On the Lyric Essay

by Ben Marcus

First published in The Believer, July, 2003.

The Genre Artist

If a story takes place, as we are told stories do, then who or what does it take that place from, and why is an acquisition verb—take—necessary to describe the activity of stories? Maybe it’s an unfair, literalizing question. Not all figures of speech need to be prodded for accuracy (although shouldn’t a phrase relating to stories, which are made of language, have some passing precision?). Stories would keep taking place whether or not we worried about what it meant for them to do so, or worried about what stories actually did instead. But if we poked at this strange phrase, which suggests a theft of setting in order for narrative to occur, we might also deduce that if a place is taken for something to happen in it, then this taking must happen at a specific time (that’s what the word “happen” asks us to believe, anyway). The verb “take” presumes duration, implies a moment (unless we take a break from time or take the opportunity to no longer experience time, options that are difficult, at best, to secure, unless we die). It is this specific time that is meant to concern us when we encounter what is likely the most well known (i.e., terrifying) story opener of all: once upon a time.

Imbedded in this innocent phrase, which I would like to prod for the rest of this paragraph until it leaks an interesting jelly, is a severally redundant claim of occurrence, perhaps the first thing a reader, or listener, must be promised (reader: consumer of artificial time). For the sake of contrast, to look at a more rigorously dull example, the opener “I have an idea” does not offer the same hope, or seduction, or promise (particularly if I am the “I”). Even the verb is static and suggests nothing approximating a moment. Time is being excluded, and look at all the people already falling asleep. “Once upon a time” is far more promising (something happened, something happened!). We might need to believe that the clock is ticking before we begin to invest our sympathies, our attentions, our energy.

Fiction has, of course, since dropped this ingratiating, hospitable opener in favor of subtler seductions, gentler heraldings of story. But it is rare not to feel the clock before the first page is done, a verb moving the people and furniture around (whereas “having an idea” does not allow us to picture anything, other than, possibly, a man on a toilet). The physical verbs are waiting to assert themselves, to provide moments that we are meant to believe in, and verbs, traditionally, are what characters use to stir up the trouble we call fiction. Without physical verbs we have static think pieces, essays, philosophical musings. There is no stirring, because generally there is nobody there holding a spoon. This will be an interesting distinction to remember.

Maybe this is as it should be, since Proust said the duty of the literary artist was to tell the truth about time. Aside from blanching at the notion of duty, which is one of the required notions to blanch at, it seems clear to me that Proust’s edict, interpreted variously, has served as a bellwether for most thriving traditions of fiction (which held true, of course, before Proust articulated it). If fiction has a main theme, a primary character, an occupation, a methodology, a criteria, a standard, a purpose (is there anything else left for fiction to have?), it would be time itself. Fiction is the production of false time for readers to experience. Most fiction seeks to become time. Without time, fiction is nonfiction. Yes, that’s arguable—we have Borges, Roussel, Christine Brooke-Rose, and Robbe-Grillet, after all, among others, to tell us otherwise, and it is in part their legacy, their followers (witting or not), whose pages will be shaken here until we have something that counts for a portrait of this anti-story tradition.

One basic meaning of narrative, then: to create time where there was none. A fiction writer who tells stories is a maker of time. Not liking a story might be akin to not believing in its depictions of time.

It sounds facile to say that stories occur, but it is part of the larger, relentless persuasion that time both is and envelops the practice we call story. We cannot easily separate the two. Yet if time is the most taken-for-granted aspect of fiction writing, it would seem precisely like the good hard wall a young, ambitious writer would want to bang his head against, in order to walk and talk newly in the world of fiction (that’s still the desire, right?). To the writer searching for the obstacle to surpass, time would look plenty worthy a hurdle. If something must be overcome, ruined, subverted in order for fiction to stay matterful (yes, maybe the metaphor of progress in literary art is pretentious and tired at this point (there’s time again, aging what was once such a fine idea)), then time would be the thing to beat, the thing fiction seemingly cannot do without, and therefore, to grow or change, must.

Time must die.

John Haskell is among an intriguing new group of writers chiseling away at the forms of fiction writing without appearing exhaustingly experimental (read: unreadable). Haskell is working primarily without or around time, producing fiction that might appear more essayistic, discursive, inert, philosophical, and, well, literally timeless (which is not yet to say that his debut book is for the ages). Yes, I said “inert,” because things do not have to move to be interesting. Think mountain. Think dead person. Think thought. I say “think,” because Haskell is a thinker, and although he writes often about film, you could not film what he writes.

