Last Tuesday morning I was editing this essay when
my 3-year-old son, who was watching cartoons on TV, suddenly said,
"Building had an accident." Turns out he'd flipped the channel to the
attack on the World Trade Center. As I sat with him, we watched the events that
followed: the second plane hitting the south tower, the attack on the Pentagon,
the collapse of both WTC buildings with thousands still inside.
Even though I don't watch a lot of television, I couldn't turn those images off. I kept seeing that second plane crashing again and again, saw that rolling collapse of dust and buildings a million times. Unable to sleep that night, I finally got up at 3 am just to turn on the TV, needing to add one more bit of information to the story gripping my world.
I completed this essay prior to what the media calls the "attack on America." However, when my emotions leveled off enough to return to my editing, I realized that I needed a new introduction. It's not that the terrorist attacks changed what I was saying in the essay; instead, the biggest story most of us have ever known proves so clearly, so tragically, exactly what I'd been striving for with all of my bumbling words. In trying to understand this attack, people across the country have gravitated to the insights proved by individual stories, stories which help us make sense of the larger event. Among these stories are:
The tale of a man and woman trapped on one of the top floors of the burning World Trade Center. Unable to escape the flames, they embraced and jumped to their deaths—still holding each other's han
The story of Rev. Mychal Judge—known to the firefighters he counseled as Father Mike. One of the first to arrive at the trade center after the planes slammed into the Twin Towers, Father Mike was giving last rites to a mortally-wounded firefighter when a building collapsed on them both.
The heroics of Todd Beamer and other passengers on United Airlines Flight 93. After learning from cell phones calls of the fate of the other hijacked planes, Beamer and passengers tried to regain control of their aircraft. Even though the plane crashed and all aboard died, Flight 93 was the only hijacked plane not to destroy its intended target.
While the details of these individual stories vary in
different news accounts—and may even one day be proved untrue—they spread
across the planet because they give people a way to understand the larger whole.
Basically, these stories provide insight into an event that was so big that our
minds couldn't understand it.
Science and the loss
of insight in stories
Even though there are multiple ways to tell a story—movies, TV shows, comic books, news articles, poetry and so on—this essay will focus on prose storytelling in literary books. At this point in our culture, books supply the other major storytelling venues with most of their stories (except, of course, for the before-mentioned news media, which in my opinion follows a more traditional storytelling mode). In addition, when other storytelling venues do come up with original stories, their stories tend to be built upon the same storytelling elements found in books.
The reason I'm focusing on literary books is because our culture considers these books to be more worthy and complex than other stories in book form. Basically, everything outside the world of "literature" is considered genre writing, even though some romance and science-fiction novels have as much insight as so called literary books. Still, because most people consider literary books to be the focus of serious storytelling in our culture, I will focus on them.
There are two basic literary prose genres: fiction and memoir. On one level the differences between these two genres don't really matter; stories are stories whether they are true tellings or made-up ones and they succeed or fail based on the above mentioned elements. In addition, there's a lot of blurring between the genres, such as when memoir reaches into the toolbag of creative nonfiction (i.e., the nonfictional use of fictional techniques). However, even though there's been a boom in memoir in recent years while fiction has floundered, both genre suffer the same illness: a loss of insight.
In fact, insight has become so rare that it's unfashionable to even call it an indispensable element in stories. After all, in our postmodern modern information-age world, there's supposedly nothing that has not been said or done a million times before. What insight is there when we know everything about creation already? Most current books on how to write a novel or story either don't deal with insight or simply tuck it into the larger element of theme.
I believe this skeptical outlook towards insight comes from humanity's involvement with science, which has for the last hundred fifty years attempted to explain every aspect of existence. In the realm of biology, scientists have mapped the entire human genome. In physics, they seek to unite quantum mechanics and general relativity in a unified theory that would explain all of creation. Even the "softer sciences" like anthropology have shown that much of what supposedly makes us human also exists in other species in the animal world.
