimistic about the fate of this band of guerrillas. The end of El Sordo has an air of doom about it, which reflects further than those who die on the hilltop; the odds are admittedly against a little guerrilla group in these mountains. When I read this book without knowledge of the ending, I felt sure that Robert and Maria wouldn’t make it out of these hills together and alive; I suspected Robert’s demise specifically, and worried for the rest of them as well. And while I know this is just one person’s reading, I think there’s evidence that Hemingway directed me toward these suspicions. So I’m not sure Dimock has grasped it when she says she’s turned all our expectations on their head. Hemingway has disrupted the power dynamic, yes, but intentionally and with foreshadowing; I’d argue that one of the messages of this novel lies in his statement on war and the value of military technologies, in the way that Dimock shows, but he didn’t surprise us with it so much as build us steadily towards this ending.

Spoiler ends

I am arguing with Dimock here not because I think she’s unintelligent or anything, but because I enjoy debating literature I love. I just wish I could be there and ask my questions and make my points, engage the prof and my classmates. In other words, I would like to be back in school again. What else is new.

I both enjoyed very much, and was very frustrated (see above) by Dimock’s study of For Whom the Bell Tolls. I think this is natural. Next we studied Tender is the Night, which I reacted to similarly but less strongly; that’s a book I’ve read, though not recently, and I feel less strongly about it than I do FWTBT; it might be my least favorite Fitzgerald (I thought The Last Tycoon, for example, was better), but ho hum. And then there was Light in August, the only Faulkner I’ve read, and if you read my two reviews of that, you know I’m settling in as not a Faulkner fan. So, the final question of this semester of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner: for me personally, did this class help me understand and enjoy Faulkner, or make me want to read more of him? And to that, a resounding “no.” I am discouraged by Dimock’s repeated confession that he is difficult, makes little or no sense, that she often does not understand what he’s up to. I was turned off by the other two works discussed in this course, and the final four lectures on Light in August shed precious little (wait for it…) light.

I now want to go back to school and study more literature; and I want to avoid William Faulkner from here on out. Those of you who enjoy him are welcome to your enjoyment and I’m happy for you. I’ll be over here.

As for Wai Chee Dimock’s course: I think she fails to articulate her thoughts sometimes; also, I disagree with some of them, but respectfully. I would certainly be happy to take courses from her if I were going back to school. As for this course via iTunes U, however, I give the combination of Dimock’s speaking style and the poor audio recording quality a C-, at best. However, I listened to all 25 lectures at ~50 minutes apiece. If you’re interested, they’re out there, and for that I’m grateful. We’ll see if I have any success with iTunes U in the future.

Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 8-16

Well, compared to my earlier review of lectures 1-7, I confess I’m a little less enthused with this second set of lectures. (By the way, for clarity’s sake, I downloaded all 25 lectures at once with no indicated break. These breaks for review purposes are random and my own.) I continue to find some audio issues – volume variations, breathiness, background noise – distracting and a little frustrating; I can better understand other users’ complaints as I go on and as this annoyance builds. And I have decided I do not want to read any more Faulkner. It’s not encouraging to have this professor repeatedly confirm that he is difficult; and what I’m learning about the two studied works I haven’t read (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying) is not motivating. I am perplexed by Dimock’s characterization of As I Lay Dying as “Faulkner’s version of To Have and Have Not” (this is at 15:00 or 14:55 of lecture 16, if you want to hear more). I confess listening to Dimock acknowledge Faulkner’s esoteric nature, combined with being thrilled to hear Hemingway discussed, is only serving to cement me further in my feelings about these two men. And that’s not really the purpose of academia, is it! I wish I could attend this class with classmates and participate in the study sections she refers to; I’d love to write papers as assigned and get feedback on them; maybe one day I’ll still go back to school and do these things, but for now, listening to these lectures is… still worthwhile, but sometimes frustrating. I hear things I don’t agree with, or need further explained, and there’s no platform for that. I could criticize and pick apart Dimock’s thoughts here, but it doesn’t feel entirely fair. I’d feel much better about doing it in the format intended: class discussion. Besides that, it’s difficult to articulate my arguments for you here, in front of this keyboard, after having listened to the lectures while driving my car and thus not taking adequate notes! These are the limitations of “study” under these terms as a busy professional. I’m still listening. But part of what I’m getting out of these lectures is just more regret that I’m not a full-time grad student!

