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The Literary World's Latest Teapot-Sized Tempest: Or, When Writers Attack!

This article is more than 9 years old.

For those of you who don’t make a habit of trolling literary websites, you are missing out on a lot of sniping. The latest teapot-sized tempest involves a piece that appeared on called “Journalism Is Not Narcissism” by Hamilton Nolan.

Because Gawker’s business model is predicated on posting controversial content, then wringing a profit from the ensuing hit counts, I’m not going to link to the piece. The highlights will suffice.

Nolan takes umbrage with a journalism teacher who urges her students to write personal essays. He feels, quite reasonably, that journalism students should focus on examining the world around them, not the one inside them.

Readers want ... a story that makes them see the world anew, and that makes them feel less alone ... The rest is just us insecure writers bickering.

His larger beef is against our burgeoning culture of literary solipsism. He’s lamenting a world in which young writers see the path to success as residing in a desperate effort to market their own trauma and lurid deeds for publishers.

I basically agree. Excessive confession is a sure path to hackdom.

The example that leaps to mind is that of a college student named Marie Calloway, who became an “internet sensation” a year ago, after penning an account of her one-night stand with a writer twice her age. The piece went viral. It did so mostly because of its graphic and scandalous content. The writing itself was candid, but almost entirely devoid of insight. Ms. Calloway didn’t portray the incident; she transcribed it.

In so doing, she became the literary equivalent of Kim Kardashian: a person famous not for her talents, but her willingness to exploit her own sexuality for attention.

Nolan is right to decry this kind of cynicism.

But what he gets wrong in his piece is just as important as what he gets right. The reason most people shouldn’t write about their lives, he argues, is because “most people’s lives are not that interesting.” (The italics, I’m afraid, are his.)

This is — to use a technical term — complete crapola. Everyone has a rich and tortured internal life, chock full of desire and rage and guilt and despair. They may not want to face that life, or make sense of it on the page. But it exists. It’s what makes us human beings.

Nolan’s attitude, in fact, is part of the reason the memoir has become such a maligned genre. Someone like James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces,” decided to gin up the story of his drug addiction with a bunch of Hollywood plot twists that never happened precisely because he feared his life wouldn’t be “interesting” enough otherwise.

I’m tired of writers passing judgment on entire genres.

But what makes a piece of writing worth reading is the quality of attention the author gives to his subject, whether that subject is his drug addiction or her one-night stand or the French Revolution.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t crucial differences between genres. As someone who began my writing life as a journalist, turned to fiction, and now supports that habit, in part, by writing non-fiction, I assure you each form is distinct. (An essay is a radically subjective account of events that objectively took place. A short story may include true material, but the author’s job is basically to make up stuff that’s dramatically satisfying.)

I’m tired of seeing pieces like Nolan’s, that pass judgment on entire genres. Even writers I admire get caught up in this nonsense.

The memoirist David Shields sparked a furor a couple of years ago with his book “Reality Hunger,” which decried traditional fiction. Lorrie Moore wrote a long piece in The New York Review of Books suggesting that most memoirs would be richer if rendered as fiction.

Both were, in essence, elevating their own sensibilities into aesthetic postures. Shields was saying novels bore him. Moore was saying she prefers novels to memoirs. What both were expressing, unconsciously, is the natural anxiety of writers living in an age dominated by visual media.

But serious readers want only one thing in the end: a story that makes them see the world anew, and that makes them feel less alone in that world. The rest is just us insecure writers bickering.


This program aired on January 8, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.



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