Time rushes by, not so much like a stream as like the Starship Enterprise on Warp 8. Last week was a blur. However, a blur that wound up with the black-tie optional (and I don’t get out much, so I optioned. Not a black tie, of course–that was the Devoted Spouse’s department–but I went for something elegant in black, and now if someone would please invite me to some fancy dress-up parties or else I’ll never have reason to wear this outfit again) Library of Virginia Foundation Literary Awards Celebration, which was a fine old time for self and Devoted Spouse, and it seemed like rest of the crowd was enjoying itself as well. Kudos to Joseph Papa at the L of VA for orchestrating a swinging good time.
The awards are given in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and honor Virginia authors (or authors with a Virginia root) and, in the case of the non-fiction category, books on a Virginia subject. And the winners were (envelope please):
Fiction: Carrie Brown for Confinement
Non-fiction: Melvin Patrick Ely for Israel on the Appomatox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War.
Poetry: Ruth Stone for In the Dark
Also, James River Writers sponsors a "People’s Choice" Award in fiction and non-fiction–finalists are selected by participating booksellers and libraries, and then the finalists are voted on by readers.
Fiction: David Baldacci for Hour Game.
Non-fiction: Skeletons on the Zahara by our River City’s own Dean King (just gone back for another printing in paperback, so Dean tells me).
History scholar Merrill D. Peterson won a literary lifetime achievement award.
I had a lovely time chatting with fiction finalist Joe Jackson (author of How I Left the Great State of Tennessee and Went on to Better Things, which has my vote for best unforgettable title) and his wife, as well as with fiction finalist Leslie Pietrzyk (A Year and a Day). I groused merrily with Joe Jackson on one of my favorite pet peeves, The Non-Fiction Subtitle That Spells Out the Whole Story. I have had occasion to grouse on this topic in these pages. I’m sure I will have occasion again.
OK, so, still catching up here in the Hinterlands, but I’ll try to be a little less conspicuous by my absence.
Meanwhile, yet another round in the Fiction vs. Nonfiction Smackdown (but first, another in my series of answers to questions no one actually has asked me: Caroline, why do you sometimes spell nonfiction with a hyphen and sometimes not? Answer: I’m inconsistent).
Landing the latest blow in the Smackdown is Hillary Frey, writing in Salon
on Oprah’s decision to (gasp!) include nonfiction (as well as a return
to contemprary fiction) in her book club, and in particular on her
decision to feature first James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.
(Note that Hillary Frey and James Frey are no relation, or, as she puts
it, Frey, the author "shares my father’s name but is no relation,"
which seems an odd way to state it. I mean, isn’t HER name Frey too?
It is on the byline. Anyway, I quibble.)
Now, I haven’t read Frey’s (James) book, though I gather this memoir
of recovery from addiction is in the "use the F-word early and often"
school of hard-boiled lit, with ample spatterings of bodily fluids, and
two root canals without anesthesia (because, or so the two reviews I’ve
read have stated, addicts can’t have anesthesia. Can that be true? So
if you’re going to have, say, bypass surgery or a kidney removed and
you’re a recovering addict, what, they give you a bullet to bite? I
find this difficult to believe. Maybe there are some nuances to this
detail that I’m missing, not having read the book.)
But as I was saying, I haven’t read the book, so I can’t speak for its literary merit or lack thereof.
But here’s where the gloves come off (or, the boxing gloves go on) in Frey’s piece:
And the point of talking about fiction is to
learn about the craft, to think deeply about the way a story unfolds,
and to recall and share that unique sublime emotion that comes only
with investing oneself — heart and mind — in something that is not
Are we to understand here that it isn’t possible to invest oneself, heart and mind, in something that is
true? (And at this moment, I imagine declaring histrionically, "I’ve invested myself heart and mind in this, and now you tell me it’s all a lie? A complete fiction?)
To be fair, she does say "the point of talking about fiction."
Which might raise the question, what is the point of talking about
nonfiction? It certainly seems to me that discussion of craft comes
into play with good narrative/creative nonfiction. I know from writing
Skin Game that a memoir needs to be exhaustively crafted, that
there are many decisions (and revisions) that have to be made about
narrative structure, and voice, about what the reader needs to know and
when, about what to leave out and what to put in. Just because a story
is true doesn’t inherently mean it should be any less carefully
rendered into written form.
