Writing Lives: Writing Lives
I wrote this article in response to a thought-provoking question rob mclennan asked me about the recent interest or “drift” toward poetic or creative biography, which involves innovative or lyric approaches to narrating lives of public figures. Good question, and I’ll do my best to answer, albeit a bit indirectly. But first, a few words about the title of this modest piece. The word “lives” is both noun and verb. And in a way, that’s what shapes the kind of writing that rob wanted me to comment on. Writing about lives requires a kind of double-vision. You see the “thingness” of the life you’ve chosen to write about, but life is kinetic. And writing about a life is a kind of nominative action, both noun and verb. Does this matter much? Maybe yes, because it helps contextualize some of the reasons for a growing interest in writing about actuality. So, for this literary approach, what’s out there? Well, just recently, biographically based non-fictions include accounts such as Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, or, John Doe’s Under the Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, or, Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, or, A.J. Somerset’s Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, or, Jason Elliot’s An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan. There are bio-books on politics, health, black civil rights, environment, Indigeneity, spirituality, murder, royalty, the middle-east, athletes, musicians, film-makers, and the list goes on. Think, Charles Darwin, Rachel Carson, Anne Frank, Primo Levi, Eldridge Cleaver, Truman Capote, Betty Friedan, and so many more. Think, Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi, Last of His Tribe. Or, maybe think of Walter Isaacson on Steve Jobs.
But, let’s take a quick look at several types of non-fiction. Marlene Kadar, in the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (U of Toronto Press, 2003), lists related forms that have been named or developed by different writers and thinkers, including “life writing” [Robert Kroetsch], “self-portrait” [Susan Jackel], “life-narrative” [Shirley Neuman], “bio-text” [George Bowering], “autographie” [Madeleine Gagnon], “biofiction” [Regine Robin], or, “filiation” [Gabrielle Fremont] (662). One could add autobiography to the mix. As Kadar, Buss, Jackel, and Neuman, have pointed out there is some porosity in the generic boundaries of autiobiography, and those other related forms. And, there are also cross-overs and blurs between what we typically think of as fictive and non-fictive expression (prose, poetry, or drama). Consider Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie, bpNichol’s Martyrology, Lepage’s The Geometry of Miracles, or, Needles and Opium. Literary borders are porous. There are different ways to deliver biography, autobiography, memoirs, letters, diaries, journals, anthropological data, oral testimony, and eye-witness accounts. Each of these approaches has its own characteristics, but it seems to me that the “drift” towards, or interest in non-fictive expression has always been with us. I think of the cave drawings of Altamira depicting successful hunting expeditions, or the love poems of Sappho, or, Niccolò Machiavelli’s advice to a young prince (still a best-seller), and, it seems to me that non-fictive expression has engaged us since our earliest days. Further, I think it should be apparent to most that any biography or bio-text becomes as much a depiction of the author as the subject. Consider Frank Davey’s remarkable How Linda Died, or, When Tish Happens.
Cave drawing from Altamira (c. 35,000 B.C.) [ http://www.oddee.com/item_93915.aspx ]
I’d like to turn the topic inside out, and briefly look at how biographical input enters into fiction. Novels often include disclaimers which insist that all characters depicted are purely fictitious, and any similarity to actuality is purely coincidental. But why include disclaimers, unless there are direct correspondences to actuality? So, we say, “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.” But such disclaimers sometimes mean the opposite, and are often included to avoid litigation. Despite disclaimers, fictions still depict actuality. I think of Rudy Wiebe’s question about “Where is the voice coming from?” Inspiration. Expression. Fusion. Meantime, creative life-writing, biographies, autobiographies, and other non-fictional forms, feature a different type of disclaimer; “Although the author and publisher have made every effort to ensure that the information in this book was correct at press time, the author and publisher do not assume and hereby disclaim any liability to any party for any loss, damage, or disruption caused by errors or omissions, whether such errors or omissions result from negligence, accident, or any other cause.” The difference between fictive and non-fictive disclaimers invites some consideration. For example, non-fiction uses many of the same methods as fiction. In non-fiction, information can be inflated, deflated, included, excluded, over-stated, under-stated, and so on. Perhaps you’ve noticed that your memory of your own life works much the same way. You may have exaggerated views of some things, sublimated others, and either revised, or entirely eliminated other events. In many ways, your memory of your past life is a fiction. The border between fiction and non-fiction is permeable and intriguing. It’s where I situate my own writing. I love exploring that liminal zone.
So, why the recent “drift” in interest for non-fictional or biographical writing? Put simply, our interest in actuality trumps our interest in imagined scenarios. Our stories are part of our cultural identity. They are ways of “naming,” “renaming,” or even “un-naming” ourselves, as Barthes put it. But how can we carry out such self-identifying if, as some argue, fiction has exhausted most of its own possibilities? The death of the novel has been repeatedly announced by writers such as José Ortega y Gasset (Decline of the Novel, 1925), Walter Benjamin (Krisis des Romans, 1930). Later, in the same century, the novel’s demise is discussed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, Roland Barthes, John Barth, Ronald Sukenick, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace, among others.