I Am Not Jackson Pollock contains some storylike moments, but it is primarily a new kind of fiction, one that, curiously, hardly seems interested in fiction at all (which is not to suggest that it reads autobiographically—the opposite is true, which makes a great case for secret-keeping). Haskell might be indebted to Borges, but not in the way most so-called imaginative writers are. There’s no obsession with infinity and worlds within worlds, no conceptual masterminding at work to showcase a stoner’s tripped-out, house-of-Escher mentality, not much that would qualify as being made up. Haskell is more interested in using modest, unassuming forms of nonfiction, as did Borges or Sterne (albeit Haskell does not perpetrate extravagant untruths): the essay, the report, the biographical sketch, the character analysis (this last is Haskell’s favorite, from real people like Glenn Gould and Jackson Pollock, to film characters like Anthony Perkins’s innkeeper in Psycho, to Topsy, the first elephant executed by electricity). Haskell does not write characters so much as he writes about them, and it is this willful instinct toward exposition that is so curiously distinctive and unusual in the story-driven world of most new fiction.

A fair question here might be this: where is the fiction in this, if these “stories” of Haskell’s refuse story and then faithfully essay to supply information, respectable information, analysis, and reflection, just as nonfiction might? And one fair answer might be: John Haskell’s primary fiction, overriding his entire project, the place where his fiction is located, is precisely in his puzzling gesture of calling these pieces fiction in the first place. He is fictionalizing his genre. Or, in other words, his fiction is genre itself. Haskell is not an artist in a particular genre, he is an artist of genre.

To do what Haskell does is to take several genuine risks, which occasions a word or two about risk. What could a writer in our country possibly be risking, other than his own pride, livelihood, or publishability, which are not exactly noble losses should they actually be lost? (Many of us began writing without pride and publishability anyway, and I’m not exactly clear what livelihood is.) Yet risk is the most urgent exhortation of what we are supposed to take when we write fiction (which is somehow different from the kind of taking a story does when it takes place). Fiction is praised when it is called “risky,” but this sort of risk usually involves shattering, shameful disclosures. (I could fill the rest of this essay with examples of shattering, shameful disclosures, but maybe just one will do: while wrestling with my dog, experimenting on a new hold called “the Sumatra,” we ended up horizontal on the lawn, head to toe, and thereupon commenced a directed nuzzling, a purposeful mouth-to-balls activity, that in some quarters of academe is referred to as the sixty-nine, which then became a standard “variation” on the “Sumatra,” well into adulthood (especially into adulthood)). With secret-telling having become its own lucrative industry, it’s hard to fathom what a risk of subject-matter might be (though I’m certain better, scarier secrets are approaching in next season’s books, however ill-equipped my imagination is to conceive them).

Risks of form, on the other hand, might seem more provocative, more inherently interesting to those attuned to the established modes and means of fiction writing (Hey, you guys!), but the risk more often cited in these cases is the financial sort that a publisher takes in publishing such work. They risk not selling enough books. And they are sorry but they cannot take that risk (it is interesting that the writer is supposed to be risky while the publisher is not). Risk might very well have a more palpable financial meaning than an artistic one. So while it is no longer clear what literary risk is—perhaps the term has been molested to death, like those other harassed words: edgy, innovative, startling, stunning—it could be more appropriate to say that within the larger, hapless chance-taking of writing at all (when indifference is about the scariest, and likeliest, response most of us might face), writing fiction without story seems especially curious, willfully self-marginalizing, and therefore very much worth considering. (No, not all obscure literary gestures are “interesting,” but something akin to playing golf without one’s body, as John Haskell might be doing, is.)

The shopworn adage “show-don’t-tell” reinforces the ethos that fiction must have a story, and warns a writer away from discursive, essayistic moments and exposition, which apparently amount to a kind of quicksand for the writer (a statement that presupposes motion as a valuable aspect of fiction writing). Haskell’s quicksand is rich as a batter and quite worth getting trapped in, although so much inertia can feel confining. If we are to be cast in mud, and then smothered, we want our demise to be fascinating. Telling is supposedly insufficient, it cannot produce a quality demise, since it does not dramatize a moment, or in fact does not even supply a moment at all. Telling is stingy with time. Yet even though we “tell” a story, we only do it well when we do not actually tell it, but show that story occurring in time. Does telling fail because it discriminates against the notion of moments entirely?

Take this paragraph in Haskell’s story, “The Faces of Joan of Arc.”

Hedy Lamarr, through most of the movie, takes the side of those in authority, which is not the same as having authority. Obedience is a way of reconciling oneself to a lack of authority or a lack of choice. But it’s not the only way.

