LITERATURE, WRITING & ANTHROPOLOGY: COMMENTARY
The anthropologists who contributed to this collection were asked a series of questions by the collection curators Shannon Dugan Iverson and Darren Byler. The first of these questions focused on the reasons why we tell stories and what power might be implicit in stories themselves. The second question interrogated the forces that drew these authors to use a literary approach in their work and how this approach contributes to their view of ethnography as a form of knowledge production. A third question asked the authors to reflect on how ethnography has changed since Writing Culture was published 25 years ago. A fourth and final general question asked how these authors might organize a course on anthropology and literature.
We also asked short fiction writers to respond to similar but slightly different questions on the importance of fiction as a genre and the ways in which fiction articulates with social worlds.
IN THIS COMMENTARY
CRAPANZANO: Is there, in fact, a purpose in telling stories? Clearly not. Stories have many purposes, and these purposes – several at a time -- are context dependent and, therefore, change over time. In other words, stories and their purposes have histories. Their purposes are, among others, to entertain; to teach; to give order, to give meaning, to the situation in which speakers, interlocutors, and third-party auditors find themselves or to the situation about which they are talking; to promote a sense of community among them; to simplify or render more complex, indeed to mystify, their circumstances; to deflect, to escape, embarrassment, animosity, or conversational rupture by changing the subject or register of discourse. How often have we sat through q-and-a sessions with anthropologists in which, when stymied by a question, they tell a story about a seemingly but not necessarily relevant episode in their fieldwork. Psychologists and psychoanalysts use case histories in the same way.
Through montage, figuration, and allegorization, stories often express what cannot be said directly. Reference to a story, without recounting it, can often serve similar purposes. Think of the Indian’s reference to colonization in his argument with his Chinese opponents. By simply naming a place, as Keith Basso describes in his marvelous essay, “Speaking with Names,” the Western Apache can evoke a storied event that took place there and by doubled indirection relate that story to present and pressing moral concerns that cannot be directly expressed. Stories can, of course, configure silences; indeed the silent surround of all conversational events.
Do we simply respond to the situation in which we find ourselves? Or do we respond to the anticipation of a story? (We are blessed with the future perfect. It is a tricky tense. It gives us a prophetic dimension. It implies a story: the story of what is likely to happen or is desired or dreaded.) We can lose ourselves in anticipation of, in recounting, or in reflecting on that story. Is it possible to separate fully the story and our reflections on it? However their content, their plot, relates to the situation in which we find ourselves, stories also serve rhetorical purposes. They are creatively indexical. They not only reflect a context but they cast it.
What do stories want? Presumably they want to be told – to be given voice. But do they want anything? Are they imprisoned in the attribution of intention? Can they escape personification? Can we avoid personifying them? What are the epistemic, the hermeneutic, consequences of this personification? Does it foster intimacy between our stories and us? Stories allure, that, I believe, we can say. Cave! I have not even asked what a story is.
BEHAR: We tell stories because we’ve had an experience, or witnessed something, or heard someone else tell a story, that’s moved us, gripped us by the throat, left us speechless, made us want to cry and laugh at the same time. Usually, we want immortality for the story, so we tell it, we pass it on, and maybe we even write it down. Stories want to live, to breathe, in our telling of them.
MCLEAN: I think the answer to these questions depends largely on your understanding of what a story is. I’m not sure that stories in the sense I’ve used the term could be said to “want” anything. Obviously it’s possible to think of a story as a piece of consciously shaped narrative art, following a definite trajectory (with a beginning, middle and end etc.). In my own work, I’ve tried to deploy the notion of story more expansively – to refer, for example, to a variety of material and ecological processes that might once have been conventionally identified with the realm of “nature” rather than that of “culture.” In fact one of the ways in which I’ve attempted to engage with storytelling is as a way of undermining precisely that distinction. In one sense I’m following the lead of Walter Benjamin, a thinker who was one of my earliest inspirations and who, in his celebrated essay on the work of Nikolai Leskov, invoked “nature” as “the anonymous storyteller, who was prior to all literature.” It could be objected, I suppose, that such a claim is necessarily an anthropomorphizing one, although I don’t see it in such terms. To speak of other than human storytellers is to speak of processes of unfolding that may or may not be meaningful or beneficial to humans – indeed, they might prove incomprehensible or destructive. It could be said then that stories “happen” – that storytelling refers to a movement of temporal self-differentiation that need not be thought of as linear (although, as Tim Ingold has recently reminded us, not all lines are straight lines) or as proceeding toward any pre-assigned telos (Benjamin, for example, notes that there is no genuine story for which the question of how it continued would not be legitimate). I see human acts of storytelling as participating and intervening in the storied unfolding of the world understood in these terms – as attempts, if you will, quite literally to make a difference.
ENSLIN:I don’t see stories as having any singular purpose. In different contexts, stories have different purposes. And, of course, those contexts and purposes are always shaped by culture, and in our globalized world, they usually have multiple overlays: local, national and transnational.
In one of my research projects in Nepal, I looked at the kinds of stories rural women told in their songs and poems and how that related to their activism. But the deeper I dug, the more I saw how those stories were tied up in ethnic, class and national identity in a time of rapid social change. Anthropology is good at telling stories like that, stories about how and why people in different times and places tell stories. But anthropology, like other academic disciplines (and perhaps our society as a whole), could do a better job of valuing a greater diversity of stories and practices among its professionals.
These days, I choose to write poems and creative nonfiction. But I would never claim that only those story forms matter. I humbly bow in gratitude towards those who tell the other stories we need: legal testimony, progressive policies and legislation, journalism, fundraising efforts, tales of hope and courage. And although I chose a different path, I continue to be grateful for the stories anthropologists tell to help us better understand race and racism, human evolution, and regions that the US is militarizing. The question that prompted “Beyond Writing” and that continues to gall a bit is this: why are those of us who choose to tell non-academic stories and do non-academic work not valued much in academic circles?
I taught at an independent high school for six years — a wonderful alternative, by the way, for any anthropologist tired of doing the adjunct rounds. I delighted in taking a complicated subject (say, the construction of race and racism in 17th century American colonies) and simplifying it just enough (but not too much) to compose presentations, activities and assignments for adolescents. That work demanded as much, if not more, creativity and intellect as writing an article for a peer reviewed journal. But in hierarchies of academic prestige, it doesn’t count for much.
Our society depends on K-12 teachers and countless others who know how to translate between academic research and more public cultures through lesson plans, radio, blogs, etc. We need those people, but we don’t value them very highly. Of course, that’s a general reflection of power and hierarchy in our society, not anthropology alone. But given anthropology’s reflexivity and insight into marginalized cultures, it continues to amaze me how the profession itself marginalizes in pretty conventional ways.
CRAPANZANO: Ought we not to distinguish ethnography as an academic discipline from doing and writing ethnography? As an academic discipline, at least in the United States (and we have to recognize our parochialism) it is an arena of contestation in which science and the humanities -- science and art -- confront each other. Science has, of course, the (economic) clout.
After I had written Tuhami, I was introduced at conferences as a writer and an anthropologist: never as an anthropologist and a writer. Was this simply a question of sonority? I think not, but those attitudes have been by-passed. Or have they?
My point is that the contestation between science and art affects them both. There is, in the theological sense, an apologetic, if not a defensive, dimension to ethnography s written. I cannot speak for others who do ethnography, but I am quite certain that this contestation influenced my field research and my findings, It is not a simply a question of rigor, systematicity, or objectivity. I am haunted, less so today than when I was a student, by the parti-pris of my interlocutors – my mentors, colleagues, and other insistent figues. Yet, in my most recent fieldwork, with the Harkis, I was troubled by questions of objectivity, even though I tend to look at claims of objectivity with considerable skepticism. I question the objectivity of objectivity. Wasn’t it Goethe who called attention to the fact that objectivity is subjectivity grasped?
But to answer the question: the doing of ethnography is an art as living is an art. We live our field research, despite methodological mystification. This is not to deny the importance of method and methodology. They -- their enactment -- are minimally social facts and have to be taken as such. They must not blind us, however, to the lived dimension of our research – to the lived resistance to order, coherence, and continuity. That too is a social fact. Ethnography has always to loop back, self-critically, on itself.
Yes, within our culture, the writing of ethnography is an art as is all literature. It is, despite itself, a literary form; in fact, a constellation of literary forms.
How does taking a writerly approach to ethnography shape knowledge? As writing, as literature, as communication, ethnography inevitably shapes (as it is shaped by) knowledge. As an approach to knowledge, the focus on writing, as the critics of the writing-culture movement quite correctly noted, even if they misconstrued it, deflects the ethnographer’s findings. But these findings cannot be divorced from their mode of communication. It is finally a matter of stress.
BEHAR: I wish ethnography were an art! I don’t think it is yet… but perhaps one day. I’m exaggerating, I know. What I’m trying to say is that ethnography is still a young genre. And beyond that, I think there’s a huge fear of good writing in anthropology—the assumption being that good writing has a tendency to be precious, to be too full of itself, to be self-indulgent (always a no-no in our discipline), to be a distraction from the pressing reality at hand that needs to be analyzed rigorously. A stringent work ethic got established in anthropology from its earliest days, disdaining the idea that ethnography as a literary form could be a source of pleasure. Good writing in our discipline is associated with frilliness, with caviar and champagne. The mission of ethnography required that we sacrifice such privileges. A certain moral righteousness ordained that we not spotlight the ethnographer carrying out the work, but rather those heroic people at the margins of capitalist development who could be assisted in their quest for cultural survival through our attention, activism, and publications. Ethnographic writing had to be as pure, unadorned, and unscented as Ivory soap, and go in and get the job done. Despite the dominance of this ethos, there have always been ethnographers who shone as writers, and whose artistic or writerly longings led them to write against the limits of what I’ve called “our second-fiddle genre.” We can learn the art of ethnography from such writerly ethnographies as Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, Zora Neale Hurston’s Of Mules and Men, and Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, among many others. We have a handful of brilliant writers in our genealogy and many more writer manqués. To be serious writers, we need to read a lot of great fiction and non-fiction. You can only write as well as what you read. So bring Chekhov, Charlotte Bronte, and Jean Rhys with you to the field! Taking a writerly approach to ethnography requires more self-consciousness about language than has traditionally been encouraged in our discipline. In practice, this means taking the time to craft beautiful and supple sentences, one at a time, slowly, painstakingly. It also requires a greater attention to the kinds of stories we are trying to tell—being aware of the rhetorical conventions that we’re using, so that we know, for example, when we’re writing an “arrival scene,” as Mary Louise Pratt showed us in her spectacular essay in Writing Culture. Taking a writerly approach has the potential, I think, to make us learn to communicate the knowledge we want to share more lucidly and more movingly, and through that process to question what constitutes knowledge in the first place.
MCLEAN: I’m tempted to answer the first question with a simple “yes.” In fact, I don’t see how it could possibly be anything else. As to the question of writerly approaches to ethnography, I see anthropology – all anthropology, even its most hard-headedly positivist variants - as always inextricably engaged with the practice of writing. The difference between “writerly” and “non-writerly” approaches to me consists in the degree to which they take explicit cognizance of this and thus the degree to which they are willing to assume responsibility for their own knowledge making-practices. I’d also want extend consideration of anthropology’s relationship to writing beyond ethnography as a method and genre to include the discipline’s latterly much neglected comparative heritage. In fact, one of my current projects is an attempt to re-invent the genre of the comparative anthropological essay – a form that, for me, offers a rather different set of challenges from those posed by ethnography. One answer to these questions then would be to point out that ethnographies are not the only kind of writing that anthropologists have produced – or could produce.
ENSLIN: I find myself drawn to the elegant simplicity of how graphic designer, Milton Glaser, sums up art: “Art, at its fullest capacity, makes us attentive" (http://bigthink.com/ideas/16180). One could push deeper into what attentiveness might mean and pad that basic premise with more on intention and beauty, but I find it a pretty good starting place for pondering what might constitute art across space and time.
As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, I couldn’t decide between art and science, so I chose anthropology. I figured it would allow me to be both artist and scientist, or maybe some fusion of the two. Later, I added activism to the mix. I tried to tack back and forth, but mostly ended up drifting. I abandoned my early passion for cultural ecology, then took a stormy turn through Marxist and feminist approaches to women and development, social inequality, activism and resistance, and women’s songs and life stories. I finally circled back to the human and nature nexus via research on agroecology in Nepal.
Through all that, I’d say that anthropology gave me great tools for being attentive. I continue to use those. In the end though, academic anthropology did not fully satisfy either the scientist, the activist or the artist in me. The greater my professional successes, the more I felt my capacity for joyful attentiveness waning. I suppose it’s how some artists feel when money and status call attention away from the art itself and direct it towards power and hierarchy. Getting attention is not the same as cultivating attentiveness. Of course, that’s not unique to anthropology, or even capitalism. All art is produced in a cultural and economic context which both cultivates and constrains.
That waning desire to be an academic is what prompted me to write “Beyond Writing.” I was discovering other ways to be attentive: creative writing, growing food, observations and musings on plants and animals, compassion. At the time of writing the article, I couldn’t see where all that was going but sensed that the work I wanted to participate in and produce would not be valued in academia. It was too ephemeral. To make sense of my own lack of joy in the profession, I wanted to understand how academic structures limit what counts as ethnography and also limit the extent to which ethnography can be the activism or art that so many hope it can be.
Still, I think that there is an artfulness to writing up research in any discipline so that it best represents the knowledge gained and explains it well to the intended audience. Perhaps those who most enjoy doing anthropology and writing ethnography are those who experience it as a means for making themselves and others attentive — those who experience it, in other words, as art. And then there are those of us called to other forms of attentiveness. That is not a failing of ethnography as art or as an approach to shaping knowledge. Nor is it a failing in those of us who pursue other paths. I see it as a failure of professional imagination and organization that can’t create a big enough net to hold us all.
CRAPANZANO: I would rather ask how the writing of ethnography has changed since the Fifties. It has loosened up and, as such, become much more responsive to the subtleties of field research as well as to the perspective and presumptive engagement of the ethnographer. It has certainly become far more self-reflective and self-critical. It tends, however, not to appreciate fully the defensive nature reflection and critique can have. What brings them to a halt?
I have pushed back in time the period under consideration, because I believe that the influence of the Black liberation movements, feminism, gender and gay studies, and the internationalization of anthropology as a discipline on the writing and evaluation of ethnography is far greater than the writing-culture movement or developments in literary theory and hermeneutics. It is, of course, difficult to separate the latter from the former. Not only did these movements, particularly feminism, broaden the range of ethnographic writing, writing more generally, its self-critical stance, and acknowledgement of the writer’s – the ethnographer’s – social and political commitment.
Would it not be more productive to ask how has the reading of ethnography changed over these years?
BEHAR: I would say that there have been two important developments in ethnographic writing in the last 25 years. The first is that there is greater openness toward the use of the personal voice, leading to the creation of the genre we often call “auto-ethnography.” The personal voice is no longer confined to the introduction and conclusion of most ethnographies, bookending the ethnographer’s presence in carrying out the fieldwork and crafting the work; that voice is more fully woven into the narrative. The second major shift is that “insider” or “diasporic” ethnography has taken off, so that we have a stronger presence of ethnographers with a deep sense of connection to the places and people they write about, whether because of a familial or historical bond or personal memories, which sparks a longing to find home via the passport of anthropology. The classical anthropological focus on “otherness” has taken on a whole new meaning in the works of these ethnographers. Otherness is internalized as the ethnographer seeks out a homecoming that, if not impossible, is always very fraught.
MCLEAN: Obviously it would be difficult to deny that the range of possibilities for ethnographic writing has expanded in the wake of the publication of Writing Culture (which, I take it, is the tacit reference point of the question). I would suggest though that the past 25 years have witnessed far more experimentation and innovation with regard to method and subject matter than writing per se. In fact it strikes me that there is still a profound resistance on the part of most anthropologists to taking writing seriously – a tendency, that is, to treat writing as an extraneous aesthetic adornment of decidedly secondary importance compared to the ‘serious’ business of describing and documenting contemporary actualities. I remember as a newly minted Ph.D in search of employment that whenever someone would compliment me on my writing in a job interview it was invariably an indication that I wasn’t going to be hired! For me, in contrast, writing is an integral and constitutive part of what anthropologists do. Writing is inseparable from our engagement with the world. When I describe myself as an anthropologist I’m describing myself as a writer – they’re the same thing (although, obviously, there are many ways of being a writer). Having said that, I do see signs of an increasing attentiveness to writing on the part of anthropologists in recent years. Next Spring (2013) Anand Pandian (Johns Hopkins) and I are co-chairing a School of Advanced Research seminar on the subject of “Literary Anthropology,” which we conceived quite explicitly as an experimental writing workshop rather than a series of meta-reflections on the status of writing in anthropology. The range of participants – from established senior figures to people of my own generation and younger (including a poet and a novelist) – and the fact that the proposal was accepted in the first place gives some indication, I think, that anthropological writing (which, as I’ve pointed out, doesn’t only mean ethnography) might be beginning to receive the sustained and serious consideration that it demands.
ENSLIN: Until recently, I was too busy raising a child as a mostly single mom and trying to survive financially outside academia to ponder changes in ethnography. And now that I’ve made space in my life for writing again, I’m focusing on craft in fiction, poetry and narrative nonfiction rather than ethnography. I have a lot of catching up to do there. But from what I can see, anthropologists still seem to be struggling with the same questions that prompted me to write “Beyond Writing,” — how to research and write in ways that matter to the people we study; how to write in ways that engage audiences who need to hear about the people we study (e.g., policymakers, educators, voters); how to balance research with other academic duties; how to value the diversity of what anthropologists do.
CRAPANZANO: I have never taught such a course, though I have taught many courses that address both students of anthropology and literature. I would certainly not restrict the reading to ethnographies to works in literary theory. I would include realist novels (Balzac, Zola), whose influence on ethnography has not been explored, as well as those that challenge nineteenth century literary forms (Faulkner, Marquez); travel literature (Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, for one); literary journalism (my wife Jane Kramer’s Whose Art Is It? If only because I lived through its making) and life histories (e.g., Freud’s ”Wolf Man”, Desjarlais’ Sensory Biographies, my own Tuhami). As for ethnographies, I would assign self-consciously literary ethnographies (e.g. Michael Jackson’s Excursions, Roger Bartra’s Cage of Melancholy, Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques) and less self-consciously literary ethnographies like Malinowski’s Argonauts, Evans-Pritchard’s Nuer, Turner’s Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, Maria Vesperi’s City of the Green Benches, and Stoller’s Fusion of the Worlds. Through close readings, I would look at the way genre, convention, style, and figuration “construct” the ethnography. My emphasis would, however, be on craft rather than on theory.
BEHAR: I already teach such courses at the University of Michigan! These are graduate seminars that have been my signature courses for years. One is called “Blurred Genres: Autobiography, Fiction, Ethnography” and the other is called “Ethnographic Writing.” Students often take both courses, since the first is a reading course and the second is a writing workshop that includes readings about writing. The syllabus for both courses changes each year, but there are some core readings.
In the syllabus for “Blurred Genres,” which focuses on the question of where does the story of the observer end and the story of the observed begin, I frequently include Barbara Myerhoff’s Number Our Days, John Gwaltney’s Drylongso: A Self Portrait of Black America, and Robert Murphy’s The Body Silent as classic texts to begin our discussion. All three books ponder the question of how to use the personal voice in ethnography and come out with starkly different results. I assign Renato Rosaldo’s essay, “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage,” since I consider it crucial for any discussion of literature and anthropology. This year I also included my own recently published essay, “What Renato Rosaldo Gave Us.” Most significantly, we had the privilege of also reading Renato’s moving poetry manuscript, “The Day of Shelly’s Death,” which he kindly allowed me to share with my students before its publication. I also included as examples of memoir and fiction, Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, which inspired a discussion on the responsibility of minority writers to act as native ethnographers while also telling compelling stories. I find Daniel Miller’s writing on the stories that things tell to be another example of blurred genres and this year assigned his book, The Comfort of Things. I was delighted by the appearance of Kirin Narayan’sAlive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov, so I assigned it to my students in “Blurred Genres,” but I expect I will use it more regularly in “Ethnographic Writing.”
In the course on “Ethnographic Writing,” students spend the first few weeks reading a range of texts and writing short exercises based on prompts I provide. The aim is to get everyone thinking about the diverse elements of ethnography, including the point of view of the observer and his/her presence or absence in the text; the challenge of writing about/with/alongside the voices of others; the evocation of a setting; and the dilemmas of moving between storytelling and theorizing. Then in the second half of the course, students have the opportunity to workshop two drafts of their final writing project. The project is based on original research, carried out in any setting that the student chooses, and relying on interactions with people they have gotten to know personally.
To give students inspiration for their writing, I often return to James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which fused Agee’s anguished reflections on being an observer in the rural south during the Depression era with Evans’s restrained black-and-white photographs. I find this text to be a great starting point for discussions about literature and anthropology, and I have students think about how the history of ethnographic writing might have evolved in radically different ways if we’d turned to James Agee as a key ancestor in the formative years of the discipline. I also like to assign Myra Bluebond-Langner’s The Private Worlds of Dying Children, where she experimented interestingly with the use of a play structure to convey how children come to know they are dying but conceal this knowledge from their adult caretakers to lessen their sorrow. Since in the course of a semester, students can at best aspire to write a shapely essay, I assign a wide range of exquisite self-reflexive and critical essays to serve as models for their work by such ethnographers as James W. Fernandez, Clifford Geertz, James Clifford, Mary Louise Pratt, Barbara Tedlock, Dorinne Kondo, Lila Abu-Lughod, Kirin Narayan, and Paul Stoller, among others. I remind students of the point made by James W. Fernandez in Persuasions and Performances: “Anthropology begins with ‘revelatory incidents’… those especially charged moments in human relationships which are pregnant with meaning.” In urging students to think about “revelatory incidents” in their work, I have found Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz to be an especially helpful guide. I also recommend Robert J. Nash’s Liberating Scholarly Writing: The Power of Personal Narrative. My ultimate aim is to get students to read ethnographies not just for the “information” they gather, which is how I was taught to read in graduate school, but for how they convey their meaning as stories. For this purpose, I find it enlightening to apply to ethnography the argument in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them.
MCLEAN: A very interesting question, although not an easy one to answer! I’ve never attempted to teach a course on that specific topic, although I would say that all my course are in some sense ‘about’ literature and anthropology. “Literary” texts (always a somewhat slippery label) that have featured on my reading lists in the past have included The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Derek Walcott’s Omeros, John Berger’s Pig Earth, Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. A writer whose work I’d love to teach is James Joyce – I studied English literature for my primary degree and wrote my undergraduate thesis on Joyce, so he’s been something of a long-standing obsession (one to which I returned, in fact, in a piece I recently finished that deals, amongst other things, with his wonderful short story “The Dead”). In fact I’d love to teach an anthropology course based entirely around his work and have students read everything he published, including Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Perhaps I will one day!
ENSLIN: Since I’m out of the professional loop, I can’t come up with many specific authors or titles without more research. But at the most general level, here’s what I’d aim for: Ruth Behar, for sure; perhaps something older that had some literary flair (Malinowski?); something modern and experimental (maybe one work that’s highly readable maybe and another that’s rather dense and dull); some fiction written by an anthropologist, and literature by a non-anthropologist that exemplifies cross-cultural conversation (e.g., Junot Diaz, Lousie Erdrich, Luis Alberto Urrea, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy).
I might also include something like Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. I’m intrigued by my own conflicted feelings about the book and figure that would spark some great conversations. The writing is gorgeous, the research impressive, and the stories compelling and timely. But the third person omniscient voice unsettles me. Is that the best way to present the complexity of an unfamiliar and marginalized culture -- speaking as though inside someone else’s head? I’m pretty sure I could never write non-fiction like that. The anthropologist in me thinks too much about the pitfalls. Yet that’s the sort of approach that can transform dull writing about another culture into literature and engage a non-academic audience. And it brings in multiple voices and cultural complexities while keeping the focus on the people who matter rather than the foreign narrator. All that raises interesting questions about voice and person and provides a counterpoint to the reflexive “I” in so much ethnography (and, of course, memoir).
MARTONE: I am not sure it is important to read fiction in contrast to other genres. Or more accurately, as a writer I do not, as I write, worry too much the differences of genre. That to me seems like a critical act—sorting, norming, judging—and I am not interested in promoting or even identifying the kind of writing I do. I make things and figure others, readers, will have to make of them what they will. I might republish this “interview” as a “short fiction.” I see my job as blurring the distinctions you are asking me here to sort. There is a cultural desire to keep categories stable, but there is also a cultural understanding that the boundaries of such categories should be tested, transgressed. You sense this or you would not have invited a “fiction” writer into the realm of “academic writing.” You wanted to mix things up. As a writer, I write. But I try not to write into existing precincts. I wrote a series of “Contributor’s Notes” that were fictional and when they were accepted by various magazines I asked the editors to publish my “stories” in the contributors’ notes section of the magazine. I have done a “fictional” travel guide to Indiana that I sought would “pass” as a “real” travel guide and even be sold in the travel guide section of the bookstore. What I see as important is making interesting things that appear in surprising places, out of context, so that the reader will be off balance and confront reality for the fiction it is. Reading fiction only in the context of a fiction magazine seems to me to tame the real importance of fiction. Fiction writing, and here I am thinking of all writing as fiction, should resist and confuse categorization. Art for me is always about deranged.
CORIN: The nature of the basic convention of fiction, "this never literally happened" allows for what I think of as an incredibly private, even sacred space, where you, as a reader/person can experiment with ideas that would be too dangerous--intellectually, emotionally, politically-- to really encounter or take seriously in non-fiction or real-life situations. A stark example is something like Lolita -- you can engage in the complexities of Humbert's universe in a novel; in real life you'd have to simply condemn him as a preditor. Even with Lolita herself-- in the 'real world' she is reduced to being a victim and a victim only. In fiction she can can be a multifaceted human being, glimpsed, if only in shards, through Humbert's view of her. That mental exersion of having to work hard to see something that in real life or non-fiction might seem simple, obvious, or "easy" to see is profound and necessary, and is what art is for that nothing else in life can access. You can play out dangerous ideas in fiction in a way that can help you understand what you really think about the world you live in and the choices you make about how to live within it.
BINDER: At some level short fiction matters because stories matter. People are designed to understand narrative. From childhood on, we want to find out what happens next. Memoir and journalism can plug into this need, too, but fiction probably does it in the purest, more direct way. Fiction is also a powerful vehicle for empathy. It lets us see the world through someone else’s eyes.
GREENIDGE: Fiction, at its very best, ushers the reader into another person's consciousness. Now, the consciousness you enter into could, demographically, be very similar to your own (you could be a teenaged lesbian in Ohio reading a novel about a teenaged lesbian in Iowa) but really good fiction shudders and shocks you with the utter strangeness of another person's mind, even someone who ostensibly, on paper, is just like you. At the same time, while you feel this frisson of otherness, very good fiction draws out and composes the similarities in human consciousness, so that a reader is able to recognize flashes of their own consciousness across time, across country, race, class, sexual orientation: all the myriad, sordid ways society conspires to divide us.
I believe that fiction is one of the few art forms that not only perfectly mimics but also stimulates empathy. It is perhaps too long to get into in this answer, but I view empathy not so much as an emotion but as an integral and basic part of human interaction and progress (and I mean "progress" in the grand, old, historical sense. Again, I could digress for many pages, but suffice it to say, after disbelieving and disproving the idea of a progressive history for many years, I've now come to the belief that it's a necessary and vital story human beings tell themselves in order to have the will to get up in the morning, finish something small or big, and not drown in despair while doing so). To make social, political and cultural progress of any kind, true progress, there must first be empathy. Empathy, in my opinion, is one of the highest forms of intelligence. Fiction, at its very best, forces the reader to exercise this intelligence and in that effort, their capacity for empathy grows and in the best case scenario, they even begin to hunger for it.
FINK: Truth. More precisely, the capacity for emotional truth freed from the confines of the substantiated. Of course a writer friend of mine couldn’t disagree more. For him, verity determines effect, value. Much like a boot maker, the writer fashions reportage from the last of what has happened, stitching along an event’s edge. For me, however, value is something altogether different. It is experiential. I want to read and write stories that resonate emotionally, invented or not. It’s what I admire about this genre in particular, how it can needle everyday life, dismantle, rearrange, augment, condense, and then present it in such a way that illuminates sometimes new, sometimes old avenues of the human experience. Yes, there is much to love about fiction: character, voice, structure, language; in fact, I view all genres, academic or otherwise, as variation of story, but the importance of short fiction lies in it ability to make the unknown known, or at the very least considered. The good stuff forces us to feel. And that is as real anything I know.
MARTONE: I am not sure it is important to read fiction in contrast to other genres. Or more accurately, as a writer I do not, as I write, worry too much the differences of genre. That to me seems like a critical act—sorting, norming, judging—and I am not interested in promoting or even identifying the kind of writing I do. I make things and figure others, readers, will have to make of them what they will. I might republish this “interview” as a “short fiction.” I see my job as blurring the distinctions you are asking me here to sort. There is a cultural desire to keep categories stable, but there is also a cultural understanding that the boundaries of such categories should be tested, transgressed. You sense this or you would not have invited a “fiction” writer into the realm of “academic writing.” You wanted to mix things up. As a writer, I write. But I try not to write into existing precincts. I wrote a series of “Contributor’s Notes” that were fictional and when they were accepted by various magazines I asked the editors to publish my “stories” in the contributors’ notes section of the magazine. I have done a “fictional” travel guide to Indiana that I sought would “pass” as a “real” travel guide and even be sold in the travel guide section of the bookstore. What I see as important is making interesting things that appear in surprising places, out of context, so that the reader will be off balance and confront reality for the fiction it is. Reading fiction only in the context of a fiction magazine seems to me to tame the real importance of fiction. Fiction writing, and here I am thinking of all writing as fiction, should resist and confuse categorization. Art for me is always about deranged arrangements, framing unframed deviations.
CORIN: Fiction is about the exploration of possibility-- it asks "what if? what if?" and that's a form of cultural critique. If you can't imagine what could be different from your experience, you can't really see the nature of your experience at all.
BINDER: A difficult question. Fiction reflects the world in which we live. No matter how reclusive the writer, it’s probably impossible for him or her to disengage from the concerns and preoccupations of our age. At the same time, fiction is a highly personal performance by the writer. Listen to me, the writer is saying to the reader. You won’t believe what I have to tell you.
GREENIDGE: Good fiction, the best fiction, takes none of the "rules" of a social world for granted. Good fiction recognizes that all social "rules" are arbitrary, and plays in the margins.
I'm not a big fan of fiction that is more concerned with language than story. I love words, it's true, but I would rather read a book that is made up of a good story than a book that is made up of beautiful sentences but doesn't really have a plot. That's just what my mind responds to: I would not suggest that one artistic choice is better than the other (I say this after just reading and falling in love with Are You My Mother? a book with, ostensibly, no plot. So I'm kind of talking out of the side of my mouth, here).
So for me, fiction works best when there is something emotionally at stake. And what is more at stake for any character than their place in their social universe? For that kind of fiction to work, the space of the social universe has to be unstable. In my opinion, this is a reflection of reality: in reality, all societies are always unstable as well. Society, or rather, any society we choose to inhabit, is always changing, always in flux, and our place in it is precarious. We hold on to our place with anxiety: some feel this anxiety more than others, and we've all come up with strange, fabulous, beautiful and sad ways to express and alleviate this social anxiety. One thing fiction does is describe those ways we've devised to cope.
Think of the French and British and Russian novels of the 19th century, the classics we all have to slog through in high school. Almost all of them are concerned with marriage: making a good one, the moral, spiritual (and often physical) ruination of a bad one, the anxiety of making one at all.
When I was a teenager, most of my friends hated these books. They'd complain that they were misogynistic and boring and frivolous. But I secretly loved them. Those books, which set the blueprint for the novel for many years, are essentially about the untenable contracts we make within ourselves and with the world at large in order to be allowed to stay in our small societies. Everybody, everywhere, makes these contracts and everybody, everywhere, feels the sting and the loneliness that comes when you try to abide by them.
FINK: At its best, fiction dissects them. Catalogues. Submits findings. I’m reminded of that poor frog in Biology, frisked and unzipped. How I wish footage existed of that class in particular. Not, of course, to view gruesome acts visited upon a handful of amphibians, but I do wonder after my boyhood self: eager? slipshod? armed with the fine edge of a joke? Or perhaps “trembling” is the word. Whatever the case may be, my handling of that moment admits the person I was, am, and likely will come to be. The same can be said of fiction. As readers we are scolded for psychoanalyzing authors—at least I was—and I’m not suggesting we do that now, but fiction is germane to paradigms, and they, these authors, exist in certain cultures, social strata, etc. Literature cannot help but demonstrate collective consciousness. It is the reason why stories written in times of war differ from those written in times of peace. Financial distress, as opposed to affluence. Subject, characters, structural components reflect at the very least a modicum of cultural norms, if not mouthfuls. More than anything, however, I want to be the boy that scooped up every last frog and quit the school for a pond near by, but I’d lying if I said I did. Anyway, I think that was E.T.
For further commentary specific to the essays and short fiction featured in this collection see the supplementary pages for Vincent Crapanzano, Ruth Behar, Stuart McLean, Elizabeth Enslin, Michael Martone, Lucy Corin, L. Annette Binder, Kaitlyn Greenidge & Nathan J. Fink.