Now, I'm not a scientific naysayer (in fact, I studied anthropology in college and have minors in organic chemistry, biology, and genetics). Neither do I wish to revert society to some pre-science tribal life; knowledge, once gained, can rarely be forgotten. However, the truth is that science is nowhere near to explaining all of life as we think it is and—quite reasonably—will never explain all things. However, if you were to gauge the trust our culture has in science, I'd bet it would be greater than that held by any of the major religions. Even people who "doubt" the ability of science to solve all our problems have an immense faith in science. After all, the proof of science is all around us. Every time we see an airplane fly, a car drive, or a doctor save a life, we are seeing the results of science.
Because science has done so much, there is an expectation that it will do even more in the future. This causes humanity to place a large amount of faith in science, a faith that scientific-supporting professions have done little to dispel. One result is the placebo effect, in which just going to a doctor or taking a sugar pill can make people feel better. We have faith in doctors; because we have faith we allow ourselves to think that a doctor's words hold more healing power than the same words spoken by a lay person. (I also suspect that this is why the destruction of the World Trade Center hit people so hard. Yes, the human toll was horrible—but humans have been witness to much worse carnage in the past. What really shocked people was seeing the collapse of a place that represented the peak of engineering and scientific skill. In our souls we believed those two towers would stand forever.)
So how has science affected stories? The traditional role of stories—explaining the unexplainable, identifying the unidentifiable—has been taken away and given to the realm of science. Instead of looking to stories to explain the universe, we now look to astronomy and physics. Never mind that science merely tells its own story about our universe; we accept this story as truth even as new scientific "discoveries" force the story to be continually changed. And because we accept science as truth, most people now see stories as little more than entertaining fairy tales that take your mind off the real world for a few hours. People have forgotten that before science came along, stories were the real world; stories like the Odyssey, the Bible, Beowulf, the plays of Shakespeare, the Tale of Genji, and the Ramayana showed human how to understood our world.
So at the start of the 21st century, there is no insight in stories anymore. That novel or memoir you read may as well be gossip recounted on the street for all the impact it will have on you.
So what's left for stories? Irony and metafictionThis loss of insight in stories is further magnified because it is spread by the very people who should be fighting to retain it—writers and readers. As with any human endeavor, there is a small elite that sets the course of their field of work. In literary prose it is the educated literati—the devote readers and writers of "serious" literature who pontificate and analyze everything they deem worthy. Because this literary intelligentsia tends to be highly educated, they take the supposed understandings of science very seriously and have apply them to their understanding of stories.
(In another part of the interview, Wallace so perfectly describes the literary world: "But after the pioneers always come the crank turners, the little gray people who take the machines others have built and just turn the crank, and little pellets of metafiction come out the other end." The fact that I just had to share that quote with everyone, even though it has little relevance to the essay, is an example of metafictional writing. I even set it off from the main essay in a very metafictional sort of way!)
According to the traditional view of writing, fiction has
relied on four areas to succeed at storytelling: character development, plot,
theme, and style (for my view, see the elements of stories listed earlier in
this essay). Metafiction essentially dumps the first three of these and retains
only style; in fact, style is all important and the more self-conscious the
better. And this aspect of style doesn't mean just the writing style. Everything
matters, from the very appearance of the books to using weird fonts to printing
parts of the story upside down to putting an entire story on the spine of a
magazine (this last one was done by MsSweeney's—the
elite of the metafictional journals—with one of David Forest Wallace's short
stories). The typesetting metafiction style has reached its zenith of the
of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. This 700-plus-page horror novel features a
continually fragmenting plot, tons of appendices and footnotes, the printing of
the word "house" in blue throughout the book, and many more
Of course, there is a downside to all this focus on style and irony. As A.O. Scott wrote of Pynchon and Wallace in The New York Review of Books in 1998: "Their novels are like perpetual motion machines. And one feels, encountering them, a rather chilled admiration: they move, all right, but they don't move you."
To me, the problem is that metafiction has devolved from destroying the fiction world into merely regurgitating tons of ironic cliches, cultural information, and snide "insider" remarks on literature.
Considering how much metafictionists and their supporters love explaining away everything with ironic flair, I'm surprised no one's focused on the scientific reason people write metafiction. I suspect that metafiction results from the scatter-shot, information age we live in. All of us are bombarded with little bits of virus-like information (or memes, a term Richard Dawkins coined). As people living in this world it is hard not to let these memes simply swarm all over us—many of us eagerly share tidbits of news or snatches of song with friends and people at work. Sometimes you do this and someone looks at you as if, "Where did that come from?" The truth is that it came from all around us, from the greater culture we live in and are contained by. It was a meme, a virus streak of information.