I will choose one concept to argue here. It struck me hard enough that I made a note and went back to listen to this quick bit at home so I could share with you.

This is in lecture 16, covering For Whom the Bell Tolls (for the record, my favorite Hemingway novel). Dimock reads briefly from a conversation between Robert Jordan and Anselmo (whose name, inexplicably, she pronounces more like Ensalmo; it drives me nuts) in which Anselmo says of the gypsies,

To them it is not a sin to kill outside the tribe. They deny this but it is true.

Dimock comments.

Usually, for most of us, the injunction is against killing, period, right? So there’s just no qualifying after that… [but for the gypsies] outside your tribe you’re free to kill anyone. That’s an incredible charge to level against the gypsies.

She continues on to argue that this accusation, that gypsies lack some moral rectitude that the rest of us possess, is a statement that Anselmo is making about the gypsies’ inferiority; she goes on to discuss Robert Jordan’s apparent ignorance of Spanish culture & history based on a comment that he makes about the Moors. Well, I’m not so sure that Robert Jordan is all that ignorant, but that’s another argument. I think Dimock missed a key piece of irony in that statement about gypsies killing outside their tribe. What struck me about Dimock’s response was her dismissively clear-cut understanding of “our” rules about killing: “the injunction is again killing, period.” First of all, the groups that Anselmo and Robert Jordan belong to (the Abraham Lincoln brigade; guerrillas; Spanish republicans) certainly don’t have a universal injunction against killing people: they kill fascists, don’t they? In other words, depending on how you define one’s tribe, they also feel that it’s permissible or justifiable to kill outside the tribe. Or let’s take this a step further: nowhere does Anselmo, or Dimock, note that it’s okay or not okay to kill humans outside one’s tribe. No, she states that “for most of us, the injunction is against killing, period.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. People kill sentient beings by the billion: to eat them, to take their habitats, as collateral damage during our search for fossil fuels, on and on. To take a more modern approach, we as a society not only kill all nonhuman things as a matter of course and without a second thought; we also seem to accept under certain circumstances that it’s justifiable, at the very least, to kill nonwhites, or non-Americans, or non-Christians; in the post-9/11 United States, there was (is) a certain acceptance of our right to kill Muslims or brown people who live in certain countries! Now, Hemingway didn’t live to see 9/11, but this brand of ethnocentrism is not unique to my generation’s experience. I believe that Hemingway, unlike Dimock – and likely Robert Jordan too – saw and intended the irony in Anselmo’s statement about gypsies killing outside the tribe. It’s all a matter of how you define one’s tribe. Dimock herself pointed out in an earlier lecture that Hemingway’s work is simply dripping, saturated, with irony. I think she missed a fine example here.

Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 1-7

This is a series of 25 lectures – a semester course, presumably – available on iTunes U here. The description provided says…

This course examines major works by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, exploring their interconnections on three analytic scales: the macro history of the United States and the world; the formal and stylistic innovations of modernism; and the small details of sensory input and psychic life.

Some of the user comments/reviews on iTunes U accuse Professor Dimock of being difficult to understand; I’d like to speak to that first. These are not ideal audio recordings, it’s true. She’s a little faint, as if the mike was not pinned to her lapel but in the room somewhere (students coughing and rustling are audible); or maybe sometimes she has it too close to her mouth, and we get unnecessary breathiness. I had to crank my volume way up, and Dimock has some (natural, I think) variations of volume that had me making adjustments and occasionally jumping when she speaks up. And she does have an accent. And she does use “ums” and pauses; but again, I think most of us do. While she is not the most articulate, professional speaker I’ve ever encountered, I think she’s plenty fair for a college professor. (They don’t get to be professors by being professional speakers, kids, in case you didn’t know.) And the recording quality is partly to blame for the minor difficulties I had understanding these lectures. All that said, I found it entirely possible to turn up the volume, concentrate, and receive what Dimock had to say; and it was well worth it.

Now on to the content.

