Friday, July 8, 2016

Cue the Berets and the Wine

A few weeks ago, I submitted the Kathy Ireland story to a market, and almost immediately I got an email back from one of the editors asking me whether I considered it fiction or nonfiction. I had no idea how to answer this question. The real answer is for us to sit around with wine, in our berets, and talk until someone has to go pay the babysitter. But that's stupid and pretentious and inefficient to tell an editor, someone who probably just wants to forward my submission to the appropriate slusher.

By wordcount, the Kathy Ireland story (let's shorten it to KIS) is nonfiction. Most of its 1,600 words consist of me narrating about film and my experience at an opera, and all of those parts are either true or my true opinions. Then there's about 500 words of fiction: two sections of me imagining the interior thoughts of Kathy and of Meryl Streep.

After I finished writing, I wasn't sure myself whether it was fiction or nonfiction. My tendency is to think that a shred of fiction, of the intentionally invented, paints the entire work with that hue of literary endeavor. You apply Photoshop to a picture, bang, it's Photoshopped; you can't be a little bit pregnant. On the other hand, the KIS is, really is, nonfiction, for the most part, in a way that's important to me. I strained to tell as much of the truth as I could in the KIS, in a way that was new to me when I wrote it last spring but which has become closer to a default mode as I've written more stories like it.

I still call it a story in my mind, because calling it an essay would be disingenuous and calling it "this weird thing I wrote" is not very professional. When I describe and/or submit it and similar stories, I've been calling them "hybrid essays", a pretty and approximate term that doesn't mean all that much outside of academia and a small cadre of writers like Maggie Nelson.

A growing part of me is simply uninterested in how work like this is categorized. I'm interested in what other people will say about it, but in an intellectual rather than a personal way (like, cue the berets and the wine, I got no babysitter to pay). I don't have much invested in the labels that gatekeepers will put on the KIS and work like it. I get the need for that kind of labeling, because I know firsthand that it's impossible to figure out where to find Maggie Nelson in a given bookstore. Such labels, failing all else, are a practical necessity. I'm fine with that, I comprehend that, I haven't a whisper of anarchy in my personality and you couldn't convince me that there should just be a single label of BOOKS under which everything is tossed alphabetically. Definitely not.

But how I think of myself as a writer just isn't involved in such a calculation. I always try to tell the truth, and whether that's a literal truth which has a set of, let's say, journalistic standards to which I need to hold myself, or a life-truth that is best communicated using situations and characters and ideas that I made up - more and more, now, it's all the same to me.

What I have to say seems to demand that I cross the streams. So be it. I read Nelson's Jane: A Murder last week, and it felt so much richer for combining poetry and nonfiction, much more so than a normal prose book about the same material would have been. That's something I could stand to hear about my work.

But it won't be said about the KIS anytime soon. It got rejected by the market that wanted to know what I considered it.

My reply said that by word count it was nonfiction, but it did have a little fiction in it. And I apologized for not being able to answer the question properly. The real answer is that I want the reader to consider the work herself and tell me what she thinks. What I think of my work is unsurprising; I live inside my head full-time and am reasonably aware of my opinions. What others think of my work is much more interesting to me.

In fact, I'm extremely curious to know where other writers and readers draw the line between fiction and nonfiction. Do you, too, have this idea that one stitch of fiction makes the whole hem fake? Do you think that essays which stretch the truth, like John D'Agata's famously do, should be named fiction instead?

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