With metafictional writing, these memes show up as the ironic little asides and comments in Infinite Jest. But are these memes insight? No. The truth is that ironic writing avoids insight. Reading Infinite Jest, you will not find even one of those moments where you have to put the book down because what you've read has so overwhelmed your understanding of life that you need to reflect.
Perhaps insight was a casualty of metafiction's destruction of fiction.
Unfortunately, metafiction and related writing styles are at the top of the literary heap right now. Since writers who believe they have hit the top rarely deviate from what got them there, don't expect Wallace and his friends to add insight to their stories anytime soon.
Memoir—the best of literary times?
Many people say we are living in the best of literary times. More books are being sold today than at anytime in the past. Thanks to Oprah, more people are reading "literary" books than ever before. The bestseller lists are filled with supposedly literary books like The Shipping News (a book I enjoyed reading) and She's Come Undone (a book I couldn't finish). In an age when metafiction is written for an insider's market, memoirs and memoir-like fiction have become the outlet for best-selling stories.
I'm not a literary elitist. I don't think that there is anything wrong or subversive when a million people read and love a literary book. If literary writers like Alice Hoffman, Amy Tan, and John Irving are all in this week's NYT bestseller list, I'm glad people like their books. However, I don't see more insight in these popular literary books than I saw in the books by metafictionists.
In the genre of memoir, Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt has to stand as the seminal book of recent years. Love it or not, the book created a boom in memoirs that has yet to end. Another classic is All Over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg. Metafictional memoir also exists, as demonstrated by Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. However, this type of memoir is still somewhat rare. There are also more narrative, reporting-style memoirs like Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail by Malika Oufkir, which was chosen as an Oprah selection.
In addition to these books there are tons of memoir-like fiction along the lines of She's Come Undone. To me, the hallmark of memoir-like fiction is that it's a story people would believe as true is the word "memoir" was on the book's spine. In the world of movies, Fargo is a perfect example of this happening. As a joke, Joel and Ethan Coen put "Based on a true story" in the opening credits of their movie. This cause legions of viewers, and even some movie critics, to believe that Fargo had a basis in actual events. Nope—it was pure fiction.
The main strengths of memoirs and memoir-like fiction books are that 1) they tell a good story; and 2) they have strong characters. You don't get either of these two items from metafictional books. I dare someone to name a single fictional character from one of Don DeLillo's novels without looking at the bookshelf.
I will be the first to admit that these memoir-style books are fun to read. If I ever need to escape I pick up one of these books and spend a day reading it. Usually the stories are well written, the characters make me care about them, and the plot or real-life events are interesting. However, these books are little more than escapism for educated people. Instead of watching the daily soaps we read the latest Wally Lamb book. Instead of Star Trek on the movie screen we read The Shipping News.
But insight is still missing.
With these memoir-like books you get mere recitations of events with perhaps a small revelation or two tucked in here or there. Yes, many of the books relate tragic events or events which bring forth different takes and views of humanity and the world. However, neither experiencing the tragic nor seeing the world through another's eyes—while a good thing—gives anyone insight. Instead one must be able to look at their life and understand the parts therein, seek to explain or articulate the mysteries that one's life has chanced upon. It is when a story helps you do this that the story imparted true insight.
To demonstrate how the memoir genre avoids deep insight, I will use All Over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg. First off, let me state that I really enjoyed reading this book. As a fellow Alabamian, I found that Bragg's descriptions of his life touched a cord within me. In addition, the memoir is beautifully written in places and interesting throughout and contains a fascinating character in Bragg's mother. My favorite part is the opening description of a redbird fighting itself bloody in a car mirror; in fact, this scene produces the central insight of the entire memoir: "I asked an old man who worked for my uncle Ed, a snuff-driven man named Charlie Bivens, why he reckoned that bird did that. He told me it was just its nature."
