“I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere”—why I specialize in literary fiction & creative nonfiction, and what exactly I mean by those terms.

 Though Lyra believes that cameras steal her soul, she agreed to pose in honor of Denis Johnson. 

Though Lyra believes that cameras steal her soul, she agreed to pose in honor of Denis Johnson. 

I make a point of stating up front that I work almost exclusively with writers of literary (“serious”) fiction and creative (or “literary”) nonfiction, as well as hybrid forms of both. That’s not to belittle any of the subgenres of contemporary fiction or the myriad kinds of nonfiction—it’s just to be clear about my area of expertise and the boundaries of my professional skill. I’m not sure how, exactly, I stumbled into doing something I didn’t even know was a “thing” until I’d been doing it for years, but I did. It started with the books I gravitated toward as a kid and ended up becoming my frequency in the world, like the whistle only dogs can hear. 

I think my relationship with literary fiction began, unwittingly at the time, with my first reading of a “grown-up” novel: the book was The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and I was twelve years old. Rawlings’ novel had won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize, although like not a few people over the years I’d assumed The Yearling to be a children’s chapter book, perhaps because the protagonist was a young boy and the major plotline focused on a pet fawn. But no, The Yearling is not a children’s book. It is a profoundly nuanced, sophisticated elegy to a lost time, the sometimes crippling effect of family and love, and the ineluctable power of the natural world. At twelve I strained to understand all the novel was telling me, though I could feel it even if I couldn’t articulate it yet. Now I see the resonant patterning in the little wooden tombstones in the Baxter family’s yard—all the babies who died before the birth of the boy Jody, the only child of his parents to live—echoed in the description of all the new corn shoots bitten off close to the ground after Jody’s pet fawn gets loose and eats them, leaving the family without a crop to keep them fed; and echoed again in the shocking emptiness I felt when Jody is forced to shoot his beloved fawn. I absolutely loved The Yearling to the point of heartbreak, and coincidentally it taught me that women, too, wrote books. A door creaked open for me, if only I could figure out how to get to the threshold and walk through. 

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    Many years later, as an editor at Salon, I was interviewing Peter Matthiessen—the esteemed naturalist, novelist, and co-founder of The Paris Review—about his favorite books in childhood. Besides the stories of Rudyard Kipling, Matthiessen told me, he particularly liked The Yearling. Earlier in our conversation he’d told me he was at work on a book about cranes; now I asked if he recalled the scene of the mating dance of the whooping cranes in The Yearling. “No, I don’t,” he said, “do you remember the chapter?” I called him back the next day to read aloud over the phone the scene of Jody and his father crouched in the high saw-grass of the Florida Everglades, watching the whooping cranes bow and sway: 

The sun was sinking into the saw-grass. The marsh was golden. The whooping cranes were washed with gold. . . . Darkness came to the lily pads, and the water blackened. The cranes were whiter than any clouds, or any white bloom of oleander or of lily. Without warning, they took flight. Whether the hour-long dance was, simply, done, or whether the long nose of an alligator had lifted above the water to alarm them, Jody could not tell, but they were gone. They made a great circle against the sunset, whooping their strange rusty cry that sounded only in their flight. Then they flew in a long line into the west, and vanished. (The Yearling, p.89)  

    The Yearling is a great illustration of the major qualities of literary (or “serious”) fiction: unlike what we think of as popular or commercial or genre fiction, literary fiction isn’t driven by plot, but by character and language and suggestion, by resonance and patterning. Its form is far from formulaic, and the writing style may be more unusual, even technically adventurous. By extension, creative nonfiction (or literary nonfiction) utilizes many of the techniques and qualities of literary fiction, including an emphasis on language and storytelling and structural form, rather than merely an objective relaying of fact.

     This kind of literature is no passive, force-fed entertainment. It requires a more active engagement of the reader, more of the reader’s intellect and intuition. In literary fiction and nonfiction, readers make connections for themselves, assembling their own ideas about characters and actions, staying alert to nuanced emotions and the complexities of human behavior and the subtext forming under what’s written on the page. Literary fiction invites the reader to take part in the creation of the story. The short essay “Stories” by the late novelist and art critic John Berger (excerpted below) sheds light on how the “discontinuities” in stories allow us, as readers, to partner with the author and characters to enact a story and also how that partnership among reader, author and characters gains its power, ultimately, from our earliest experiences of reading

