Edna Staebler Personal Essay contest is on! You may submit essays of any length, on any topic, in which the writer’s personal engagement with the topic provides the frame or through-line. There is no restriction on essay length or subject matter, but the author must be a Canadian citizen or resident. $1,000 prize for the winning essay; all submissions will be considered for paid publication ($250) in the magazine. Entry fee: $40 per submission. Each submission includes a one-year Canadian subscription (or subscription extension) to The New Quarterly.
30 Mar 2015 at 09:30
The True/False film festival just wrapped up in Columbia, Missouri, where I now live and teach. It’s four days of back-to-back documentary films showing all over our city’s centre. There are buskers and parties and panel discussions, but the heart of the event is film. I managed to see 8 this year. The highlight for me was Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, which is a sort of follow up to The Act of Killing. Both films examine the perpetrators of massacres in Indonesia in the 1960s. The Look of Silence documents a series of encounters between victims’ families and perpetrators. It’s a thoughtful, quiet and quite excruciating medication on forgiveness, inheritance, fear, power, confrontation, memory and forgetting. For me, the film was a great gift. I’ve been working on (struggling with) a book on similar themes, if from a different time and place. Oppenheimer has fed my thinking in unanticipated ways.
If you’re a fan of doc films or creative nonfiction in any form, consider making the trip to the True/False Film Festival. I promise it will be worth your while.
[Photo: Glenn Rice]
23 Feb 2015 at 13:11
The annual Creative Nonfiction Collective conference is coming up in Victoria, British Columbia (April 23-26, 2015), and I’m thrilled to be giving a Master Class. Registration opened two days ago, and it seems there are only a handful of spots left, so if you want to take part, hurry hurry! (Details below.)
Filling in the Gaps: Dealing with the Unknown and Unknowable in CNF
Any nonfictionist who tries to engage with the past – whether personal or public – quickly discovers that there are limits to what is and can be known. Papers disappear, memories morph and fade, eyewitnesses die. This is true of even the most well documented stories and lives. So what can a writer do when faced with gaps in knowledge and narrative? Should she fill these holes, write around them, or side-step them somehow? In this Master Class, we will explore solutions to the problem of the unknown and unknowable in CNF. We will examine and experiment with the roles of research, speculation, imagination, rhetoric, and writerly ethics in our genre. Participants are invited to bring a problematic gap in their work to discuss and to come prepared to talk and to write!
Julija Šukys is the award-winning author of two books of creative nonfiction: Epistolophilia and Silence is Death. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Missouri where she leads both undergraduate and graduate workshops in creative nonfiction.
Date: Friday April 24th
Location: Inn at Laurel Point
Time: 1:30 – 4:00 pm
Cost: $25 for members; $40 for non-members
28 Jan 2015 at 16:13
I’m heading to Charleston, Illinois, this weekend to read and to give a craft talk at the Lions in Winter Literary Festival. Come on out if you’re in the area. I’ll be reading from and discussing the birth of Epistolophilia and what I learned about the ins and outs of archival work in the process.
The Lions in Winter 2015 featured writers are Stephen Graham Jones, David Tomas Martinez, Edward Kelsey Moore, Julija Šukys (yours truly), and Jessica Young.
[Photo: Tambako The Jaguar]
15 Jan 2015 at 20:37
Academia, Calls for Submissions, Conferences and Symposia, Creative Nonfiction, Essays, Events, Grad School, Memoir, Personal Essays, Publishing, Uncategorized, Writer's Craft, Writers' Workshops, Writing
Deadline: Sunday, Feb. 2015
We are seeking NonfictioNOW 2015 panel proposals that bring together a group of three to five people to engage insightfully with some of the rich and vibrant contemporary debates around nonfiction
Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff Arizona, 28 – 31 October, 2015
NonfictioNOW is one of the most significant gatherings of writers, teachers and readers of nonfiction from around the world.
NonfictioNOW 2015 will be hosted and presented by Northern Arizona University, with co-sponsors RMIT University’s nonfictionLab and The Writers’ Centre at Yale-NUS College, Singapore. 2015 Keynote speakers include Maggie Nelson, Brian Doyle, Michael Martone and Ander Monson.
