"You do what you do moderately well. Now you have to ask yourself, is it worth doing?"
The essay is perhaps the most accessible and democratic of all forms of writing. All it requires is a thesis and a discussion; the rest is up to the authors to present creatively their ideas and arguments. The current favorite, most often seen in print, is a subgenre of the personal essay, narrative nonfiction. Because it uses elements of fiction, narrative nonfiction offers the best of two worlds: a well-told story and a rigorous examination of life and living. The overwhelming number of creative essays published today, however, are uniformly bland and antiseptic, dealing with trivial subjects interesting only to a narrow-and comfortable-elite.
Why is this? There is no limit to the subjects North American creative essayists can write about. Why, then, is their nonfiction (generally very well written) so dull and so out of touch with the reality experienced by most Americans? Too many seem to be about safe, domestic issues; a cursory review of several literary journals shows essay after essay about loves gained and lost, the intricacies of relationships, memories of parents, and the joys and heartbreaks and difficulties of children. These are important subjects-every experience is different and yet universal, and the essayist can prove this-but there is a depressing sameness in them. These narrative writers confuse intimacy and a lack of privacy with originality, profundity, or insight. Such openness may be occasionally embarrassing, but that's not necessarily bad. After all, creative nonfiction requires honesty. What's missing in these essays is a sense of urgency: A reader is left wanting something more solid, a story more substantial than what literary magazines currently offer. There is an excess of originality but a dearth of authenticity.
The problem lies primarily with the authors. Too often, American writers seem to know and experience less and less. Better and more-informed critics than I have commented on our country's rampant consumerism, as well as our culture's homogeneity, evidenced by Targets and Wal-Marts, chain restaurants, seemingly identical housing subdivisions, and indistinguishable television shows. This is not an environment in which the original is encouraged. But it goes further than that. While the past few decades have seen a radical change in our society, how we live, how we work, and how we see each other, the past five years have been nearly as economically disastrous as the Great Depression in terms of jobs lost and families uprooted, looking for work. Those fortunate to still have jobs wonder for how long. As a result of this uncertainty, too many Americans isolate themselves in their own racial or socioeconomic circles, fearful or mistrustful of others. In a setting like this, why should writers take chances with something new? Why shouldn't they reach into themselves? Why not focus on the personal, the intimate, the safe?
While the middle class shrinks, and poverty for more and more is a real concern, education offers less potential than it once did. A college education is the vaunted ticket to a comfortable life. While more young Americans are going to college, however, fewer minorities are graduating. In a 2009 speech to the American Council on Education (ACE), Hilary Pennington-Director of Education, Postsecondary Success, and Special Initiatives for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-stated, "The entering class at most colleges today looks like America. But the graduating class does not. The students who walk across the stage are overwhelmingly white." Statistics support Ms. Pennington's observation. According to the ACE's Minorities in Higher Education 2010-Twenty-Fourth Status Report, in 2007, there were 5.4 million minority students who attended school with 10.8 million white students, but during that same year two-thirds of college degrees went to white students. Furthermore, from the same report, "Young Hispanics and African Americans have made no appreciable progress in postsecondary attainment as compared to their older peers, and attainment rates have dipped for the youngest group (aged 25-34)." For them, college success has "flatlined"-younger minority students are seeing no greater educational success than their parents or older siblings.
What about the poor? Get smarter, we tell them. Go to school. Break the cycle. Be the first in your family to graduate from college. Good advice, yes, but the reality is bleak. According to a 2005 report from the Economic Policy Institute (which used results from a twelve-year Department of Education study that monitored test subjects' eighth-grade math scores), students from a high socioeconomic status (SES) who did the worst in their eighth-grade math classes still went on to outperform the best performing students from the lowest SES. Twenty-nine percent of the smartest but poorest kids went on to complete college, while thirty percent of the dumbest but richest kids did the same. With fewer poorer applicants, colleges are increasingly accepting more well-off high school graduates.
Why do I emphasize college when there are myriad other metrics to show American disparity? Writers-professional or avocational-tend to be college educated and economically and socially privileged. This is also true of those who run workshops for those authors and teach them to write. The voices of the poor and of minorities aren't being heard because they're not being trained, not being sharpened. If universities are producing more of the same, then what can we expect to read?
Creative writing programs now teach a rarified, though sophisticated, style that elevates expression at the expense of content. The well-turned phrase is the goal. When we writers turn away from consequential topics (memories and experiences and stories that deal with the overtly political, stories that describe and attack and analyze daily injustice, disparity, and unfairness-subjects that would excite, inflame, and anger-and maybe even amuse-the kind of person who readily admits, "Oh, I'm not much of a reader"), we cheat ourselves twice. We bore potential readers with topics that seem either trivial or inane, and we give the impression that writing about one's life is dry, academic, detached, and lifeless. What worse epithets can be directed toward the written word?
