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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear 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.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Reality Cake

A couple of weeks ago, in the "Bookends" column of The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Leslie Jamison and Daniel Mendelsohn extolled the merits of memoir-novels. Jamison’s piece particularly sticks in the mind. She seems to think that fictionalizing memoir makes it more artful. She asks, “So what’s the lure of the blur? Why do we like that space of uncertainty in which we don’t know what’s been invented and what hasn’t?” She answers, “There’s an electric charge in toggling back and forth between the shimmer of what’s been artfully constructed and the glint of what actually was.” She says, “We get the frisson of admiring the narrative as both artifact and plain fact, a North Pole both imagined and constructed. We get to have our reality cake and eat it too.” “Reality cake” is a good name for memoir-novels. They’re confections of the real and the fictive. I have no interest in them. I prefer reality served straight – all facts, no fiction. But this doesn’t mean that I lose out on the experience of Jamison’s “frisson.” This is where I take issue with Jamison. She asserts that it’s fiction that makes reality artful, as if, say, John McPhee’s Coming into the Country and Ian Frazier’s Great Plains are just inert lumps of raw fact. There are works of factual writing that are as beautifully and artfully wrought as any novel. Fiction doesn’t necessarily make reality artful; it just makes it fake.

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