In the early episodes, I can’t say that Dimock presented any ideas that were wholly new to me. Here’s where I’ll take some credit for having read at least a little Faulkner, a medium-sized chunk of Fitzgerald, and most of Hemingway (repeatedly), and read similar proportions of biographical material on each, and studied literary criticism in the past. However, I haven’t tried to think in such academic interpretive terms in some time, and this warming up (if you will) of that part of my brain was useful and welcome. It felt really good to think in academic terms again.

I have to say that I couldn’t get on board with all of Dimock’s concepts. For example, her conflation of the “vagueness” of The Great Gatsby (that was, I believe, Maxwell Perkins’s word) with her “counterrealism” of same is problematic to me. I think you could be vague in your portrayal of realism, and I think you could be precise and use clear outlines in representing counterrealism; so I don’t think it works to substitute the one for the other. In addition, I’m 90% confident that in discussing Hemingway’s short story Indian Camp, she first asserts that childbirth is a manmade event (because it takes a man’s action to bring it on, of course) rather than a natural one; and then later comes around and asserts that it is as natural as rain (which I am much closer to agreeing with than the first assertion, by the way). I don’t always agree with her concepts, then, and I don’t always think that she is all that consistent or puts her arguments together all that well. However, all that aside, I’ve really enjoyed having these parts of my brain stretched out again, and I would very much enjoy being in this class to argue these points with her. So my disagreements and criticisms wouldn’t have me pulling out of this class, in other words, and I won’t stop listening now, either.

One big hope I had for these lectures was that they would help me to work my way through my difficulties with Faulkner. In that respect, they’ve been moderately successful. On the one hand, I am vindicated by Dimock’s saying that The Sound and the Fury is really difficult to understand! Now, I began that book at one point, years ago, and I don’t think I made it 15 pages; but already things are illuminated. So perhaps, as I suspected, Faulkner would become comprehensible to me if I had a good teacher looking over my shoulder and consulting page-by-page. I still don’t think I’m going to try The Sound and the Fury again anytime soon. But I look forward to hearing about my recent read, Light in August.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sections on Hemingway so far haven’t given me anything I didn’t know. I suspect I’m fairly well-informed, for an amateur, on that subject.

So in a nutshell, I’m feeling stimulated and am enjoying these lectures very much so far, and will be continuing through all 25.

vocabulary lessons: The World’s Strongest Librarian

worldsstrongestLeave it to an author as well-read as Josh Hanagarne to stump me several times over! I keep a piece of scratch paper as a bookmark, one sheet faithfully dedicated to each book, for keeping notes: page numbers for referral or quotation, words to look up, thoughts that belong in my review. If I have to look up more than 1-3 words in a book of standard length, that book often finds its way into a “vocabulary lessons” post. Here are the words that I learned from The World’s Strongest Librarian.

revenant: “one that returns after death or a long absence.” As used, a great way to poke fun at the ultra-serious character in question.

elided: “to suppress or alter (as a vowel or syllable) by elision” (a prime example of the crime of using the word in its own definition! shame on you, Merriam-Webster) or “to strike out (as a written word).” Not to be confused, I suppose, with redact, a term I was more familiar with and which did come up as a “related word.”

D and C: a most unpleasant-sounding surgery performed for, in this case, a very sad condition.

fontanelle: that soft spot on a baby’s head that you have to be careful of until the skull zips up properly. I am not a person well-versed in babies, in case you couldn’t tell. Used here in a metaphoric sense which I found quite effective, and topical.

Bonus: I went out the other night for beers with a girlfriend who also works in health care, and she dropped one on me that I’d never heard before. Because I’m a logophile, I had to go look it up right away! Lisa says that perseverate is word mostly used in health care; and the definition, to “repeat a response after the cessation of the original stimulus,” does fit with Lisa’s specialty in treating neurological conditions. There you go – learn something every day, even at the local pub. Thanks Lisa!

Sorry to say, folks, that The World’s Strongest Librarian will not be released for some time (May 2, last I saw). But in the meantime, you can check out Josh’s blog.

