It’s a clickbait title. I’ll warn you now: if you’re here to learn how do that you’ll probably be disappointed. But I want to write a bit about one difference between scholarly nonfiction and literary nonfiction. And in doing so, I think I can highlight some assumptions of people who write what they call “creative nonfiction” which fall in line with assumptions scholars make in their writing.
In short: the anxiety to be right (or: true) sometimes leads to bad (or: inartful) writing.
To explain, here’s a paragraph from Alberto Manguel’s Curiosity, the book I’m reading right now (warning: it’s dry):
Sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese philosopher Isaac Abravanel, who had settled in Spain, later to be exiled and make his exodus to Venice, strict in the principles of his learned reading, raised an unusual objection to Maimondes. In addition to reconciling Aristotle and the Bible, Maimondes sought to extract from the Torah’s sacred words the basic principals of Jewish belief. Shortly before his death in 1204, following a tradition of summary exegesis begun by Philo of Alexandria in the first century, he had expanded Philo’s list of the five core articles of faith to thirteen. Thus increased, these thirteen articles were to be used, according to Maimondes, as a test of allegiance to Judaism, separating true believers from the goyim. Abravanel, arguing against Maimondes’ dogma, remarked that since the Torah was a God-given whole form from which no syllable could be dispensed, the attempt to read the sacred text in order to choose from it a series of axioms was disingenuous if not heretical. The Torah, Abravanel asserted, was complete unto itself and no single word of it was more or less important than any other. For Abravanel, even though the art of commentary was a permissible and even commendable accompaniment to the craft of reading, God’s word admitted no double entendres but manifested itself literally, in unequivocal terms. Abravanel was implicitly distinguishing between the Author as author and the reader as author. The reader’s job was not to edit, either mentally or physically, the sacred text but to ingest it whole, just as Ezekiel had ingested the book offered to him by the angel, and then to judge it either sweet or bitter, or both, and work from there.
Some key characteristics of this ?:
- Events are out of chronology.
- Every idea is given by name to its progenitor.
- It’s heavier with a sense of history (i.e., the tracking of causal events) than of story (i.e, the linking of same).
And like I said it’s dry and dull. It takes extra work on the part of the reader to find the central thread or idea. And here’s the thing: extra work isn’t itself a problem. The problem here is that the extra work happens irrespective of language; the words aren’t inextricable enough from their ideas.
Let me propose a rewrite:
There are, in Judaism, no central principles of faith. Nothing like the Apostles? Creed or the Kalimat As-Shahadat. Yet Jewish philosophers have for millennia tried to read the Torah and extract, in a process called ?summary exegesis,? some central tenets. In the first century AD, Philo of Alexandria found five core articles of faith and that tradition held for a thousand years. Then, around 1200, an Andalusian mystic in exile named Maimonides expanded Philo?s list of five core articles to thirteen, to be used as a test of allegiance to Judaism, separating true believers from the goyim. To this day, Maimonides? thirteen articles stand. Orthodox Judaism holds them to be obligatory. They have their own Wikipedia page. But problems ensued. In the late 1400s, a Portuguese philosopher name Isaac Abravanel argued that, because the Torah was a God-given whole form from which no syllable could be dispensed, any attempt to extract from it a series of axioms was heretical. No single word of the Torah was more or less important than any other. Summary exegesis was commendable, but God?s word manifested itself in unequivocal terms. No double entendres. It didn?t catch on, Abravanel?s critique, but here we find a literalism that draws a distinction between the Author as author and the reader as author. The reader?s job is not to edit the sacred text but to ingest it whole, just as Ezekiel ingested the book offered to him by the angel, and then to judge it either sweet or bitter, or both, and work from there.
- I tried to work from chronology in structuring the ?. I’ve written elsewhere how chronology and narrative aren’t default best choices for nonfiction, but here it seemed to help educe the central idea about the value (or lack thereof) in summary exegesis.
- Names have been plucked out of sentences as much as possible, so’s to prevent the ? from having a cite-heavy term-paper-y feel to it, and to build up the primacy of the narrator’s own voice and ideas (even when those ideas are taken from other people).
- Maimonides’s being a mystic seems up for dispute, and his being in exile had little to do, as far as I can tell, with his exegetic work (though I guess he escaped religious persecution), and it’s not clear to me in my haste whether Andalusia was a place with such a name back in 1200, but all the same an Andalusian mystic in exile is good stuff, and so there it stands.
- This isn’t the best ?, done slapdash in under an hour on a weekend afternoon, and it takes heavily from Wikipedia, so your critiques on it are probably valid. Good job.
Whether it’s good or bad or even better isn’t my point here, so much as that it’s constructively and functionally different. To a scholar (or reporter, or creative nonfiction writer), my paragraph is lazy, because it’s slipshod with citation and opts, in gray areas, for the more dramatic and interesting interpretation. But to an essayist (or artist), the original is lazy, because it leans on the historical record and fails to step in and compose or construct those facts toward an emotional response in the reader.
In other words, there’s not enough of Manguel in Manguel’s ?. There’s no narrator to hold us and carry us through, which is how I feel when reading the best nonfiction. Held and carried. In good hands. There’s something of Manguel’s (commendable; he’s not an essayist he’s a scholar, and so I’m not faulting him at all) insistence on developing and maintaining authority that saps from the ? the kind of authority I’m calling for here.
That authority almost always involves the narrator’s voice. I don’t want, in nonfiction, that voice to duck behind a wall of history or data. If I wanted such a wall, I’d go online.
- Here’s where the D’Agata stuff comes in. A lot of the defenses he seems to’ve taken behind the quantitative quibbling and loose citation in About a Mountain and The Lifespan of a Fact involve getting the writing (that is, the voice and the emotional weight of a paragraph) right, and that when getting the facts right gets in the way of voice or emotional effect, he sides?as all art always does?with voice and emotion.↵