We are seeking NonfictioNOW 2015 panel proposals that bring together a group of three to five people to engage insightfully with some of the rich and vibrant contemporary debates around nonfiction. Panel submissions are due on 15 February 2015.
These questions include, but are not restricted to, explorations of:
• Genres and their boundaries and tensions: the essay in its myriad forms (personal, narrative, lyric, collage, interdisciplinary), memoir, forms of immersion writing, history, literary and long form journalism and reportage, travel writing, food writing, hybrids of fiction and nonfiction
• Forms beyond the strictly literary: for example documentary, radio, video and networked (online) essays, graphic memoir
• Regional characteristics and issues in nonfiction writing
• Historical threads of influence, style and discourse, from the long tradition of nonfiction connecting, for example, Seneca, Montaigne, Woolf, Orwell, Geoff Dyer, Chris Marker…
• Issues such as truth and authenticity, fakery and lies, trust and ethics, politics and power — the creative tensions between ‘art’, ‘facts’ and ‘truth
• The poetics of nonfiction
• Representations of self and other in nonfiction
This is an invitation for nonfiction practitioners both within and outside the academy – a rare chance for discussion to extend across these boundaries!
All submissions should be 300 – 750 words, and also include a 150 word précis, and 50 word bio that can be used in the conference program.
When submitting your panel, please include the details of fellow panellists you have already been in dialogue with. Please also think carefully about the chairing of your panel: whether yourself, or another panellist will also chair the session, and clearly state if you need help in finding a chair.
Please also let us know if you do not have fellow panellists in mind, but are interested in becoming a panellist, along with the topic you are interested in exploring as part of a panel. One of the things we hope to do is encourage international connections within panels, so we may be able to link you up with potential fellow panellists from another country.
There will be opportunities to publish coming out of the conference
Prospective panellists are also encouraged to submit more than one proposal, though no more than three. Individuals may appear on a maximum of two panels or readings during the conference. Prospective panellists will be responsible for securing the commitment of fellow panellists to attend the conference if the proposed panel is selected. We will send confirmation to your fellow panellists to confirm their attendance.
Please note that the conference will not be able to pay for the travel or accommodation of panellists. Travel costs will need to be covered by the panelists.
Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
[Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli]
I’ve been thinking a lot about mean-spiritedness and Internet culture lately. I can’t tell if we humans have always been this horrible to one another or if this is new phenomenon. I suspect that the former is true: people have always been internally toxic; it’s just so easy (and consequence-free) to express now. Still, there are days when I find myself despairing.
An article I read in the Guardian this morning has done nothing to change that.
In “Am I being catfished?” author Kathleen Hale describes her experience with a trollish book blogger who went by the name of Blythe Harris (not her real name). “Harris’s” charming and sophisticated review of an advanced reading copy of Hale’s novel included the words “Fuck you.”
Here’s an excerpt from Hale’s piece:
Writing for a living means working in an industry where one’s success or failure hinges on the subjective reactions of an audience. But, as Patricia implied, caring too much looks narcissistic. A standup comic can deal with a heckler in a crowded theatre, but online etiquette prohibits writers from responding to negativity in any way.
[. . .] Blythe’s vitriol continued to create a ripple effect: every time someone admitted to having liked my book on Goodreads, they included a caveat that referenced her review. The ones who truly loathed it tweeted reviews at me.
[. . .] Blythe began tweeting in tandem with me, ridiculing everything I said. Confronting her would mean publicly acknowledging that I searched my name on Twitter, which is about as socially attractive as setting up a Google alert for your name (which I also did). So instead I ate a lot of candy and engaged in light stalking: I prowled Blythe’s Instagram and Twitter, I read her reviews, considered photos of her baked goods and watched from a distance as she got on her soapbox – at one point bragging she was the only person she knew who used her real name and profession online. As my fascination mounted, and my self-loathing deepened, I reminded myself that there are worse things than rabid bloggers (cancer, for instance) and that people suffer greater degradations than becoming writers. But still, I wanted to respond.
[A friend] warned me that this was exactly what Blythe was waiting for – and [another] agreed: “[GR Bullies] actually bait authors online to get them to say something, anything, that can be taken out of context.” The next step, she said, was for them to begin the “career-destroying” phase.
“Is this even real?” I Gchatted Patricia.
