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Steve Almond: I’m tired of writers passing judgment on entire genres. Journalistic narcissism -- or, more politely, writing about oneself -- has a place. (nyoin/flickr)

For those of you who don’t make a habit of trolling literary websites, you are missing out on a lot of sniping. The latest teapot-sized tempest involves a piece that appeared on Gawker.com called “Journalism Is Not Narcissism” by Hamilton Nolan.

Because Gawker’s business model is predicated on posting controversial content, then wringing a profit from the ensuing hit counts, I’m not going to link to the piece. The highlights will suffice.

Nolan takes umbrage with a journalism teacher who urges her students to write personal essays. He feels, quite reasonably, that journalism students should focus on examining the world around them, not the one inside them.

Readers want … a story that makes them see the world anew, and that makes them feel less alone … The rest is just us insecure writers bickering.

His larger beef is against our burgeoning culture of literary solipsism. He’s lamenting a world in which young writers see the path to success as residing in a desperate effort to market their own trauma and lurid deeds for publishers.

I basically agree. Excessive confession is a sure path to hackdom.

The example that leaps to mind is that of a college student named Marie Calloway, who became an “internet sensation” a year ago, after penning an account of her one-night stand with a writer twice her age. The piece went viral. It did so mostly because of its graphic and scandalous content. The writing itself was candid, but almost entirely devoid of insight. Ms. Calloway didn’t portray the incident; she transcribed it.

In so doing, she became the literary equivalent of Kim Kardashian: a person famous not for her talents, but her willingness to exploit her own sexuality for attention.

Nolan is right to decry this kind of cynicism.

But what he gets wrong in his piece is just as important as what he gets right. The reason most people shouldn’t write about their lives, he argues, is because “most people’s lives are not that interesting.” (The italics, I’m afraid, are his.)

This is — to use a technical term — complete crapola. Everyone has a rich and tortured internal life, chock full of desire and rage and guilt and despair. They may not want to face that life, or make sense of it on the page. But it exists. It’s what makes us human beings.

Nolan’s attitude, in fact, is part of the reason the memoir has become such a maligned genre. Someone like James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces,” decided to gin up the story of his drug addiction with a bunch of Hollywood plot twists that never happened precisely because he feared his life wouldn’t be “interesting” enough otherwise.

I’m tired of writers passing judgment on entire genres.

But what makes a piece of writing worth reading is the quality of attention the author gives to his subject, whether that subject is his drug addiction or her one-night stand or the French Revolution.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t crucial differences between genres. As someone who began my writing life as a journalist, turned to fiction, and now supports that habit, in part, by writing non-fiction, I assure you each form is distinct. (An essay is a radically subjective account of events that objectively took place. A short story may include true material, but the author’s job is basically to make up stuff that’s dramatically satisfying.)

I’m tired of seeing pieces like Nolan’s, that pass judgment on entire genres. Even writers I admire get caught up in this nonsense.

The memoirist David Shields sparked a furor a couple of years ago with his book “Reality Hunger,” which decried traditional fiction. Lorrie Moore wrote a long piece in The New York Review of Books suggesting that most memoirs would be richer if rendered as fiction.

Both were, in essence, elevating their own sensibilities into aesthetic postures. Shields was saying novels bore him. Moore was saying she prefers novels to memoirs. What both were expressing, unconsciously, is the natural anxiety of writers living in an age dominated by visual media.

But serious readers want only one thing in the end: a story that makes them see the world anew, and that makes them feel less alone in that world. The rest is just us insecure writers bickering.

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Tags: Books, Writing

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  • Lulu72

    Interesting. But I read the whole piece waiting to find out what the joke was regarding the errant apostrophe in the title. When disgruntled proofreaders attack?

    • NannyOgg

      Do you mean “world’s”? What’s wrong with it? It indicates possession: a tempest belonging to the literary world.

      • lulu72

        The error was fixed (now I can sleep). It was originally posted as “When Writer’s Attack.”

        • NannyOgg

          Wow, how embarrassing in an article about writing! Good catch, glad they fixed it. What are kids learning these days? :-)

  • Margo

    Great piece, Steve. I also get disgruntled by any form of genre-snobbery. I find neurotic, insightful, self-obsessive writing (nonfiction, or fiction, or nonfiction masquerading as fiction) to be highly entertaining if done well. And I can’t be the only one, because Woody Allen’s movies continue to make money.

    What annoys me most, though, I think, is when this sort of self-centered writing pretends to be journalism. On it’s website, Thought Catalog claims to be the future of journalism. Really? Is the future of journalism drug confessionals, music video reviews, and occasional lists like “The Top 10 Reasons Your Parents Don’t Understand Your Sex Life” or something?

    Again, some of these articles are insightful and nicely-written, but as a young journalist, I have a stake in the field’s future. And I don’t want that future to look like Livejournal ca. 2003, because sometimes that looks like where it’s headed.

  • http://twitter.com/erik_stinson Erik Stinson

    “But serious readers want only one thing in the end: a story that makes them see the world anew, and that makes them feel less alone in that world. The rest is just us insecure writers bickering.”

    ORLY

    seems like u just said not to pass judgments on genres and then passed a judgement on AN ENTIRE MEDIUM

    I C WHAT U DID THERE

    ENJOY THE HITS BIG BOY

  • http://twitter.com/tao_lin tao lin

    “The example that leaps to mind is that of a college student named Marie Calloway, who became an “internet sensation” a year ago, after penning an account of her one-night stand with a writer twice her age. The piece went viral. It did so mostly because of its graphic and scandalous content. The writing itself was candid, but almost entirely devoid of insight. Ms. Calloway didn’t portray the incident; she transcribed it.

    In so doing, she became the literary equivalent of Kim Kardashian: a person famous not for her talents, but her willingness to exploit her own sexuality for attention.

    Nolan is right to decry this kind of cynicism.”

    i disagree with you

    you probably made more money off this piece than marie did with her piece (i don’t that’s not related to fame but i’m observing this)

    you seem to imply that explicitly stated insight is the purpose of writing, i disagree with that

    i read the piece and gained insight

    you also make a distinction between ‘portray’ and ‘transcribe’

    i don’t know what you mean by that

    the piece was published as fiction and it is not a transcription obviously

    look at a transcription of, say, a larry king live interview

    it’s completely different, it’s surreal seeming

    in conclusion i disagree with you and dislike that you seem to have not thought about the part i quoted long enough, then edited it, careful of your word choice, for it to make sense to me and probably other people

  • Zach Middleton

    Tao, all you did was disagree with his critique of Calloway. This makes it feel like you were taking an angle (pro Calloway), which you seem to hate.

    • http://twitter.com/radiofreeviagra abysmal

      This is inane beyond belief.

  • ¥_millionaire

    All of this is terribly boring and inane. The article and the comments. That’s my 2¢. No shade. But yes, shade.

  • emma montgomery

    “Both were, in essence, elevating their own sensibilities into aesthetic
    postures. Shields was saying novels bore him. Moore was saying she
    prefers novels to memoirs. What both were expressing, unconsciously, is
    the natural anxiety of writers living in an age dominated by visual
    media.”

    personally would like to read more about this than about anything else this article

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