Very Bad Paragraphs, or What I’m Coming to See as a Fundamental Incomprehension regarding Structure in Nonfiction

From Robert Root?s chiefly problematic The Nonfictionist?s Guide (the title of which I greatly admire):

Contemporary creative nonfiction abounds and examples of idiosyncratic experimental forms. Some, like Nancy Willard?s ?The Friendship Tarot? or John McPhee?s ?The Search for Marvin Gardens,? are so distinctive and individual that they are unlikely to lead directly to anyone else?s work. What are the chances another essayist will find it appropriate to invent a tarot deck and imagine a reading in order to tell the story of a friendship, as Willard does? What are the odds of another essayist needing to alternate between a board game and tour of the city it?s based on, as McPhee does between ?Monopoly? and Atlantic City?

The writing here is so emphatically sure of itself and so wrong in its understanding that my reflex is to get all sarcastic here, but I’ll refrain. I don’t know Willard’s essay (though now I want to find it and read it), but I know McPhee’s well, as do most NF folks. To characterize its structure the way Root does here is akin to asking why a painter would ever use both orange and yellow after Rothko did it in Orange and Yellow.

In other words, he’s mistaking structural form with the content it helps wrangle.

“The Search for Marvin Gardens” (which I always want to Proustianly call “In Search Of…”) has a tripartite structure. McPhee switches among three narrative modes common to NF as a genre:

  1. A memoiristic series narrative on the history of games he’s played with a friend over the course of years.
  2. A research-based thread on the history of both Atlantic City as a resort town and Monopoly as a game.
  3. A fieldwork, reportage-based thread on McPhee’s own journeys in present-day (for then) Atlantic City.

There are lots of questions to ask McPhee’s essay on why it works so well. What are the ideas, images, or confessions that dictate the switching from one mode to another? How is the essay structured on the micro level (i.e., what dictates the length and form of each individual segment)? When does McPhee know he’s done with his memoiring, his research, his reporting?

Root asks none of these. It’s more accurate for him to characterize the essay as “experimental” and tell students not to bother using it as a structural model.

It’s his favorite way of thinking of NF structure. Essays, Root insists, are experimental in structure, but when digging through his book what this comes to mean is that rarely do essays comprise one uninterrupted piece of chronologically structured prose. This, I imagine, is news to no one. (So many pages in the book are wasted exhorting its readers to try a segmented form?meaning an essay composed of many separate sections?when I mean like it’s been this teacher’s experience that he’d have to get down on both knees and beg his students not to break up an essay into shorter, segmented chunks.) But it’s also a dangerous thing to assert if we consider his job (and many of our jobs) here: helping people write and improve their NF.

To get more clearly at this point, lemme quote from Root again, amid his pages of praise given to Christine White’s “Reflection Rag” (an essay from a 2002 issue of Fourth Genre, which employs the form of a rag to write about her uncle):

By experimenting with the content of the essay?the disparate subtopics, the varied strands or movements or motifs?she experiments with creating an appropriately reflective form, the nonfiction equivalent of the matching of lyrics and melody in an ideally composed song.

It helps (for multiple reasons) if you just drop the em-dashed appositive out there and reread the sentence: By experimenting with the content she experiments with form…. Again, given that Root seems to be defining “experimental” to apply to any writing that doesn’t follow a single chronological thread through the essay, every essay is an experiment (which is always true) and therefore none of them are.

What White is doing isn’t very experimental. She deploys a traditional structural move in NF: she appropriates another form, in this case the rag of Joplin et al., in order to corral the mess of memories, research, and reflections any writer of NF is bound to have at her disposal in the drafting process. And, OF COURSE (and I say it in caps like that because I know that all of my students know this stuff without having to even think about it) she is able to find an appropriate form by looking at her essay’s content: her uncle liked ragtime.

The short way to characterize this essay is that its form reflects the content. This is basic. NF 101. How can it be of any use? “My primary motive for stressing the uniqueness of Christine White’s essay,” Root writes, “is to encourage the uniqueness of essays by other writers.”

Here’s the problem: White’s essay isn’t that unique. It’s not a criticism, it’s a fact. And Root’s stated motive here is all well and good on the surface. Let’s all hope the best for other writers. But in failing to show how the structural stuff White accomplishes that make her essay so readable are both accomplishable and translatable no matter an essay’s content is to mystify the whole art of writing nonfiction and to do those other writers a real disservice.

Fiction writers have narratology and poets have prosody. We’re not technically a newer genre, NF, but if we’re newer to the academy we’re going to stay stuck in this mess without some form of theory. Real theory.

Have I not found the right text yet? I’m open to suggested readings.

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