Hillary Frey goes on:
A novelist might appear on "Oprah" and have a
conversation over dinner, with Oprah and a few viewers; the writer will
answer questions about characters and all the imaginative choices that
go into dreaming up a plot. But when Frey is a guest on "Oprah" later
this month, how will that work?
Frey is the author and main character of his book, and the plot of
"A Million Little Pieces" is his actual life. A discussion of Frey’s
work, then, amounts to a discussion of James Frey…. Oprah’s fans –
who have become careful, close readers of literature — will in the end
rely on their skills in pop psychology as they try to make something of
In other words, the conversation with, or about, James Frey will
likely not be about creation, or books or literature, but about
destruction — of Frey’s and his friends’ and family members’ lives.
There is something inherently creepy about a million-odd people
discussing — over a series of weeks, online and at home — how and why
James Frey became a drug addict. And there is something frustrating in
that these debates will take place under the guise of a discussion
about a piece of writing.
Whether it is or isn’t possible to talk about James Frey’s book in
particular as a literary work, I can’t say. The rest of Hillary Frey’s
review suggests she doesn’t think much of it in literary terms. "If
Frey’s story is powerful at all it’s for the facts — the sickness, the
hurt, the fatigue of withdrawal — not for his rendition of them," she
But I would not agree that a discussion of any memoir inherently
means a discussion of the author’s life. I’ve spoken alone and sat on
plenty of panels with fiction authors where we talked about all the
usual things writers talk about when they talk about writing–process
and revision and craft and narrative choices and how did the book come
to be and so on–and never have any of those conversations devolved to
a discussion about Caroline Kettlewell. The most personal question I
get with any regularity about Skin Game is some variation on
the "were you nervous or uncomfortable about writing such a revealing
book" and that’s not all that different from the question I’ve heard
regularly directed, for example, at Colleen Curran, when people ask her
if she was nervous or uncomfortable about writing an explicit book
about teenage sex (Whores on the Hill–which large numbers of people seem to assume anyway, to Colleen’s frustration, is a memoir hiding under the guise of a novel).
It’s true that fiction is made up of (usually) invented characters
and plot, or real characters and situations reimagined, and thus the
author has complete control over the who and what and where and when
and how, and can change it all about at will, and can discuss,
therefore, those decisions. But fiction has a different set of
parameters as craft than nonfiction. It also has a different set of
parameters than poetry, and there’s a lot of poetry that’s "true,"
that’s nonfiction poetry, you might say, but I’ve never heard anyone
suggest that fictional poetry is somehow a higher art.
You might disagree with Oprah’s selection of A Million Little Pieces,
and maybe the discussion of that particular book will end up reeking
more of Dr. Phil than Lit. Crit. 101, but on behalf of the nonfiction
faction, I applaud Oprah’s decision to expand the realms of her book
club. In the end, it all comes down to the writing, doesn’t it? The
way any story is wrought. Does it afford us a rich and satisfying
reading experience, and linger with us, a book we want to talk about
and chew on?
You can read the entire Frey piece on Salon here
(note if you aren’t a Salon subscriber then you can get a "day pass" by
watching an ad. I sat through 20 seconds of promo for a luxury
vehicle–Saab? Audi? BMW?–you can see it made a big impression on me)
In other news, Time lists its choices for the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.
Must admit that most of the books on that list that I’ve read, I read
for one class or another in my academic career. Not that many of them
weren’t good books, but there’s the truth of it. OK, White Noise I read all on my own. Lolita, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and The Lord of the Rings as well.
urgh, The Bridge of San Luis Rey makes the grade. I recall
that one as a brutal slog in seventh grade. In fact, I wrote about it
earlier this year, in a piece for the Post on Read Across America Day. And here is what I wrote:
In seventh-grade my class had to read "The Bridge
of San Luis Rey," which I believe was supposed to help us learn
important lessons about Fate and the Meaning of Life. What I actually
remember is reading the dog-eared paperback copy of "Jaws" that made
its way surreptitiously from desk to desk in our classroom, from which
I learned the important lesson that one should try to avoid being eaten
by a shark.
And from this paragraph we learn the important lesson (as if we didn’t know it already) that Caroline likes to digress. Should you feel that your day can’t possibly be complete without knowing everything I had to say on the subject of Read Across America Day, you can read it here.