This is a funny (read: not-so-funny) way to start a section in a story, but this is Haskell in his psychological mode, and it’s a tone he turns to frequently, which can make parts of this book sound eerily similar to the DSM-IV-TR Case Studies: A Clinical Guide to Differential Diagnosis. His exposition is dutiful and persistent, but he oddly does not seem to be using it to generate sympathy, which is what a narrative writer might hope for after disclosing details of character. Minimalism in fiction, which at its best extracted psychology purely from surfaces, would be anathema to Haskell. One of his favorite things to do, his pet point throughout the book, is to probe the interior conflicts within a character, but the effect is rather more coldly intellectual than warmly empathic:

She creates a space between what she does and who she feels she is, so at least she can live with a little peace.He wanted to let whatever it was inside of him come out, and then change it, and by changing that he was hoping everything else would change.

Inside that bubble he could relax and let who he was come out.

She waited until what the camera wanted was fairly close to what she wanted, and although this wasn’t a perfect arrangement, she could pretend to stand it.

… the man wanted to bring out whatever it was inside the boy.

Haskell is expert at clarifying the moments when his characters feel estranged from themselves. The defiance of Haskell’s title is a form of self-denial echoed throughout most of these stories. He is so shrewd at depicting this sort of moment, that for him it is apparently sufficient to carry whole stories. Once he has achieved the revelation, he seems ready to end his story. If he has a deficiency, it’s his inability to convert his fascinations into whole pieces of writing that prove the artistic adequacy of his idea. If Haskell is desperate to show us how people hide from themselves and conspire against their own better interests, working as multiple identities in agonizing contexts—which is, after all, a familiar enough idea routinely explored, or dramatized, by many writers—then it’s upon him to make our experience of this idea immediate, visceral, and potently refreshed. Maybe it’s not upon him, but when the idea is centralized, as it is in Haskell’s work, and narrative is deliberately excluded, there is a risk when that idea does not seem novel.

To be fair, Haskell has no real comforting tradition to fall back on, to guide him in his efforts, so he must invent for himself what an ending, in this sort of writing, might look like. It’s an original path he has chosen, and it will be rewarding to watch this exceptional writer as he navigates this new territory for fiction.

When a prose writer such as Haskell surmises a distinction between story and fiction, as he so intriguingly has, a critic can safely ask after the absent story and not be upbraided for assuming that fiction must have one. A writer thus interested anyway in dividing the two projects risks an error of category, or at the least risks being read incorrectly (not that reading correctly sounds like a very compelling thing to be doing). But when, for example, David Markson, an expository novelist who fired the starting gun for fictions of information and proved that pure exposition can be alarmingly moving, who purposefully tells instead of shows, is dismissed in The New York Times for failing to provide a story in his novel Reader’s Block, no discussion follows about why, exactly, fiction must have one (at 150 words in the book review, how could any discussion follow?). Nor do we learn what a story might have looked like in such an exquisitely felt book that, to summarize, catalogs the various ways historical figures have hated whole races of people and/or died by their own hands. (Yes, you should read this book.)

Markson should have presumably, under the fiction-must-have-a-story criteria, zeroed in on one of his hundreds of characters and gone deep, doing that good old-time psychological work, the person-making stuff, dramatizing how such an interesting fellow had gone on to hate Jews and/or kill himself. Markson should have used more words like “then.” He should have sequenced. He seems to have forgotten that literature is supposedly a time-based art.

Markson’s amnesia is one of the happy accidents of the last decade of fiction writing. By eschewing a fetishistic, conventional interest in character, or a dutiful allegiance to moment creation, to occurrence itself, Markson accomplishes what a story, slogging through time and obedient to momentum, arguably could not: a commanding, obsessive portrait of single behaviors throughout history, a catalog of atrocity that overwhelms through relentless example. In truth, it’s a novel that can be read as an essay, but unlike most essays, it’s lyrically shrewd, poetry in the form of history, and it’s brave enough to provide creepy, gaping holes where we normally might encounter context (the burden of the conventional essayist).

This might explain a new category of writing, the lyric essay, swelling special issues of literary magazines (such as The Seneca Review) and, in particular, a new, provocative anthology: The Next American Essay, edited (orchestrated, masterminded, realized) by John D’Agata, the form’s single-handed, shrewd champion. The lyric essayist seems to enjoy all of the liberties of the fiction writer, with none of a fiction writer’s burden of unreality, the nasty fact that none of this ever really happened that a fiction writer daily wakes to. One can never say of the lyric essayist’s work that “it’s just fiction,” a vacuous but prevalent dismissal akin to criticizing someone with his own name. The lyric essay is a rather ingenious label, since the essayist supposedly starts out with something real, whereas the fiction writer labors under a burden to prove, or create, that reality, and can expect mistrust and doubt from a reader at the outset. In fiction, lyricism can look like evasion, special pleading, pretension. In the essay, it is apparently artistic, a lovely sideshow to The Real that, if you let it, will enhance what you think you know. The implied secret here is that one of the smartest ways to write fiction today is to say that you’re not, and then do whatever you very well please. Fiction writers take note. Some of the best fiction is these days being written as nonfiction.