The revelation generated by this scene is good and the description and language make this opening one of the best I've seen in the memoir genre. Still, that's it. That's the insight for the entire book. While the next 300 pages make for good reading, all that stays with me two years after reading the book is that opening scene and its meaning. (In fairness, I must admit that I'm reading Bragg's second book, Ava's Man, and I'm enjoying it even more than the first book. And since I've gone to hear Rick Bragg read whenever he's in town, I hope he doesn't kick my ass for this critique the next time around. We Alabama boys sometimes get violent like that :-).
Too many memoirs and memoir-like fiction books are like this—one insight tied up in a massive story. I suspect this is a trickle-down fear from the scientific over-explanation of our world. Because authors don't want to risk running up against cliches or seem silly by dwelling on aspects of life that science has supposedly explained, they focus on the smaller insights into life, such as "You are what you are." Where metafiction handles scientific understanding of our world with irony, memoirs and memoir-fiction handle it by limiting the scope of their vision.
In one way this makes perfect sense, since most people live their entire lives without attempting to understand the big issues of life. This means that by claiming to be life-like in their books, authors have the perfect cop-out for avoiding insight.
The sad thing is that most literary memoir-style books published these days are decently written and tell an absorbing story. If the growth of MFA programs and workshops have had one good effect it is that most writers who get published can write an averagely decent story (but can they tell a story in beautiful prose with their own voice—that is a something for a later essay). However, in the push to tell solid stories I think most authors have not given the reflection and insight that is needed to create a truly great piece of writing.
So what is the answer?
Loren Eiseley and All the Strange Hours
All of which, now that I've said it, is irrelevant to a discussion of All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life. While the memoir covers Eiseley's entire life—it was written a mere two years before his death at age 69—it is not a scientific book. As a former archeologist, I can attest that this book does not give a hint of insight into that science. Instead, the book is an exploration of a man's inner life, truly the excavation of a life as the subtitle says. To quote Eiseley:
"I am every man and no man, and will be so to the end. This is why I must tell the story as I may. Not for the nameless name upon the page, not for the trails behind me that faded or led nowhere, not for the rooms at nightfall where I slept from exhaustion or did not sleep at all, not for the confusion of where I was to go, or if I had a destiny recognizable by any star. No, in retrospect it was the loneliness of not knowing, not knowing at all."
I was introduced to All
the Strange Hours by the poet Dan Schneider. After I begin reading the book,
Dan wrote an essay
detailing the book's impact on him. Without rehashing his entire essay—which
people are capable of reading on their own—one of the best things Dan says
about this book is how Eiseley's "Philosophy masquerades as
description." So true. The very descriptive language, the stories
themselves, are disguised philosophy and insight. And this is why Eiseley's book
has the potential to revitalize storytelling.
The book covers three parts: 1) Days of a Drifter, focusing on a decade spent travelling the rails during the Great Depression; 2) Days of a Thinker, focusing on his years spent in academia; and 3) Days of a Doubter, focusing on his last years.
Even though the book follows Eiseley's life chronologically, it is not a typical memoir. Gone are the slice of life vignettes and day-to-day interactions with people. Instead, Eiseley takes the reader into his interior world, to the spiritual and philosophical debates Eiseley has as he strives to understand the larger issues swirling about his life. Eiseley's approach is in direct contrast to most writers, who merely try to understand the events in their lives. To understand this difference, imagine that most writers describe the surface of a land with its trees, topsoil, and grasses. Not only does Eiseley show the surface, he excavates down to show the buried bodies, soil strata, and deep history that supports all we see above.
Because there are too many haunting stories in Eiseley's book to recount them all, let's look at one of my favorites (from the chapter "The Crevice and the Eye"). By this time in the book Eiseley is working as an archeologist in Texas, where he has discovered a cave which contains, "A child's skeleton tenderly wrapped in a rabbit-skin blanket and laid on a little frame of sticks in the dry, insulating dust."
To Eiseley, this grave with its accompanying artifacts tell the story of the child's parents, who had intended the child to be secure here for eternity. Instead of this happening, though, civilization has encroached on the grave site. As Eiseley says, eventually vandals or pothunters will destroy the site. So it's a trade off—do you wait for unsavory elements of civilization to destroy the grave or do you let archeologists disturb it but also save it from destruction. He is happy with neither option and can not see a solution.