“YES THERE IS A CAREER-DESTROYING PHASE IT’S AWFUL. DO. NOT. ENGAGE.”
Hale’s account is, to say the least, sobering. Even more sobering (and utterly gripping) is her description of the moment when she actually shows up on the doorstep of the offending book blogger.
The article raises all sorts of questions for me. One is a general question of reading culture and how we engage with an author’s work. Another is about the payoff of trolling. A third is about the consequences of this dynamic for creative people.
I belong to a closed Facebook group for women writers. It is closed for reasons that are perhaps understandable. There, Kathleen Hale shared the fact that she woke up to piles of hate mail as a result of the article.
I’ll leave it there for now.
Do read the piece and share your thoughts.
[Image: Kevin Dooley]
07 Oct 2014 at 10:02
I’ve written a lot of book reviews and I’ve read a lot of them too. Book reviews are an important way of engaging with and serving the larger literary community. They are a way of building contacts and establishing your authority. If you are a writer and haven’t yet written a book review, you will doubtless be approached to do so before long.
Book reviews can be tricky for all kinds of reasons. Here are a few guiding principles I’ve come up with to help those just starting out:
1) First and most obvious task: give the reader a sense of what this book is about. The reader needs a summary and portrait of what this object you have engaged with looks like. This needs to be done with a light hand and, as far as possible, with zippy and precise language: quote a bit, but not too much. Usually three good quotes total are enough for a 1200-word review.
A good book reviewer tries to see what an author is striving with for a text, so in your summary, you might want to suggest what that is. This establishes that you’ve spent enough time with the book to talk about it fairly and that you’ve thought of it as a whole. It’s a good idea not only to discuss argument (if you’re reviewing this kind of nonfiction) or plot, but also style, structure, the use of dialogue, or anything else that seems integral and important to the text.
Do not waste time critiquing cover images or drawing attention to elements like an author’s photo, unless you’re trying to make a kind and generous joke. Even so, this is risky, and you must assume that risk of you go that route. Any negative attention to details like these makes a reviewer seem petty, lazy, and unaware of how publishing works (i.e., that writers often have no say on issues like cover images).
Of course, a summary is not a review. Your reader wants to know whether she should read this book. How does it succeed? Where does it falter? What other books does it dialogue with? These elements come next.
2) Establish your credentials as a reviewer, but by doing what you do well; not by telling your reader why they should be impressed with you. This is tricky and you need to be subtle. You do not want to pull out your PhD credentials or your many publishing credits. You must not make the review about you or how smart you are. A book review is not an academic paper – we don’t need to see you apply Deleuze and Guattari or offer up a Freudian interpretation of the text. That’s not establishing your credentials. That’s showing off.
You establish your credentials as a reviewer by displaying thoughtfulness. You display thoughtfulness by taking a writer’s work seriously, by asking good questions and by demonstrating an understanding of the context in which this book operates. You may, for example, want to compare it, though using a light touch, with other titles. Again: this is not an opportunity to show off how well-read you are.
3) A book review should be about the book in question. This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised. One sure sign of an ungenerous review is when a review ceases to be about the book and becomes a gleeful takedown of an author. It’s really easy to write a mean-spirited review: that’s why the Internet is full of trolls. It’s far more difficult to engage intelligently with a text, especially one that a reviewer might find challenging, for whatever reason.
4) Evaluate the book fairly for what it is. This is related to the idea of trying to see what an author is trying to do. Evaluate the book for what it is, not for what you wish it were. An all too common sin, in my opinion, is criticizing a book for not being the book the reviewer would have written (yet another way of making a review about the reviewer).
Beware of reviewing books according to intellectually dubious criteria. A common example is outlined in an essay by Charles Baxter called “Owl Criticism.” This line of reviewing goes something like this: This book is about owls. I don’t like owls. Therefore this is a bad book. If you can’t review a book about owls fairly, don’t agree to write the review.
5) Engage the reader on a writerly level. You are a writer, so use your skills. Reviews can be entertaining and smart. They need not be fawning: you may write a critical review, but do so using your full intellect, your linguistic talents, and a spirit of inquiry.
6) This one’s counter-intuitive, but I find it helpful in getting myself out of jams when writing book reviews: admit your blind spots & shortcomings, if only to yourself. This will help you be both more generous and more rigorous. It will also help you avoid the pitfall of writing “Owl Criticism.”