And if you’re interested – you can see a few more “vocabulary lessons” posts here.

article from TIME magazine: “Best, Worst Learning Tips” by Annie Murphy Paul

I do all sorts of reading, as you may have noticed here. I read fiction, some of it quick and easy reading (thrillers), for fun and the enjoyment of being caught up in the story; I read classic fiction for appreciation of the art form. I read nonfiction for the sake of learning more about my world, in so many diverse areas, because I love learning new things. I read books so that I can write book review for Shelf Awareness (although only the sort of books that I already enjoy reading). I read travel guides to help me plan trips. I read other people’s book blogs (although I am woefully behind on this) because I like hearing what they (you) have to say. I also read health information in my job as a medical librarian, in an effort to serve my patrons/patients with the best information available.

It’s been a little while since I’ve been in school formally, pursuing a specific degree; but I take short training courses here and there, and I am always aspiring to further schooling. If I had all the time and money in the world, you can bet I’d be a student again.

The advice implicit in the article linked below seems to be aimed primarily at students; but I believe that if we stop to consider, we all read because we want to learn something from our reading material (even if it’s just whodunit).

A friend of mine who works in higher education posted this to facebook – and I hope he won’t mind me quoting him: he called it “a very nice empirical discussion of learning strategies, something not all that common in the education literature.” (Thanks, David!) And here you are: “Highlighting Is a Waste of Time: The Best and Worst Learning Techniques” from TIME magazine. I thought it contained some good ideas for students or learners of any type. Of especial interest to me was the conclusion in the title: that highlighting is a waste of time (not least because it’s distracting to the reader). I couldn’t agree more! My high school English program actually graded us on our highlighting (we had to turn in our books for perusal). Sigh.

What’s your reading style? Are there any tips or conclusions in this article that surprise you or that you especially applaud?

vocabulary lessons: The Brave Cowboy

bravecowboyFor a man who writes evocatively of nose picking, armpit scratching, hard drinking, and crude womanizing, Edward Abbey can be surprisingly erudite and wordy. His more informed readers will note, however, that he held a master’s degree in philosophy, and enjoyed both a Fulbright Scholarship at Edinburgh University and a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship at Standford.

In my recent reading of his second novel, The Brave Cowboy, I had to look up no fewer than 10 words, ranging from unfamiliar to entirely unknown to me. Perhaps you will find some new ones here, as well!

bartizan: “a small structure (as a turret) projecting from a building and serving especially for lookout or defense.”

scurf: “Scaly or shredded dry skin, such as dandruff.” Ewww! Leave it to Abbey. It was more or less clear, in context, what this word referred to; but I initially thought perhaps it was one he’d made up. Not so.

corundum: “a very hard mineral that consists of aluminum oxide occurring in massive and crystalline forms, that can be synthesized, and that is used for gemstones (as ruby and sapphire) and as an abrasive.” The first of several geological terms, not very surprisingly.

glister: As I’d suspected, a sort of blending of ‘glisten’ and ‘glitter’, but not one Abbey made up, as I’d also suspected (like ‘scurf’, above).

carnotite: “a yellow to greenish-yellow mineral consisting of a radioactive hydrous vanadate of uranium and potassium that is a source of radium and uranium.” Extra points if you go look up ‘vanadate’…

cuate: I am mostly confident following the little bits of Spanish Abbey uses, having grown up in a border state myself; but I had to check on cuate. As suggested in context, it’s another way to say “guy, buddy, pal.”

eschatology: I began to wrinkle my nose because of the similarity to scatology, but no. “A branch of theology concerned with the final events in the history of the world or of humankind.” A philosopher master’s, I said.

hosanna: “used as a cry of acclamation and adoration.”

passacaglia: “an instrumental musical composition consisting of variations usually on a ground bass in moderately slow triple time.”

tamarisk: “any of a genus (Tamarix of the family Tamaricaceae, the tamarisk family) of chiefly Old World desert shrubs and trees having tiny narrow leaves and masses of minute flowers with five stamens and a one-celled ovary —called also salt cedar.” To which I am tempted to grumble, why not just call it salt cedar?

I’m always happy to learn new words. Thanks, Ed.

