Towards a Theory of Nonfiction
University of Iowa Press 2012
We all know the commonplace that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. After reading Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa Press, 2012), I’m inclined to extend this wisdom to titles. Though accurate, Metawritings doesn’t capture the storytelling power that editor Jill Talbot gathers in this collection of essays and interviews by thirteen fiction and nonfiction writers. In it, you’ll find a piece by Robin Hemley that opens, “It’s my first full day in Prague, and I desperately want to find someone to pickpocket me.” Or this one by Sarah Blackman that begins, “Once a person has been a girl, it’s hard to write about the subject.” You’ll find a pithy investigation into dating and a poignant account of a son reckoning with an estranged, ageing father. You’ll find writers in pursuit of Janis Joplin and going on blind dates, writers wrestling with the soul-crushing ugliness of Las Vegas and exploring the exotic dangers of Adventure Island. You’ll discover whether or not there’s a dog at the end of the world.
And yet Talbot’s title does do import work, because it alerts us to the artistic and even existential investigations that drive these pieces. “Metawriting” is writing that reflects on its own nature as writing, that calls attention to itself as an artificial creation. Metawriting makes the writer’s often invisible hand visible. You might think of Tristram Shandy in his Life and Opinions, constantly belaboring the fact that he can’t get on with the telling of his life, or Hamlet, waxing about the nature of players and playing, in the play that bears his name. Here, however, the genre is nonfiction, so the pieces in Metawritings strike at questions that involve us all. What’s a fact? What’s a lie? What’s at stake if I don’t know or can’t tell the difference? Who is this person that, most days, I think of as me? And how do all those ways I present myself to others, whether I’m face-to-face or on Facebook, capture who I am? To say it in a more “meta-” manner, just how do we go about making selves out of ourselves?