    As much as I remember my mind’s creation of tender-hearted Jody running with his exuberant fawn, of the enormous bearded Forrester brothers sobbing at the funeral of their littlest, crippled brother, Fodderwing; of flags of moss hanging from the live-oaks and Ma Baxter’s grief-hardened anger, I remember, too, the great welling of feeling this book gave me as I read, and that, ever since, I have yearned after as a reader, experiencing them again in To the Lighthouse and The English Patient and The Optimist’s Daughter, in the short stories of Peter Orner and Gish Jen and Janet Frame, in the memoirs and essays of Jo Ann Beard and Teju Cole. To quote the late, terribly missed Denis Johnson, who has broken and redeemed my heart more times than I can count, I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.*         

    In the last few years, neuroscientific studies of reading and literature’s influence on our emotional and societal development have shed a bright light on what, exactly, we gain from reading and from stories. We know, for example, that the human brain does not differentiate between a story we read or watch on film and events we live through in our own lives—which goes a far way to explain why we have such powerful reactions to beloved characters and their experiences on the page. We also know that sensory details such as “cinnamon” and “leathery skin” stimulate our brains not just in the language-processing area but also, for example, in the neural scent or texture perceptors. What’s more, we now know that reading literary fiction increases our “theory of mind,” or our ability to imagine the experiences and feelings of others. To cut to the chase, reading literary fiction can lead to a higher degree of empathy. In other words, reading literary fiction can make you a better human being, and the world a better place. 

    Is that why I specialize in literary fiction and nonfiction? Well, no—it’s simply that the vast majority of my experience in the literary field and as a reader has been in serious literary fiction and nonfiction. These are the areas of my deepest familiarity and most granular expertise as a writer, reader, and editor. I can think of many examples of fine genre fiction, from science fiction (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein) to fantasy fiction (His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman), from westerns (Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry) to hard-boiled detective novels (The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett), but my limited experience working with writers of genre fiction has been to help those writers create the most complex characters and layered narratives possible – because no matter the subgenre, nuance and complexity and rigorous language make fiction better. And if writing and reading complex and nuanced fiction can also make the world a better place, we need more of it. 

*Quoted from Denis’s spectacular short story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” published in his seminal collection Jesus’ Son. Thank you, Denis, for every word.


John Berger's "Stories" (excerpted)

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Excerpted from John Berger's short essay "Stories" in Another Way of Telling:

The dog came out of the forest is a simple statement. When that sentence is followed by The man left the door open, the possibility of a narrative has begun. If the tense of the second sentence is changed to The man had left the door open, the possibility becomes almost a promise. Every narrative proposes an agreement about the unstated but assumed connections existing between events. 

    One can lie on the ground and look up at the almost infinite number of stars in the night sky, but in order to tell stories about those stars they need to be seen as constellations, the invisible lines which can connect them need to be assumed. 

    No story is like a wheeled vehicle whose contact with the road is continuous. Stories walk, like animals or men. And their steps are not only between narrated events but between each sentence, sometimes each word. Every step is a stride over something not said. 

    The suspense story is a modern inventions (Poe, 1809–1849) and consequently today one may tend to overestimate the role of suspense, the waiting-for-the-end, in story-telling. The essential tension in a story lies elsewhere. Not so much in the mystery of its destination as in the mystery of the spaces between its steps toward that destination. 

    All stories are discontinuous and are based on a tacit agreement about what is not said, about what connects the discontinuities. The question then arises: Who makes this agreement with whom? One is tempted to reply: The teller and the listener. Yet neither teller nor listener is at the centre of the story: they are at its periphery. Those whom the story is about are at the centre. It is between their actions and attributes and reactions that the unstated connections are being made. 

    One can ask this same question in another way … [W]hen a story makes sense of its discontinuities, it acquires authority as a story. But where is this authority? In whom is it invested? In one sense, it is invested in nobody and it is nowhere. Rather, the story invests with authority its characters, its listener’s past experience and its teller’s words. And it is the authority of all these together that makes the action of the story—what happens in it—worthy of the action of its being told, and vice versa. 

    The discontinuities of the story and the tacit agreement underlying them fuse teller, listener and protagonists into an amalgam. An amalgam which I would call the story’s reflecting subject. The story narrates on behalf of this subject, appeals to it and speaks in its voice.

    If this sounds unnecessarily complicated, it is worth remembering for a moment the childhood experience of being told a story. Were not the excitement and assurance of that experience precisely the result of the mystery of such a fusion? You were listening. You were in the story. You were in the words of the story-teller. You were no longer your single self: you were, thanks to the story, everyone it concerned. 

    The essence of that childhood experience remains in the power and appeal of any story which has authority. A story is not simply an exercise in empathy. Nor is it merely a meeting-place for the protagonists, the listener and the teller. A story being told is a unique process which fuses these … categories into one. And ultimately what fuses them, within the process, are the discontinuities, the silent connections, agreed upon in common.