You can see a few more “vocabulary lessons” posts here.

biographies of parallel lives: Rachel Carson and Marie Tharp; and beyond

Remember when I raved about Soundings, the biography of the woman who mapped the ocean floor? I was enchanted in part by the style in which author Hali Felt evoked her subject, Marie Tharp, as a personality as well as a historical figure. I was also fascinated by the unique persona of Tharp herself, and her role as a woman in science in the 1940′s, 50′s, and 60′s.

And now I’m very pleased to have picked up a new biography entitled On a Farther Shore, by William Souder, about Rachel Carson, for the 50th anniversary of the publication of her groundbreaking book. Silent Spring exposed the tragic truth, that the widely used pesticide DDT was killing not only bugs, but birds and myriad other wildlife, and even humans. Carson is credited with playing a major role in the birth of the environmentalist movement.

These two biographies employ very different styles. Felt is a visible character in the story she tells, of Tharp’s life through the lens of Felt’s research experience, while Souder’s work so far tracks like a traditional biography, with the author invisible. But their subjects share a few obvious similarities. Both were women on the margins of scientific communities that weren’t entirely prepared to let them in, and they were more or less contemporaries (Tharp was born 13 years later than Carson). Both challenged the gender barrier and accepted understandings of their fields. I recognized these parallels when I began reading On a Farther Shore.

But I wasn’t prepared for the confluences and coincidences that came fast and thick in the opening chapters. (I’m only about 50 pages in, so this is far from a final review of Souder’s work. Although I do like it so far!) For one thing, forgive my ignorance: I knew about Silent Spring (I read it when I was a kid), but had not known that prior to that most famous of her books, Carson had been a well-loved and bestselling author of literary writings about the ocean. So, number one: both women were fascinated with the sea. And then came a comparison of Silent Spring, with its unprecedented exposure of an industry that would later be legislated and regulated largely because of the book itself, to one of my all time favorites: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Next I learned that Carson grew up scarcely an hour’s drive away from where Edward Abbey would grow up 20 years her junior. That is a hell of a coincidence.

As I joyfully made these connections (which I know will continue, because our world is all interconnected), I mused. I remember feeling, in middle school, even in high school, that certain subjects were “work,” were chores, weren’t fun, didn’t feel like they were teaching me things I’d need to know or care to know later in life. I liked English but had less use for history. And I also remember when this changed for me, and when learning for its own sake became something I felt passionately about. The light-bulb moment was related to the interconnectedness of all things. That history, biology, political science, and literature were all the same story; that nothing happens in a vacuum, just as Gertrude Stein, mentor and friend to my main man Ernest Hemingway, was a student at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts just a few decades ahead of Rachel Carson. I don’t know about the rest of you, but learning that the world is interdisciplinary and that contemporary figureheads from a variety of textbooks lived in the same world – that Einstein’s life work and philosophy was deeply influenced by his observation of German militarism culminating in Hitler’s rise to power, that the reclusive Harper Lee and the effervescent Truman Capote were buddies, that Mark Twain and the much-younger Helen Keller were close – has been the turning point for me in appreciating so much more reading and learning than I did even 10 years ago.

Recognizing these connections has led to myriad new directions in my own reading. Some of them have been in fiction (I’ve read Gertrude Stein because of her relationship with Hemingway), and many have been nonfiction. In general, I would definitely credit this larger observation with my ever-growing appreciation of nonfiction. I’m sometimes saddened to hear from people who don’t like nonfiction, because they’re missing so much. I suspect they just haven’t met the right style of nonfiction yet; but maybe, too, they haven’t had that light-bulb moment that did it for me.

Does anybody else share this feeling that everything being connected make the world a fascinating place? Has it influenced your reading habits?