Imagine instead a narrative nonfiction that has the writer-as the protagonist-in conflict with a real antagonist, one that any reader, especially in the current iniquitous political, economic, and social climate of the United States, can identify with: bigoted police on a power trip, uncaring teachers. Sexism ignored, racism denied. What does a returning soldier feel when denied PTSD treatment at a VA hospital? What is it like to be fired so your company can post record third-quarter profits-or to be allowed to keep your job and have your hours (but not your pay) increased? What story could a gifted narrator tell about living the last day in a home that's been foreclosed? Or the reaction of a daughter upon hearing that her father will be in Afghanistan for another ten months? Or the gymnastics of balancing a job, a family, and a parole officer on the other side of town, where the buses don't run? How does one decide to join a gang? What is it like to propose shop unionization lunchroom-only to wonder what will happen if the boss finds out? What animal sounds does a mob make at a young woman leaving an abortion clinic? What stories can be told about, or even in , prison? Consider the poetry of geography: What memories lie in deteriorating neighborhoods? In soda shops and diners and theaters boarded up because of big-box stores and gentrification?
Depressing, sobering stuff-yet more memorable than the safe, clever, artistic vignettes and memoirs about life as experienced by the advantaged few. Energizing and giving fists and muscles to the genre of narrative nonfiction requires vocabulary and concepts that are dusty from disuse-and yet no less apt than they were a hundred years ago. Words like bourgeois, oppression, elite, and radical are as important in writing as ars gratia artis and belles lettres.
Writing about concrete, timely social issues would have two effects: One, in searching for new ideas, writers can look to the injustice, unfairness, and, well, plain ugliness of contemporary America. They can immerse themselves in what the poorer half of the United States already knows and direct their formidable writing talents to describing it, making it with their words real to others. Two, publishers and editors can seek out new writers-many of whom may never have seen the inside of a college classroom or attended a writing conference and who may not appreciate the niceties of grammar or the subtleties of figurative language-and encourage and mentor them to find their own voice.
But what can spark this? What will open the eyes and the pens of writers both new and established? Simply this: Begin your next essay, your next memoir, with the understanding that your country is no longer yours, that you will never claim the power and privilege enjoyed by the ruling class.
Already in the United States, some have realized this, and there is a long tradition of radical writing, especially from the minority and the poor. There are the big-league names: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Soul on Ice, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. But what about Nathan McCall's essays about contemporary African-American life in What's Going On? Or those in Dr. Althea Prince's The Politics of Black Women's Hair? I can continue: Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, or N. Scott Momaday's The Man Made of Words, a collection of different pieces. There are fine personal memoirs on Latino topics by Martín Espada, Gary Soto, Joy Castro, and Amelia Maria de la Luz Montes.
Furthermore, although foreign and not domestic, there are already many examples of the poor and powerless claiming their own struggle-albeit sometimes in nontraditional texts. Consider corridos, Latin American songs that tell stories of oppression, defiance and resistance, and revolution (as well as of César Chavez, the rebellion in Chiapas, feminism, and narcotrafficking). Another example of popular creative nonfiction is the Brazilian crônica, a short narrative essay or vignette that appears regularly in Brazilian newspapers and magazines. Crônicas are written about the commonplace and the everyday in an amusing, thoughtful, and engaging manner. In many of them there is a sense of the political, the civic, the communal-indirectly, satirically, or straightforwardly. Crônicas are important to Brazilians, and anyone, not just the intelligentsia, can write them and see them in print.
But isn't this ease of publishing, this access to the public eye, the same as posting in a blog? For the price of a computer and Internet access, anyone can send their words around the world. And we do: Internationally, there are over 168 million blogs. Blogging, however, is similar to keeping a diary or sealing a letter in a bottle and throwing it off a ship's bow. You write the words, but is anyone reading them? In our country, publishing companies and literary journals are the gatekeepers. Their editors decide what is worthy of publishing. Publication in a real venue, whether print or pixel, gives one's writing the imprimatur of legitimacy.
This, then, is the challenge: It is up to the editorial mavens and doyennes, the tastemakers and arbiters of the publishing industry, to take a greater risk, to cast their nets further, and to look for new writers and different outlooks. They must change the rules of what makes a piece of narrative nonfiction interesting or relevant. (Ultimately, of course, the readers give a printed piece its worth by reading it or not. But a table of contents listing essays that eschew the safe and sanitized will find willing, excited, and even passionate readers.) The memoirs and vignettes will at first be uneven, sure, but they will be honest and authentic, not merely clever and trivial. What will they gain? New authors-and a new readership-will be motivated to take part in the transaction of ideas, clamoring to tell their stories of their lives and how they live them.
The powerful have always been afraid of the intellectual, the writer-who else can see through the emperor's new clothes? Who else can challenge their authority? Literal as well as figurative pistols have been drawn on those who share ideas in writing. The current status quo pleases the ownership class to no end: As long as people are writing and thinking only about themselves, they are complacent, disconnected, and uninterested. Solipsism is perhaps the greatest conservative value. The state of being bourgeois is not just about being middle class, it is a state of mind. It is a state of being stultifyingly comfortable. There is a full belly underneath the navels at which too many narrative nonfiction writers gaze.
Words matter because, through them, readers see and feel something new, something that wasn't theirs but is now a part of them. Words can connect and excite and inspire. They can record and call others to action-or at least honest reflection. Writers have to ask whether their words actually do that, or just echo away, losing strength as they recede into the distance. They also have to ascertain whether what they're writing about is, indeed, accurate and real, never forgetting that real people, living and struggling in the real world, read their words. Fiction is fake. Essayists don't enjoy that luxury. Every letter on our pages should matter.