You may find yourself reviewing a book you have no interest in reading. This has happened to me on more than one occasion. Most recently, I agreed to review a book of short stories (I’m a writer of creative nonfiction currently completely consumed by questions about her genre – what was I thinking?…) When this happens, I ask myself: how are my own shortcomings blinding me? Is it possible that this book of short fictions has something to offer a person who loves the form? How has this book succeeded in ways that I’ve perhaps been unwilling to entertain because of my generic preferences? What has the experience of contemplating this book nonetheless taught me about reading or writing? What kind of reader would find this book useful and on what grounds might I be able to recommend it? Finally, what shortcomings would the ideal reader for this book nevertheless discover?
If you’ve asked enough questions of yourself as well as the book you’ve been charged with reviewing and the text still comes up short on redeeming qualities, then perhaps you’ve earned the right to pan it. But here’s what I said to my students on this issue: Just remember that one day, your book too – if you are very lucky – will be reviewed by peers, and karma, as they say, can be a bitch.
How we engage with each other’s work sets a tone for our literary culture. If we want our work to be read with care and attention, then perhaps the best argument for such behavior is to read the work of others in the same way.
[Photo: litherland; illustration by Ji Lee for the NYT Book Review]
01 Oct 2014 at 09:59
Academia, Archives, Creative Nonfiction, Essays, Grad School, Iceland, Journeys, Libraries, Lithuania, Memoir, Missouri, Ordinariness, Personal Essays, Phillip Lopate, Research, Uncategorized, Villages, Writing
The holy trinity of creative nonfiction, I told my students recently, is SCENE + RESEARCH + REFLECTION.
Most of my students get the first scene piece: since high school, they’ve doubtless heard the mantra “show don’t tell.” Generally speaking, showing is not a problem for them, especially those who come from a fiction background.
The third point of the trinity (we’ll come back to the second momentarily), reflection, is more complex and requires an intellectual leap: writers must not only recount the past, but think on the page and interpret the meaning of what they create as they do so. Thus far, the most eloquent argument I’ve found for the necessity of this process in memoir and other forms of CNF comes from Phillip Lopate in “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story” (Fourth Genre 7.1, 2005, pp. 143-156.) I highly recommend it — so much so that I keep foisting this essay into the hands of all my students.
The question is: how do you get from SCENE to meaningful (non-navel-gazing) REFLECTION?
My answer: RESEARCH
By research I mean anything that helps further your understanding of whatever it is that you’re trying to figure out. It can be book or scholarly learning, like exploring the history of Négritude as one of my students has done or by reading Anne Sexton’s archive, as another did (I’ll return to the importance of library research shortly), but it can also be something like going on a train trip to watch how the landscape changes. It can be having a conversation with someone who knows more about a topic than you do (for a example, with a historian or a scientist) or simply standing in front of a painting in a museum. I, for one, have traveled to places where the people I’m writing about once lived: weird little Siberian villages or forgotten industrial towns in France, for example. This past summer I walked through Lithuanian forests in search of mass graves; I stood and contemplated the house that once belonged to an important “character” in my manuscript.
I think of this kind of work as environmental or perhaps experiential research, but often it is this human gaze and journey and reality (everything on a human scale) that gives CNF energy, gravitas, life, and beauty.
Even if you’re writing about the past, or perhaps especially if you’re doing so, revisiting sites from that past can be incredibly powerful. When I venture to these kinds of places, I spend my time gazing at a building; I collect stones and put them in my pockets to bring home; I pay attention to the insects that buzz around me; I talk to cows; I think about and note change, impermanence; I ask what remains; I watch those around me; I chat with strangers about their lives and homes; I accept every invitation to tea or a meal; I photograph everything I can; I contemplate the sky; I take tons and tons of notes.
To me, all this staring, wandering, and chatting is as valuable as a trip to the library (where I spend a great deal of time too): the trick is to pay attention and record all the details along the way.