The Next American Essay proceeds chronologically from 1975 to 2003, from John McPhee (a re-animated Monopoly game) to Jenny Boully (all footnotes, no text), with D’Agata practicing his own artful transitions before each piece, waxing witty, smart, personal, mute, cleverly obtuse, passionate, lucid, myopic. D’Agata’s transitions alone, which show how alive an anthology can be, and would make any editor envious, provide a toolbox of categorically adulterous leapfrogs that could outfit a whole new generation of writers with the skills to launch an impressive and relevant movement of writing. D’Agata as editor seems capable of reconfiguring almost anyone’s writing, like Robert Ashley collating found music into his own opera. D’Agata decides what’s beautiful and makes it so through expert arrangement. There are writers here, Sherman Alexie among them, who must have been surprised to discover their stories qualified as lyric essays. D’Agata justifies the choice of Alexie by claiming that fiction is a protective term, providing shelter for difficult material, which is really essayistic in nature. All fiction writers should be so lucky.

The flagship practitioner of the lyric essay, who seems early on to have inspired D’Agata’s editorial imagination, is the Canadian poet Anne Carson. Under the banner of poetry, Carson has produced some of the most rigorously intelligent and beautiful writing of the last ten years: essays, stories, arguments, poems, most provocatively in her early collection, Plainwater. Her piece, “Short Talks,” which she describes as one-minute lectures, and which moves through the history of philosophy like a flip-book of civilization, offering stern commandments and graceful fall-aways, simultaneously qualifies as fiction, poetry, and essay, and is championed protectively by ambassadors from each genre.

The loose criteria for the lyric essay seems to invoke a kind of nonfiction not burdened by research or fact, yet responsible (if necessary) to sense and poetry, shrewdly allegiant to no expectations of genre other than the demands of its own subject. If that sounds strangely like fiction, several of the writers included here, Harry Mathews, Carole Maso, and Lydia Davis among them, first published their pieces in that genre, and will no doubt continue to. Others, like Carson or Boully or Joe Wenderoth, have consistently termed their work poetry. Thalia Field has published her singular writing under the label of fiction, although it seems better read as poetry. Here, of course, it is an essay, as are works of autobiography. David Antin shows up with more of his astonishingly boring diaries, continuing his decades-long ruse of consequence. Thankfully he cannot single-handedly ruin an anthology. David Shields provides a Lishian catalog of clichés that accrue curious meanings and expose how revealing banal language can actually be. And stalwarts like Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, and Susan Sontag throw in with fierce, ambitious contributions that actually always were essays, although this lack of genre-hopping is in the minority.

Sadly absent from what is otherwise one of the most significant anthologies published in years are a few true voices of the essay who would have fit right in with these other inspired eccentrics, among them: Daniel Harris, Lawrence Weschler, Joy Williams, and Dallas Wiebe.

One instantly wonders how the chosen genre appellation liberates or constricts the writer, and whether or not John Haskell, absent from D’Agata’s all-star selection, would have fared better (whatever that might mean) under a different label, with someone like D’Agata warming-up for him. Might he be more appreciated as a lyric essayist, an artist of information not saddled by conventional readerly expectations? I ask because Haskell seems to suffer slightly when evaluated as a fiction writer, when one brings hopes of story to his book, which are hard not to bring. There’s the implied tedium of fiction not driven by story, particularly if a reader is expecting one (of course tedium, as Robbe-Grillet showed, can have its thrills). With storyless fiction, one suspects an intellectual lesson is at hand, instead of entertainment (this must either be fun or it must be good for me), with a reader’s pleasure not high on the author’s agenda. Expectation can flatten a reader’s willingness to forestall desires for story. It is similar to feeling forever trapped in a flashback, waiting for the current scene. A reader saves attention and energy if he senses that what he’s reading is not primary, the thing itself, and that the real story is ahead, and attention is the commodity the writer is striving to create, at all costs. Haskell’s book could very nearly be shelved uncontested in the film studies section of the bookstore, and here it might perform its rogue fictionalizations with more astonishment, reversing his style of ambush, so to speak, since it is much more a collection of film studies with bursts of unreality, than it is a burst of unreality with moments of film studies.

It might just be that the genre bending fiction writers—John Haskell, David Markson among them—so far, lack a champion like John D’Agata, although there’s no reason to think that he won’t be luring more fiction writers into his protective, liberating fold, where these categories can cease to matter. Once upon a time there will be readers who won’t care what imaginative writing is called and will read it for its passion, its force of intellect, and for its formal originality.

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