But Eiseley then shows how the situation is far more complex when his expedition leader, a famous archeologist who is only interested in ice-age man, doesn't want anything to do with this far younger burial. The leader says they'll give the burial to the local museum, all the while knowing that there is no local museum and that this is merely his way of abandoning the little child's grave because the child doesn't fit into the scientist's plan. Eiseley protests but the expedition leader shuts him up, saying, "We don't want to bother with this stuff. Let the locals have it. We want to go deeper, much deeper."
So an amazing link to our shared past is lost because a scientist didn't think it was worth saving, instead wanting to go "deeper." This is an amazing story and Eiseley shapes it with compassion towards the dead child and the child's role in our history. He closes the small tale with, "I could have spent a day up there on the great range just listening to the wind and talking to the child, murmuring to it across the centuries. (Instead), we would go down, and the cradle and its little occupant would be handed over to others." And the insinuation is that the child will be simply thrown away by a culture that does not value it because there's no way we can profit from it today.
This is an amazing little story with deep insight and it made me stop, put the book down, and reflect.
The scary thing is that Eiseley's book is filled with so many similarly insightful stories that I couldn't even comprehend them all at once. The overall insight that Eiseley tackles in his book—humanity's relationship to the passage of time—is complemented on almost every page by other, more subtle insights that still amaze and astound. You leave this memoir wondering why other books can't be like this one.
Breaking the rules
and why All the Strange Hours works so
Let me explain. I believe that Eiseley wrote All the Strange Hours as a "scientific experiment" to understand himself. I don't use this term to denigrate what Eiseley accomplished—the book is the best written and most insightful memoir I've ever read. The reason I call it a scientific experiment is that while he wanted to know himself before he died, he was not merely writing for himself. Eiseley wanted to document the connections and insights he was trying to gain for others to see and learn from.
As with so many parts of All the Strange Hours, this directly defies the current theory of writing workshops and MFA classes, which call for a writer to first "write for yourself." Basically, tell your own story for yourself and no one else. Do not even consider the reader.
Eiseley broke this rule, which is a silly one to start with (If any writer ever just wrote for themselves, they would destroy the manuscript when they were done). Eiseley wants his readers to understand the experiment that was his life; he doesn't want the insights he's had to pass away when he dies.
Which brings us to another rule that Eiseley breaks: Don't preach. Lord, there is some serious preaching going on in this book. The trick, though, is that Eiseley's preaching doesn't sound like the regular preachy language you get in books. Eiseley avoids cliches—I can't remember one cliche from the book—and continually shows the real world with insight and clarity that is all the more remarkable when you realize the book came out 25 years ago. No staleness has entered into his language or understandings.
The final rule that Eiseley breaks is the rule of "show don't tell." Eiseley approach to his memoir it to tell (even though the book is filled with the most beautiful descriptive passages possible). For example, of the many people who pass through Eiseley's life, few get descriptive details so the reader can form a mental picture of them. His mother, yes, his mother gets some detail, as does his father and a few people he encountered (mostly strangers, such as a giant sailor with double thumbs he sits next to on a train). Other than these few exceptions, people pass through his life as mere ghosts. His wife of many years? We never even learn her name.
I suspect that Eiseley avoids superficial descriptions of people because they are irrelevant to his deeper quest towards understanding his life. In most memoirs, you learn enough superficial details about a person to feel that you might be their friends or neighbor. For example, after reading Rick Bragg's All Over But the Shoutin', I felt that I knew Bragg and his mother. I had been a friend of their's. I had grown up with Rick.
However, after reading All the Strange Hours I can honestly say I don't know Eiseley as his friends did. I don't know him as his wife did. If I could resurrect Eiseley and stand with him a while, I wouldn't know how to act and what to say in the way of small talk. Of his mannerisms, I know nothing.
But I know who he was inside.
So what does all this rule breaking accomplish? As I said earlier, I believe that the traditional role of writers and storytellers—to explain the unexplainable, identify the unidentifiable—has been taken away by our culture and given to scientists. I wonder if Eiseley's understanding of science, an understanding which includes the very limitations of science, enabled him to explore where other writers fear to go thread.
