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.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

“But You Can’t Move That Bear”: Why Narrative Construction in Nonfiction Is Less Artificial Than in Fiction (Contra McCallum-Smith)

I enjoyed Susan McCallum-Smith’s “Geoff at Sea” (Los Angeles Review of Books, September 1, 2014). But something she says about factual writing bothers me. She equates its narrative structure with that of fiction. She says, “Narrative construction in nonfiction is no less artificial than in fiction, but that does not necessarily imply that Dyer — with his coy self-deprecation and flâneur facade — is more manipulative or his intent less true.” No less artificial than in fiction – is this true? I don’t think so. Reading McCallum-Smith’s observation, I thought of John McPhee’s classic “The Encircled River” (The New Yorker, May 2 & 9, 1977; Book I of McPhee’s great Coming into the Country, 1977), which begins in the middle of a canoe trip down the Salmon River in the Brooks Range of Alaska. The first part is written in the present tense. The writing comes to the end of the journey and then it flashes back to the beginning of the trip. After that, it’s in the past tense, and the piece ends with McPhee in the canoe, somewhere relatively early in the journey, seeing a grizzly bear. The piece makes a circle, enacting its title. In an interview in The Paris Review (Spring 2010), McPhee describes how he conceived “The Encircled River” ’s brilliant structure:

But once I started writing, I had to tell a story. It’s the story of a journey. Within that journey certain things happened, such as an encounter with a big grizzly. That grizzly encounter was a pretty exciting thing, and it happened near the beginning of the trip. That was somewhat inconvenient structurally, because it’s such a climactic event. But you can’t move that bear, because this is a piece of nonfiction writing.

But what if you started telling the piece of writing further down the river, I wondered. That way, when you get to the end of the trip, you’re really only halfway through the story. What you do then is switch to the past tense, creating a flashback, and you back up and start your trip over again. By the time you get to that bear, that bear is at the perfect place for the climax. That’s what’s exciting about nonfiction writing. In this case, it’s a simple flashback, but it also echoes all these cycles of the present and the past.

But you can’t move that bear – right there is the rub, nonfiction’s ironclad rule – you can’t mess with the facts. It’s what makes nonfiction real – much realer than fiction, in my opinion. Fiction writers are under no such constraint. They don’t have to worry about making their story conform to the way things actually happened. Andrew O’Hagan, in his review of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Vol. I, 1907-22, talks about the gap “between what Ernie wanted to happen and what actually happened to him – a vacuum that could only be occupied by myth” (“Issues for His Prose Style,” London Review of Books, June 7, 2012). O’Hagan provides this example:

Hemingway was rejected by the regular army. He was giving out chocolate for the Red Cross when the mortar exploded that damaged his legs. (The subjective correlative in a Farewell to Arms is the basin of macaroni and the wine. That’s how fiction works.)

Nonfiction takes its “plot” from real (as opposed to imaginary) life. As McPhee says in his Paris Review interview, structure in a fact piece “arises organically from the material once you have it.” This, to my mind, is what makes nonfiction’s narrative construction, contrary to McCallum-Smith’s view, far less artificial than fiction’s.

Credit: The above artwork is by Stephen Doyle (photographed by Grant Cornett); it appears in The New Yorker (January 14, 2013), as an illustration for John McPhee’s “Structure.”

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