In his essay, “Trapped inside the Novel,” Tim Parks affirms David Shields’ contention that any community of readers will consider novels with jaded eyes after being barraged with mass-media sound-bytes or video-bytes depicting “reality” montaged through “quotations, fragments, provocations, moments of lyricism, and melodrama.” Parks states that he feels confined by the literary conventions of novels:
My problem with the grand traditional novel—or rather traditional narrative in general, short stories included—is the vision of character, the constant reinforcement of a fictional selfhood that accumulates meaning through suffering and the overcoming of suffering. At once a palace built of words and a trajectory propelled by syntax, the self connects effortlessly with the past and launches bravely into the future. Challenged, perhaps thwarted by circumstance, it nevertheless survives, with its harvest of bittersweet consolation, and newly acquired knowledge [http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2013/11/07/literature-without-style/].
A quick survey from José Ortega y Gasset to Tim Parks suggests that at least some people feel that the novel has exhausted itself. Other prominent writers disagree, not exactly with that premise, but with the reason for the premise. For example, Salman Rushdie has argued that assumptions concerning the death of the novel are founded in First-World literary assumptions which are not particularly relevant when applied to literature beyond the west. Fair enough.
We have arrived at 1001 x 1001 ways to re-tell our stories, but the fundamental forms abide, and even the innovations of what has been called “postmodern” can be read as reactions to those older forms, with meaning dependent on earlier literary convention. The unconventional only has meaning when placed beside the conventional. One could say more about form, but what about subject matter? Agreed, you can’t separate the dancer from the dance. Form and subject are integrated. But, too often the material out there seems like yet another psycho-drama, some writer’s invented crisis, created perhaps more to sell books and less for the art of story-telling, designed more for entertainment and less for our instruction, to paraphrase Plato’s and Aristotle’s views in a single clause. So, with a world in crisis, expression that avoids actuality feels escapist, maybe even a little irresponsible. I’ve heard it said that all art is masturbation. Up, down, or down, up, repeat, climax. Some audiences grow leery of reading yet another jerk-off story or poem, while “Rome” is burning. Or, if not Rome, then maybe the rainforests, but you get the “drift.”
So, to return to the growing interest or “drift” towards bio-texts, life-writing, or non-fictions; what’s the draw? Well, maybe non-fiction seems more socially engaged, or “engagé” as Satre put it. When one half of global wealth is in the hands of 62 people (as confirmed by Oxfam Davos), when the sustainability of the planet becomes a daily concern, when questions recur involving the military industrial complex, endless warfare, related “terrorist” events, banking autocracies, global food and pharmaceutical oligarchies, and daily mass-media mind-laundering, then then, maybe it’s time to wake up and smell the non-fiction, have a bit of a reality check-out at the local library or bookstore. I’d be interested in reading a bio-text on Bernie Sanders, for example. Such writing can arise from diverse sources, illuminating disturbing actualities. Anne Frank. Gil Elliot. Romeo Dallaire. Maya Angelou. Gerald Vizenor. Naomi Klein. David Talbot. Anne Applebaum. Timothy Snyder. Evan Osnos. Katherine Boo. It’s impossible to mention so many other important non-fiction or bio-text writers in this short space.
But! To be fair, it’s important to remember that fiction, poetry and drama are often equally “engagé.” Socio-political engagement is one of the fundamentals of drama. It is the raison d’être for satire. There is an inspiring history of socio-politically engaged poetry, fiction and drama. Think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Harlem Renaissance, George Orwell, Edward Bond, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Ben Okri, Anne Waldman, José Saramago, Barbara Kingsolver, Ron Silliman, Khaled Hosseini, or Chimanmanda Ngozi Adiche, among so many others. Or, closer to home, think of the Automatists, Carol Bolt, Joy Kogawa, Daphne Marlatt, Nicole Brossard, Barbara Godard, Jeanette Armstrong, Lillian Allen, David Fennario, Dionne Brand, Steve McCaffery, Thomas King, Gail Scott, Erin Mouré, NourbeSe Philip, Tomson Highway, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, or Stephen Collis. The list of plays, poems, or tales of Handmaids and others is seemingly endless (and I apologize for the dozens I haven’t included here. Tomorrow, I’ll think of dozens more excellent examples). Nonetheless, why the recent drift in interest towards non-fiction including creative biography and/or autobiography? It might have something to do with a certain vérité, dropping any need for an artificial suspension of disbelief, while disregarding the literary fourth wall, and having the opportunity to walk hand-in hand with a forthright author talking about the actualities of how we how we struggle, live, die, fuck, sustain, and love in this dangerous time.
Karl Jirgens, former Head of the English Dept., at U Windsor, is author of four books (Coach House, Mercury, and ECW Presses). He edited two books, one on painter Jack Bush and another on poet Christopher Dewdney, and an issue of Open Letter. His scholarly and creative pieces are published globally. His research on digital media investigates literature and performance. Jirgens also researches 20thC and WWII genocides, as featured in his novel-in-progress on the Cold War. Since 1979, Jirgens has edited Rampike, an international journal featuring contemporary art, writing and theory. He currently serves as Associate Professor at U Windsor.