As he says in All the Strange Hours, "I have come to believe that in the world there is nothing to explain the world." He then goes on to describe how many scientists are forced into metaphysical positions which reflect their own temperamental bents and how this subjective part of human nature subverts the supposedly "objective" world of science. As he says, "...our (scientific) experiments are apt to be colored by what we subconsciously believe or hope."
This means any results from a scientific experiment will never be totally accurate; there will always be questions of accuracy or bias or objectivity. What matters more than the results of the experiment is the experiment itself. By observing the test tube as it heats and bubbles and froths, and by taking in the surrounding laboratory mix of human biases, knowledge, and emotions, you will learn far more than any so-called results that test tube may spew out.
Eiseley knew this. He knew that the seeking of knowledge, the quest itself, was more illuminating than any scientific result. This is why he loved archeology but hated the actual removal of artifacts from the ground. His book is a scientific experiment into the deep philosophy and meaning that lay buried in his life (and by extension, all our lives).
Eiseley's book and
While Sparrow may have a contrived name, he makes a good point without realizing it: fiction has been so abandoned that you could hide true revelations in it and, as he says, no one would know. What Sparrow doesn't realize is that if fiction, and all forms of storytelling, actually did contain the insights people need in their everyday lives, the books would not go unread.
I find it fascinating that a memoir by a scientist is the only book I've read recently which has an inspirational core. I don't mean inspirational in the Oprah/Dr. Phil sort of way; I mean that Eiseley's story had me joining in with the author in seeking for the truth, searching for the answers that the great stories of humanity have always given.
Eiseley said his search was lead by the "loneliness of not knowing, not knowing at all." I suspect that he had the guts to approach this loneliness because as a scientist he was used to venturing into unknown intellectual and psychological territory. This is why his book is filled with insights that most authors would kill for.
What All the Strange Hours teaches is that for stories to again become relevant to culture, society, and people, they must regain the insight to life that they once had. Stories must be willing to be experiments in which the author seeks truth through story as Eiseley has done.
And this doesn't mean experimental fiction like metafiction, where irony has supplanted insight. This doesn't mean merely creating a story with great characters, style, and plot. Instead, writers must be willing to explore their lives and the world around them obsessively as scientists explore the minutia of atoms. To achieve the insights in his book, Eiseley spent his entire life thinking and reflecting and writing until shortly before his death he was able to achieve a crowning achievement in All the Strange Hours. I wonder how many current writers are up to this task?
As World Trade Center attack shows, individual stories resonate with people because they give insight to the world. Yes, the story may be about one person's life but they illustrate a great whole. Without insight even the best of literary fiction and memoir is little more than harlequin romances for the educated classes, escapist fiction for the literati. What All the Strange Hours shows is that a writer must be a scientist, exploring more of the universe—both outer and inner—than any physicist or geneticist. Until writers do this, stories will never again approach the vitality of actual events in our world.
[Dan Comments: Very good essay. A few points- 1) Can we all acknowledge that Oprah Winfrey is American Literature's Public Enemy #1? 2) I'm loath to agree that All The Strange Hours is LE's masterwork only because it was his essays 2 decades gone that originally drew me to the book on the shelf. It's all fuckin' VERY good! 3) It's ironic that I generally take a more nuts-n-bolts approach to essays yet my LE piece was certainly metafictional next to yours. 4) I think style best serves to keep substance honest- Wallace Stevens being the exemplar. 5) I'm loather to join in on 'insight' being the end goal to all writing- is writing generally improved with such? Certainly! But it's awfully close to the PC 'truth, truth, truth' camp. I guess Rilke would be the exemplar of someone whose work held great insight but was truthless to the core. Keep'em comin'! Asides- folks can read more of Jason's stuff @ http://www.jasonsanford.freeservers.com.]
[Jason's last word: Thanks for posting the essay and poems. In response to your response, I should say that insight is not the end all of stories. All of the other factors that make for good stories and writing (which I touched on briefly in the essay) must also be present. However, I do think the lack of insight is the most troubling problem facing stories today and is an issue that few writers or readers have addressed.]
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