But be warned: all this staring and wandering and chatting may only be the first level of research. For example, I have a student who has recently returned from a life-changing trip to Iceland, and he’s now starting to write about it. His first level of research is complete, but more work lies ahead. The second level and stage of research might mean his going to the library and reading tons about sagas and Icelandic history until this writer has mastered his subject enough to distill and retell with energy and spontaneity. Once this learning starts to belong to him in some way (as family history does) — that is, once he’s achieved a kind of deep learning — then he’ll likely find organic ways of engaging with the necessary literary-historical material and, in turn, of teaching his reader.
When I’m talking about this process of deep learning, I tend to call it “digestion.” You have to let the facts and history work their through you, I say (though I try not to follow the metaphor through to its logical ends, ahem). The research has to become part of you so that you can put it back out onto the page and into the world in a form that won’t fight the story that you’re trying to tell.
This, I believe, is the most difficult aspect of writing good CNF: figuring out how to teach the reader; how to give enough background history, facts, and evidence but without deadening your text.
Once you do the research, you reflect and figure out what the research tells you about the primary journey you’re on: for one of my students, the question is what Anne Sexton’s archives can teach her about a mother’s death. For another, the question is what the slave ships of Nantes have to do with her search for home and belonging.
Research will help you interpret the scenes you write and details you put to paper and it will help you get closer to an answer to whatever question drives you and makes your text vibrate. It will deepen your text and make it larger than your sad little story of loss (I don’t mean to minimize, not at all; we all have these). Most CNF undulates in some way between the big and the small. The writer’s sad little story is the small of the piece: all our mothers will die one day. The reflection and understanding that grows out of research (in whatever form it might take) will constitute the large. It is in going beyond ourselves, beyond our own smallness that we can learn something and then give that lesson over to a reader — what is the big thing that I can learn from my smallness? That’s the great question, gift, challenge, and mystery of CNF.
04 Sep 2014 at 12:55
Academia, Children, CNF Conversations, Creative Nonfiction, Distance, Eduardo Galeano, Essays, Grad School, Interviews, Intimacy, Kim Dana Kupperman, Point of View, Second Person, Teaching, Uncategorized, Voice, Writer's Craft, Writing
Kim Dana Kupperman is the author of the award-winning I Just Lately Started Buying Wings. Missives from the Other Side of Silence (2010) and the lead editor of You. An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person (2013). She is the founding editor of Welcome Table Press, an independent nonprofit devoted to publishing and celebrating the essay, and the editor of the press’s periodical pamphlet series Occasional Papers on Practice & Form. She has received many awards and honors, including fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the New York Center for Book Arts. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Essays; Blurring the Boundaries. Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction; and An Ethical Compass. Coming of Age in the 21st Century and appears regularly in literary periodicals. She teaches in Fairfield University’s low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing.
About You: Up close and personal, this first-of-its-kind collection showcases contemporary essays that explore failure, planetary movement, and love, among a variety of topics. The candor of these autobiographical, lyric, personal, and segmented narratives is tempered by the distance, intimacy, humor, and unsentimental tenderness that the second person point of view affords both writer and reader.
Julija Šukys: Kim, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. The subject of the second-person voice came up a number of times during my seminars this year – especially my graduate seminars. I, for one, really like the second-person voice and have used it at least twice, in two different essays and I’m always interested to see what others do with it. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, and it turns out to be a little bit controversial. Some readers/writers see the use of the second-person voice as contrived or too cute. Some find it distancing. I’m so interested to hear what you have to say about all of this!
Kim Dana Kupperman: I’d like to make a distinction before we begin: when I say “second-person point of view,” I’m mostly referring to the grammatical pronoun you; this somehow feels different to me than “second-person voice,” though I think I know what you mean, or, at least I interpret what you mean as “tone,” or “effect,” or, even, “mood,” all of which can be evoked by using a second-person point of view.
That’s a really helpful distinction: point of view vs. voice. I like the precision of the former.
Tell me what drew you to the idea of pulling together this anthology of essays devoted to the second person. Were most of these pieces commissioned for this collection, or did you draw from the world of literary journals?
As a reader, I’ve been very interested in the second-person point of view, from its obvious and historic epistolary use, to the briefer asides to the reader in prose (nonfiction and fiction), to longer works such as the stories in Lorrie Moore’s Self Help and Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, to Stewart O’Nan’s novel A Prayer for the Dying, to name three examples. There was no anthology—at least not one in print that I knew of—that collected essays devoted to the second person, written by contemporary writers. In fact, I’m not sure there are any anthologies that have collected such essays by writers in any century. As an editor and publisher, I sought to fill that gap; most of the pieces were solicited in a call for submissions as well as direct requests to writers and editors whose work the three of us—Heather Simons, James Chesbro, and myself—admired.