revisiting the question of history vs. historical fiction

The value of fiction, the pitfalls and dangers of historical fiction, and the concept of the proper way to read historical fiction, are topics I’ve discussed here from time to time. [See bottom of post for links.] I like to read nonfiction, and I like to read historical fiction, and I find it interesting to ponder that deceptive and elusive line where fact meets fiction. Even within “nonfiction,” in fact, I think it’s important to question the boundaries. [Just the other day, in my review of Blaine Harden's Escape From Camp 14, I mused over the hidden impact of the interpreter to Harden's interviews of his subject.] Memoir is famously a genre of nonfiction where that line is blurred and amorphous; often the narrator/memoirist is the only one who can confirm what s/he writes, and as we all know, memory is a faulty beast. The relatively new genre of “narrative nonfiction” to me refers to nonfiction that is written with a more literary voice, and is usually more readable to a general audience that tends to balk at nonfiction; but some have suggested that it is less reliable and factual than traditional (drier) nonfiction. I enjoy the entire range of work – from historical fiction to memoir and creative nonfiction to textbook-style, heavily cited, academic writings – and mean to disparage no one here; I just find it interesting to poke and prod at the distinctions.

I always appreciate it when an author addresses the issue head-on. [See Sharon Kay Penman's author's notes at the back of her books. She does a lovely job.] And so I was intrigued by the foreword to Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. Here is the first paragraph:

Recreating the last days of six men who disappeared at sea presented some obvious problems for me. On the one hand, I wanted to write a completely factual book that would stand on its own as a piece of journalism. On the other hand, I didn’t want the narrative to asphyxiate under a mass of technical detail and conjecture. I toyed with the idea of fictionalizing minor parts of the story – conversations, personal thoughts, day-to-day routines – to make it more readable, but that risked diminishing the value of whatever facts I was able to determine. In the end I wound up sticking strictly to the facts, but in as wide-ranging a way as possible. If I didn’t know exactly what happened aboard the doomed boat, for example, I would interview people who had been through similar situations, and survived. Their experiences, I felt, would provide a fairly good description of what the six men on the Andrea Gail had gone through, and said, and perhaps even felt.

From here he indicates which dialogue he has confirmed from recorded interviews (in quotation marks), what dialogue has been reconstructed from the memories of those involved (without quotation marks), and where radio conversations have been recalled from memory (in italics). While I appreciate the effort, I should note, these guidelines did me little good in listening to the audiobook! That’s all right, though. I’m comfortable knowing that Junger paid such close attention and stuck to self-imposed guidelines. Knowing that, until I have a research paper to write on this subject, I am content to let the line between confirmed & merely recalled blur in my mind.

Most importantly, I appreciate that Junger acknowledged the challenge here, and I acknowledge it back at him: recreating a real-life experience at which he was not present does present some concerns, and I respect his plan here. Moreover, I think it turned out really well. His narrative telling of the events leading up to the “perfect storm” (recreated largely through interviews with the surviving players) flowed very nicely. He frequently interjects bits of local or regional history, or the accounts of people with unrelated but similar experiences, as mentioned above. In this way, the structure of this story is similar to that of Escape from Camp 14. I feel that it worked well in both cases: narrative storyline interrupted by backstory that expanded my understanding. And I was confident in my storyteller, thanks in part to his helpful and brief foreword.

I guess the point of this post is just to nod my head to the question of fact meeting up with conjecture, in various genres of writing, and mention one way of dealing with it. Is this something you think about as you read?

If you’re interested, here are a few past posts where I’ve contemplated this issue.

“fact vs. artistic license”

Thanks to Pops for today’s prompt (and post title). He sent me this article, from the New York Times. I hope that link works! If it doesn’t, it’s called “The Fact-Checker Versus the Fabulist”, written by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, published February 21, 2012, so hopefully you can find it online. In a nutshell, it discusses the following situation:

“Hi, John. I’m Jim Fingal. I’m the intern who’s been assigned to fact-check your article about Las Vegas, and I’ve discovered a small discrepancy between the number of strip clubs you’re claiming there are in Las Vegas and the number that’s given in your supporting documents.” To which [John] D’Agata responded: “Hi, Jim. I think maybe there’s some sort of miscommunication, because the ‘article,’ as you call it, is fine. It shouldn’t need a fact-checker; at least that was my understanding with the editor I’ve been working with. I have taken some liberties in the essay here and there, but none of them are harmful.”

The article under discussion, called “What Happens There,” is purportedly nonfiction, but takes liberties, as its author says, with the facts. Lewis-Kraus discusses what it means to take liberties with fact in nonfiction writing. D’Agata makes a case for the higher purpose of “art” taking precedent over facts. I think we can probably agree that this concept, taken to an extreme, is bad for nonfiction. But the fact (heh) is that much nonfiction, arguably most nonfiction, even more arguably, perhaps, all nonfiction leaves some room for concern over absolute truth. I mean, come on, truth is relative, in the eye of the beholder, and always subject to some argument.

