Thursday, March 6, 2008

More Relevance

I can't believe it. Days after I wrote about relevance on this site, the NYT has an article on Esquire's attempt to energize fiction by commissioning hybrid fiction/non-fiction pieces. The latest? An "account" of Heath Ledger's last days--as imagined, and written as if by Ledger in his diary, by Lisa Taddeo.

“It’s an earnest effort,” [chief editor David Granger] said, adding that the magazine has tried to tackle fiction using a nonfiction playbook before. “We’ve been trying to assign fiction,” he said, “to make it topical, relevant. To go to writers with a headline or an idea.”

The first project in this vein was published in October 2006 during the baseball playoffs and called “The Death of Derek Jeter,” an extended meditation on sports, celebrity and mortality written from the perspective of Mr. Jeter, the Yankees shortstop.

“We’ve been doing these things to try to make fiction as current and lively as we can,” Mr. Granger said, “to make it as urgent as nonfiction.”

In an early draft of my entry from Sunday, March 2nd, I had written about the American obsession with nonfiction. It seemed pompous to me, so I erased it and went with a shorter piece; now, of course, it seems prescient.

Fiction is, or can be, as "urgent as nonfiction." It doesn't need steroidal injections of "Reportage" to compete with books by Mark Bowden or Carl Woodward. Rather, nonfiction has to compete with the ideal narrative tropes of fiction. "Raj, Bohemian," Hari Kunru's short story in the March 10 New Yorker, is brilliant and suggestive: it hints at the re-saleability of our private lives (see Nue Propriété and Some Things Are Private) but is not a polemic against the menace of super-capitalism. (It reminds me of T. Coraghessan Boyle before he forgot plot and character; also of Paul Auster's existentialism, with hipster accoutrements replacing books as the buffer between us and the void.) It feels at once trenchant and utterly, wonderfully trivial; familiar and yet strangely foreign. David Granger wants to pasteurize the strange right out of fiction. It's as though very simple people, overpowered by Michael Chabon's or Ian Mcewan's or Kazuo Ishiguro's or Don DeLillo's gestures towards timeliness, determined that what makes these authors great is not their characters and their poetry but their relevance. Granger forgets, or doesn't care, that fiction commissioned as a mere genetic recapitulation of its time rarely outlives it.

For an example of competent imaginative reporting--reporting that acknowledges the lure and limits of imagination in the engineering of a piece of nonfiction--see New York's Heath Ledger article.

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