I was interested to find that in many of these pieces, the “you” appears to stand in for the “I.” By this I mean that the “you” is really (and often quite clearly) the narrator. I’d say this is the case with pieces by Natashia Déon, Susan Grier, Brenda Miller, and others. What is to be gained by switching from “I” to “you”? How does the second-person point of view change the way that we read these otherwise first-person narratives? Or am I being too simplistic and mischaracterizing them?
“You” often stands in for the “I,” but sometimes, “you” masks the “I.” I like to think of this particular usage of the second person as one in which the narrator is writing to a self who no longer exists, which is the case with all three of the examples you mention: Natashia Déon’s here-and-now narrator is addressing her adolescent self at moments of great reckoning; Susan Grier’s narrator is standing on a threshold of understanding her role as the mother of a child who will become transgendered; and Brenda Miller’s speaker is in the midst of undertaking a transformation. So in some ways, it’s as if these particular narrators are recording messages to be placed in a time capsule: “See who I was,” the you says in these instances, of a specific instance or time. Perhaps that’s why we might call this usage “diaristic”: just think of those moments when you examine a diary in which what you wrote was written by another iteration of yourself: it is a kind of first person removed. As Joan Connor puts it, “The I creates a you; the you creates an I, in a Mobius strip of recursive identity.”
There are, of course, a number of pieces here that play with the question of who exactly “you” is. For example, Michelle Auerbach wonderfully satirizes how-to books and advice columns in “How to Screw Up a First Date.” Becca Lee Jensen Ogden’s “Nothing Good Happens after Forty-One Weeks” plays with the form of online pregnancy journals digests (It starts: “Hello Becca! You are now thirty-eight weeks! Your baby is now considered full-term”). I found Ogden’s piece particularly moving. It’s a very effective use of the second person in part because the target or referent of the “you” shifts subtly partway through the piece. Her “you” is both a voice addressing the narrator from outside as well as from inside. Among other things, it’s a wonderful metaphor for the experience of pregnancy. Do you see the “you” working in other ways that I’ve perhaps overlooked?
In the introduction to the anthology, I mention specific uses of the second person: first, the you as I (i.e., the “diaristic”); second, the epistolary, in which the writer creates a rhetorical apostrophe, or an address to someone who is absent (or who cannot—yet, and for whatever reasons—read what is being written, as in Brian Hoover’s “A Rock Snob to His Infant Daughter”); and third, the note-to-self or how-to manual. We’ve included essays in this collection that feature the more traditional use of the second person, a direct aside, or invitation, to the reader, though the essays are unconventional in their approaches (for example, Amy Leach’s “You Be the Moon” and Sarah Stromeyer’s “Merce on the Page”).
As I mentioned above, some of my students have commented on the distancing effect of “you” – especially when the “you” stands in for “I.” For me, intimacy returns (? I’m not sure this is the right word…) when the “you” addresses someone as one might do in a letter. This is how I’ve used the second person, and it’s how a small number of your contributors have used it. For example, Elizabeth Stone addresses her late father in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackguard” (another piece I found to be very strong). I wonder if you have any thoughts on narrative distance and intimacy and the use of the second person. Do you see it as potentially (if perhaps productively) distancing? Do you see ways of creating intimacy using this pronoun, as I do?
The second-person point of view has the ability to distance and create intimacy at the same time. Intimacy, as you so accurately point out, is created especially in the epistolary usage, in which a reader may feel addressed directly by the narrator, even though the narrator is writing to a specific person (e.g., Kim Adrian, Marsha McGregor, Elizabeth Stone); distance is achieved when the you stands in for I; or, perhaps, a certain remoteness is created, which takes the I out of the equation and allows the writer to scrutinize, perhaps more closely, the subject at hand.
