What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

June 23, 2014 Issue

Why read fiction? One reason, according to James Wood, in his "The Punished Land," in this week’s issue, is that “We enjoy watching the novelist play the game of truthtelling.” In so saying, Wood helps me understand why I prefer reading factual writing. I enjoy it because I know it isn’t a game; I can rely on it as a representation of real life. I like that phrase “real life.” Wood uses it in his great "On Not Going Home" (“But real life is a different matter”).

Some critics think that the representation of real life isn’t really art [e.g., Arlene Croce – she once criticized the costumes (“cowboy hats and splotched jeans”) in a ballet (American Ballet Theatre’s Rodeo) for being “too much like life”]. In order for it to be art (they say), there has to be distortion, heightening, dramatization, fabrication, transformation. In other words, in order to convert life to art, you have to fictionalize it. Wood holds this view. In “The Punished Land,” he compares Zachary Lazar’s nonfictional Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder with Lazar’s novel Sway, and says, “Sway is the stronger for Lazar’s confident but understated fictionalizing. The narrative doesn’t meekly copy the silhouettes of its research; it draws new, emboldened versions.”

Meekly copy the silhouettes of its research – is that what Wood thinks all factual writing does? Or is the application of his remark confined to Lazar’s nonfiction work? A writer’s research may disclose the outline (the silhouette) of the piece he or she eventually writes. But it may not. Talking about the composition of his classic The Pine Barrens (1967), John McPhee, in his "Structure" (The New Yorker, January 14, 2013), says,

I had done all the research I was going to do—had interviewed woodlanders, fire watchers, forest rangers, botanists, cranberry growers, blueberry pickers, keepers of a general store. I had read all the books I was going to read, and scientific papers, and a doctoral dissertation. I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it. The piece would ultimately consist of some five thousand sentences, but for those two weeks I couldn’t write even one. If I was blocked by fear, I was also stymied by inexperience. I had never tried to put so many different components—characters, description, dialogue, narrative, set pieces, humor, history, science, and so forth—into a single package.

Making that single package involves more than just “meekly copying the silhouettes of its research.” It involves, at the very least, selecting and shaping. “Art is selecting and shaping,” Wood says, in his How Fiction Works (2008). It’s time he acknowledged that’s how factual writing works, too. 

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