Pops expresses concern over

the view of any given writer that s/he is creating art or entertainment, and therefore an obsession with extreme fact-checking just gets in the way (100% fact checking is exhausting & distracting from the writing process) – and it doesn’t matter because readers understand artistic license. It hadn’t occurred to me that writers could so knowingly & sincerely take this approach with eyes wide open.

And indeed, the attitude of D’Agata as expressed in Lewis-Kraus’s article is alarming. He seems pretty cavalier about the importance of facts (and fact-checking). But I was already aware of the blurry lines, even within “nonfiction”, between fact and… liberties. How do we tell the difference between pure fact and all the nuances that then follow, along a continuum, between pure fact and pure fiction? It’s an interesting and concerning issue. I’m not bothered by fiction, nor am I bothered by the many hybrids, but I think understanding what it is that we’re reading is important. If a reader forms a world-view based on a book, it’s pretty important that that reader be clear on where fact ends and personal opinion, interpretation, or imagination begins.

So how do we tell? Ideally, fiction is easy to identify. It’s in the realm of nonfiction – which label tends to be liberally applied – that we can get into trouble. Memoirs are famously vague in terms of fact, and I think that many readers are aware of that vagueness, but I’m sure many aren’t. And there is likely to be a very large portion of what we think of as nonfiction – that is published as such – that has some questionable areas of “fact.” Who polices these things? In theory, publishers do, at least to avoid embarrassment a la James Frey or Greg Mortenson. But how much of your life savings would you bet that every detail in that latest personal narrative is factually truthful?

We could impose a ratings system, I guess. But even if we were prepared to deal with the censorship threat implied, who would do the fact-checking and rating? The authors themselves? Editors? Publishers? A newly established institution subject to corruption and favoritism, and imposing a new cost on publishing? No, that’s not going to work.

I think the best solution – as is often the case – is to be responsible consumers of nonfiction. Reading authors’ notes, afterwords, acknowledgements, introductions, and footnotes should, in theory, assuming thorough and honest authors, give us an accurate idea of how much fact and how much author impression we’re getting. I love Sharon Kay Penman for her detailed author’s notes, in which she makes clear what is researched fact, what is educated extrapolation, and what is fiction. If all authors of historical fiction and nonfiction followed her lead, I would feel safer. But in practice, we’re pretty far from this standard.

I’ve blogged about this concept before, and I still don’t have an answer. And yet I still love to read historical fiction, and I read a lot of nonfiction, too. I’m sure I’m a more informed consumer than many; but I’m a long way from perfect. What advice would you give to me, or any reader of nonfiction and historical fiction, in keeping our facts straight? Is there anything we can do? Does the slippery slope of fiction vs. non bother you too?

A few authors’ notes:

Though this is not a work of fiction, it has some fictionalizing in it. Its facts are factual and the things it says happened did happen. But I have not scrupled to dramatize historical matter and thereby to shape its emphases as I see them, or occasionally to change living names and transpose existing places and garble contemporary incidents. Some of the characters, including at times the one I call myself, are composite. People are people, and if you put some of them down the way they are, they likely wouldn’t be happy. I don’t blame them. Nevertheless, even those parts are true in a fictional sense. As true as I could make them. –Goodbye to a River, by John Graves

The Edward Abbey of my books is largely a fictional creation: the true adventures of an imaginary person. The real Edward Abbey? I think I hardly know him. A shy, retiring, very timid fellow, obviously. Somewhat of a recluse, emerging rarely from his fictional den only when lured by money, vice, the prospect of applause. –Edward Abbey, from his journals, as quoted in The Life of Edward Abbey, by James M. Cahalan

What reactions do you have to these statements? Do these ambiguities about fact or “truth” compromise the integrity of the “nonfiction” works in question, or is their integrity somehow solidified by these explanations? Have you seen any interesting authors’ notes or statements of nonfictionality to share with us?


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