Next: a question on form. I was very interested and intrigued by the brevity of some of most of these pieces. Amongst my favorites is Eduardo Galeano’s “Dreams.” It’s a tiny jewel of a text, only two paragraphs long, with a “you” that refers not to the narrator himself but out to an unnamed interlocutor. The text itself is dreamlike and imagistic. Another text that struck me was one you’ve mentioned, Sarah Stromeyer’s “Merce on the Page.” It is a tiny text about text: about the effects of layout and font choices and the physicality of letters on a reader. (The “you” here seems to address me, the reader, in perhaps the most direct sense of all the pieces.) What do you think is it about the use of the second person that cultivates brevity?
This is a terrific question. Perhaps part of the answer has to do with the seemingly experimental nature of the second person—readers will tolerate the schism between distance and intimacy only to a degree (although Stewart O’Nan manages to sustain the second person for the duration of an entire novel). Think about reading Gertrude Stein, and the kind of suspension—not only of disbelief, but of narrative expectation—required to enter into some of her texts; the effort is well worth it, but it requires a certain readerly stamina.
What is the greatest hazard of using the second person?
When you use it to be clever. Cleverness is not a hallmark of the second-person point of view. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.
And conversely, what can it achieve that a simple first-person (or third-person) point of view can’t?
As we’ve noted, the second-person point of view distances the writer from what might be painful to write. In a way, the you becomes the ultimate persona—or, if it doesn’t, it serves as a process that might help developing writers better understand persona. This speaks to, perhaps, what you have called the “second-person voice”: voice is an element that is part of persona, the disguise adopted by a narrator to tell a story. And by using the second-person point of view, the narrator assumes a mask—distance, in this case—that infuses how s/he sounds with a kind of remote quality that cannot be achieved with first person (but certainly can be realized, without the dual edge of intimacy offered by second person, using third-person omniscient).
Which texts in this collection surprised you most in terms of what they were able to achieve through the use of the second person?
That’s a tough question… I think I was more surprised, in the acquisition process, by writers and editors we encountered who felt that the second-person point of view was too trendy, misused, or, simply, not their cup of tea. Certainly, there are instances of misuse with every experimental form. Some of the work in this anthology may have been better rendered in first person. But the writer stuck to the second-person point of view and had reasons to stick to it. In some ways, that stubbornness surprised me. In other ways, I find it charming.
Kim Dana Kupperman, thanks so much for doing this and for putting together the anthology. I know this conversation will find a place in future seminar rooms and in readers’ hands.
September 4, 2014
26 Aug 2014 at 09:27
I love a good reading list.
The student in me still wants to know what she’s missed and what she should be reading next, whereas the teacher in me is always looking for resources to use and pass on to her students.
So, when Silas Hansen casually posted this great CNF reading list on Facebook, I asked if I could share it. He points out that it’s not an exhaustive list, nor does he love every book on it. For my part, I often tell my students that reading books that you don’t love can be really good for you too: authors and books with whom I have a combative relationship often stay with me longer than the ones I eat up like candy.
All this is to say that the list is a start. I predict you’ll find something of interest on it. Happy reading, and thank you, Silas. You can learn more about Silas Hansen here.
The List (in no particular order…):
Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
Waist-High in the World by Nancy Mairs
Neck Deep and Other Predicaments by Ander Monson
The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell
Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell
Half Empty by David Rakoff
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Portrait of My Body by Phillip Lopate
Somehow Form a Family by Tony Early
Such a Life by Lee Martin
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson
My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum
From Our House by Lee Martin
Between Panic and Desire by Dinty W. Moore
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
The Last Street Before Cleveland by Joe Mackall
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Hitless Wonder: My Life in Minor League Rock and Roll by Joe Oestreich
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
Songbook by Nick Hornby
The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst by Steven Church
Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA by Bonnie J. Rough
A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp
Road Song by Natalie Kusz
Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat
Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy by Ira Sukrungruang
One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
The Truth Book by Joy Castro
Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa by Rigoberto Gonzalez
I’m Sorry You Feel That Way by Diana Joseph
The Color of Water by James McBride
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White, Anglo-Saxon Jew by Sue William Silverman
Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman
This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
Townie by Andre Dubus III
Colored People by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen
Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flatts by Kristen Iversen
Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
The White Album by Joan Didion
Salvador by Joan Didion
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America by B.J. Hollars
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington
Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Killer Stuff and Tons of Money by Maureen Stanton
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace