“Corn Maze,” Pam Houston says, referring our group of twelve women to her essay.
I write “Corn Maize” on the edge of a review for her new book Contents May Have Shifted.
Pam desires the hard copy of the Chronicle review, and at the end of our group book discussion, I give it to her.
In her presentation to a larger audience in the Book Café, Pam spells out, “M-a-z-e.”
I smile, chagrined by the instant association on my part that created the redundant “Corn Maize. “ The incident exemplifies an idea floating through Houston’s “Corn Maze” essay. Even our most carefully chosen and crafted words may not mean, at least not in the way we intended. Houston writes in the essay: “Just the other day for instance, someone said the word tennis, and I saw in my mind’s eye a lady in a pig suit with wings.”
I take her point although after hearing her speak, I’m not sure I believe the incident happened.
Words are a shifty business. We line up our facts to create a work of “nonfiction,” but POOF, the process of selection and arranging has produced a floral bouquet, like something pulled from a magician’s sleeve.
I recently led my reading group on a mini-Hemingway excursion that included Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast, Paula McLain’s popular new novel The Paris Wife, and Leonardo Padura Fuentes’ excellent mystery Adios, Hemingway, set in Cuba with Hemingway as a murder suspect. Why is Hemingway’s memoir, written in 1957-1958 when his liver was pickled and his brain addled, why is this account of events that looks back more than thirty years, that is warped by Hemingway’s scorn and love, why do we call this book nonfiction, while we label as fiction Paula McClain’s painstakingly researched book that at least offers a three-dimensional version of Hadley Hemingway?
Hemingway’s hated “Old Corndrinking Mellifluous” Faulkner once stated, “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.” Still some believe nonfiction is more reliable, more legitimate, more true—to the extent they won’t even waste their time on fiction.
In Contents May Have Shifted, Pam Houston intentionally blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. The book is labeled fiction, but Houston calls her heroine Pam, inviting the reader to conflate author and protagonist. Partly, she explains because she wants to have this conversation across the country about what our group leader, Tamera Walters, has dubbed “transgenre.” In Corn Maze, Houston, in her engaging fashion, relates a couple of anecdotes about supposed nonfiction material, fabricated, alternately by herself to please an editor, and hypocritically by another editor appalled by her fabrication. She points out both in her presentation and in her essay that she was James Frey’s teacher when he was an undergraduate.
Years ago, I saw James Frey in the very same Book Café on his book tour for A Million Little Pieces. At that time, the only contention came from a Twelve Step supporter who wanted him to retract his position about such programs. She walked out when Frey would not back down. The subsequent hoopla about Frey’s book snapped the literary community to attention, may even be the reason Contents May Have Shifted has “Novel” on the front cover and “Fiction” on the back cover. My belief is that Frey’s book should have been regarded as memoir and that all memoir from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast to A Million Little Pieces should be read as fiction. In his Preface, Hemingway invites the reader to do just that: If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact. Memoir bears a closer resemblance to the autobiographical fiction of Contents May Have Shifted than it does to a newspaper article, but that doesn’t mean it is untruthful. Maybe, as Tamera suggested, we should recognize transgenre, a nether world between fiction and nonfiction. Maybe, as Houston seems to imply, everything resides there.
In Corn Maze Houston writes: “When it was decided (When was that again, and by whom?) that we were all supposed to choose between fiction and nonfiction, what was not taken into account was that for some of us truth can never be an absolute, that there can (at best) be only less true and more true and sometimes those two collapse inside each other like a Turducken. Given the failure of memory. Given the failure of language to mean. Given metaphor. Given metonymy. Given the ever-shifting junction of code and context. Given the twenty-five people who saw the same car accident. Given our denial. Given our longings.”
Okay. I’m good with all of that. I only have to think of how Hemingway swaddled A Moveable Feast in sentimentality. But then, I’m in agreement with Wallace Bain’s humorous observation that “’memoir,’” little known fact, is French for “lying to yourself.”
Houston continues, “Who cares really, if she hung herself or slit her wrists when what really matters is that James Fry is secretly afraid that he’s the one who killed her?
Well, er, weirdly after all I’ve said, I do.
Call me unsophisticated, naïve, provincial even (I did grow up in South Dakota), but this argument reminds me of the first time a date tried to take off my pants, saying we wouldn’t go “all the way” and I sat up so fast I kneed him in the mouth. Because “all the way” is the conclusion of any argument. If we slide down Houston’s slippery slope, if emotional truth is the only truth we ask of nonfiction, does it become okay for Senator Jon Kyl to state “well over 90 percent” of Planned Parenthood’s services have to do with abortion, because his words were “not intended to be a factual statement”? Do purveyors of nonfiction get to lie and then to blame their audience for being so doggone literal? Would we extend such creative license and hyperbole to newspaper reporters? Feature writers? Was it really okay for Houston to fabricate a kayak trip down the Ardeche river canyon for a travel magazine?
Houston is aware of the danger:
“It is hard, all these decades after The Things They Carried, to stand here and say the scene with the three Italian kayakers is the truest thing in the essay (though, of course it is) even though it never really happened. Nor would I turn an entirely deaf ear to the complaints of those who actually use travel magazines to plan trips. Not to mention war crimes, genocide, sex offenders, presidents who lie about weapons of mass destruction . . . certainly I do believe that sometimes it is necessary for us all to pretend together that language can really mean.
“But if you think about it, the fact that I did not really have a flirty exchange with three Italian kayakers doesn’t make it any less likely that you might. I might even go so far as to argue that you would be more likely to have such an exchange because of my (non-existent) kayakers, first because they charmed you into going to the Ardeche to begin with, and second, because if you happened to be floating along on a rainless day in your kayak and a sexy, curly-haired guy glided by and splashed water on you, you would now be much more likely to splash him back.”
Wow. Houston hasn’t just gone “all the way,” she’s fucking with my mind.
To quote Omar from The Wire, “It’s all in the game, y’all.” If we are engaged in pretending that “language can really mean,” then we’ve accepted certain rules. And writers are in the game up to their craniums, agonizing whether to write “drag” or “pull” because every word choice shifts nuance, connotation--meaning. To a writer, word selection is like the butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon rain forest. And Pam Houston is a writer.
I admire her for bringing the genre conversation to the fore. But, here is the problem. A Million Little Pieces purported to be nonfiction. For all the many ways time and faulty memory and prejudice warped Hemingway’s account of his Paris days, the reporter inside him would have been appalled by the idea of changing the facts. When Hemingway writes of a goatherd coming up his street “blowing his pipes” and a woman bringing a “big pot” for milk and the goatherd choosing “one of the heavy-bagged, black milk-goats” . . . “while his dog pushed the others onto the sidewalk,” I can trust those goats are not invented flourishes. Until Pam Houston and others succeed in changing the rules of the game, possibly so it includes a nifty transgenre category, a writer of nonfiction has an obligation to start with just the facts, ma’am. And even though facts scatter in a hundred directions like students at the three o’clock bell, the reader will chase down his own truth. Try as the writer might to create meaning, the audience can still turn Corn Maze into Corn Maize or “tennis” into “a lady in a pig suit with wings.” In our current pretend world of meaning, the nonfiction writer does not have that liberty. For now, even if their inventions contain truth, nonfiction writers do not get to make stuff up. That’s called cheating.