Writerly Nonfiction Agonistes May 23rd, 2012 Last night I went on another mini-rant about the state of non-fiction on twitter. My complaint centers on a certain myopia I see in books of that genre. It seems non-fiction has become defined by one certain approach to it: the small thing that explains everything, or the quirky character who did some small yet significant thing. There are variations, but for the most part non-fiction writing that is transparently written and plot-driven reigns. I enjoy these books (I’m thinking of Michael Lewis, Susan Orlean, Mark Kurlansky, etc.) Another ilk is the “Big Think” book (Malcolm Gladwell, Nicholas Carr, etc.) What these books are not, however, are particularly writerly. As a nonfiction writer myself, I do not want to spend the years it takes to write a good book on a project that does not also allow me to stretch my writing wings, be it on the level of the sentence, structure or theme. Can I be something other than explanatory? Can I deploy an organization other than beginning-middle-end? Can I play with language? These are the questions I want to answer yes to. But the market is not eager for projects like these. On the other hand, nonfiction books are not pressured to be as newsy as are magazine features. Good thing, given the lag time between composition and publication. I have a project that I’d like to write about, but by the time it would be published as a conventional book, it would likely be dated. But it doesn’t sell well as a magazine feature either, since it is not newsy. I have far more to say, and more details to provide. But I can’t do so right now. I’ll boil down my main ideas to these over generalizations, focused on major publishing houses (not small indies, where the scene is different): –nonfiction books are a bit stuck right now, tending more formulaic than innovative. People–agents, editors, maybe readers–expect them to be more readerly than writerly. –writerly nonfiction tends to be memoir, personal writing, essays written by famous novelists and thus can get published in anthologies. (thinking Geoff Dyer, Jonanthan Lethem, Jonathan Franzen). –writerly nonfiction writers can find more luck in magazines, but to do so they also must be topical. Me, I have to make some decisions as to where to put my writing energy next, given this state, as I fall between lots of cracks. In my book, A Skeptic’s Guide To Writers’ Houses, I tried to be writerly, with a bit of memoir but not too much, a bit of topicality but not too much, and use a narrative arc but one that did not force things, rendering them too schematic. Whether or not it succeeded is, on one level, up to the reader. But I’d like to be able to keep writing such books, getting better at them. But they do not fit easily in our current shelving system. comments Maureen Ogle replied on May 23rd, 2012. OK, I’ll bite. What does “writerly” mean? Anne Trubek replied on May 23rd, 2012. ah! silly me. Should have explained. For me, writerly means writing that calls attention to itself–to the use of language, craft, etc. The terms writerly and readerly come from Roland Barthes. Here’s a fine summary, though it’s true I’m using the terms more generally than did he: http://www.arts.uwaterloo.ca/~raha/700_701_web/BarthesLO/readerly.html Maureen Ogle replied on May 24th, 2012. Ah! Okay, NOW your piece makes more sense. I know, I know: how could I not know what “writerly” means? Because I’m not a “writer.” I’m a historian. Anyway: fascinating distinction you’re making about NF. OK, so is it possible for “writerly” to BE other kinds of NF? Can history be writerly? Can political essays be “writerly”? Or does content automatically negate writerly? (If that makes sense. I know what I mean, but am not sure I’m phrasing it clearly… ) Anne Trubek replied on May 24th, 2012. The way I’m using it, yes, history can be writerly. Think about historians for whom, when you read their work, you also attend to how they are crafting it. Not just a clear story well-told, but something more. For me the word I often think of is elegant. I think that criticism is the province of most writerly NF: reviews, essays, etc. about the arts. Who writes about history elegantly? Nick Carr replied on May 24th, 2012. “For me, writerly means writing that calls attention to itself” Oh, in that case, I’m happy to be non-writerly. Anne Trubek replied on May 25th, 2012. Fair enough! I find your writing sophisticated in structure and, as a reader, a joy. In fact, I’ve taught it to my undergrads as an exemplar. Liana replied on May 25th, 2012. Nonfiction is a genre I’ve been reading a lot of lately, and I feel like I want to try writing. You bring up some good points here, especially the issue of, “can it be more than explanatory?” because it could affect content as well as form. Thanks for posting your thoughts! Maureen Ogle replied on May 25th, 2012. Yeah, I’d have to agree w/Carr on this: Last thing I want is for my readers to notice that I’m “writing.” BUt I also don’t want them to notice the years of research that go into each sentence. So — perhaps the world is really divided into those who are writerly and those who’d rather not…………… Anne Trubek replied on May 25th, 2012. and writerly makes an appearance in Sam Anderson’s NYT mag piece about Roland Barthes–how timely! http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/27/magazine/how-roland-barthes-gave-us-the-tv-recap.html Leave a Reply Click here to cancel reply. Name (required) Mail (will not be published) (required) Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.