Arrived: The New Kings of Nonfiction

November 19, 2007

Friday night I got home from work and found that my copy of The New Kings of Nonfiction, edited by Ira Glass had arrived. It was my thank-you gift for pledging to NPR this fall, and just the right amount of time had passed for me to forget that it was coming, so I was happily surprised all over again. I started reading it Saturday, multi-tasking as I sat at the bar watching my Owls do very well for the first half and pretty badly for the second half of their game against UF. (OSU beat Michigan, though, which is always a good thing for a girl whose sister bleeds green and white, meaning, she went to Michigan State). Some observations:

  • Ira Glass, in his introduction, echoes some of the name-angst (well, not really angst, but thoughtful questioning at least) over what exactly to call what we think of creative nonfiction that has been floating around the Incertus and Culture Industry side of my blogosphere. As you can tell from the title of the book, he settled on just plain nonfiction, which makes sense given that he chose pieces primarily with an eye to what resembled journalism. But anyway, here’s what he said: “I wish there were a catchy name for stories like this… Some people use the phrase ‘literary nonfiction’ for work like this, but I’m a snob when it comes to that phrase. I thnk it’s for losers. It’s pretentious for one thing, and it’s a bore. Which is to say, it’s exactly the opposite of the writing it’s trying to describe. Calling a piece of writing ‘literary nonfiction’ is like daring you to read it” (p. 12).
  • Contrary to what I thought when I picked this book from the gift pull down menu, all of the pieces in it originated as print pieces, not as radio pieces on This American Life.
  • There’s a little something for everyone: Susan Orlean, Dan Savage, David Foster Wallace (whose piece is a whole new kind of obnoxious, with half-page boxes resemblign enormous pull quotes instead of foot notes and highlighting), Malcolm Gladwell, people I’ve never read before but who I am sure are famous, people I’ve never read before but who I am sure are fairly obscure, and Chuck Klosterman, if you like that kind of thing.
  • I don’t like that kind of thing. My prof was right, if this guy is rated he’s definitely overrated. This was the first essay of his that I’ve read, and I don’t want to read any more. Check out this opening line: “When I was leaving Val Kilmer’s ranch house, he gave me a present.” 1) I’m pretty sure if Val Kilmer is in the first line of your essay, you’re overrated and weird. 2) This essay, “Crazy Things Seem Normal, Normal Things Seem Crazy,” kind of freaks me out. For me, it is completely flat, which is not to say unaccomplished. It seems like he’s done a perfectly adequate job of absorbing a certain set of stylistic conventions and tics and written a certifiable Edgy “Literary” Celeb Profile. It’s all the more edgy, you see, b/c Kilmer is decidedly weird and weirdly formerly cool. It’s all the more literary, because that title comes back to form the closing lines of the essay, but now it has a new meaning, you see, it means that Val Kilmer dated Cindy Crawford once and that’s… something crazy that is normal. For me, it’s scary b/c for all its careful stylizing and carefully insightful analysis of the stupid things celebrities say, for all the bits that should make you think that this writer is the second coming of someone or other, the piece remains  hollow at the core. It’s a too safe version of cool and irony that wants too much credit for itself.
  • Instead, I recommend reading Susan Orlean’s piece, “The American Man, Age 10.” Isn’t this first line, like a million times better than Mr. K’s: “If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks.” I love that, and the essay only gets better, but that could be b/c Trapper Keepers came up in workshop tonight, and I’m feeling a little nostalgic for early 90s school supplies.

All in all, it’s a perfectly decent free-ish book, and it was a fun read. Must read for people who already ready CNF? Not so much. But I like Ira Glass’s thumbnail photo on the back. Wait, didn’t Salon just name him one of the sexiest men living?? I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it’s a nice pic.

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3 Responses to “Arrived: The New Kings of Nonfiction”

  1. S.O.S Says:

    I haven’t thought about Val Kilmer in a long time and I like your analysis of Klosterman’s essay. Particularly this: “I’m pretty sure if Val Kilmer is in the first line of your essay, you’re overrated and weird.” Yes, that made me laugh.

    And praises be to Ira for settling on plain nonfiction. I tend to fall in line with the idea that nonfiction is a big umbrella that covers a lot of different styles and there isn’t a need to split hairs over whether they fall under “creative nonfiction” or “literary journalism.” However, I do appreciate the term literary journalism to differentiate from straight journalism, but that’s me splitting hairs (tho I do see them as being different, since you seldom see first person perspective in straight reporting…outside of the editorial page). The discussion in workshop tonight was interesting. Particularly the discussion over whether Barthes’ essay was really creative nonfiction. It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be considered creative nonfiction, but that could be because I have a very broad interpretation of the term.

  2. Bradley Says:

    Bah. Klosterman. He is to nonfiction (creative, literary, or otherwise) what a VH-1 “I Love the 80s” special is to documentary film.

  3. SJ Says:

    Yeah, I’m not feeling the need to have any more Kilmer or Klosterman in my life any time soon.

    I’m also trying to read the recent PMLA issue about genre–what I’ve read so far talks about a way to look at genre not as a category that a work is or isn’t a part of, but to see how the writer uses, absorbs, and transforms the influences of various genres within any piece of work. Why wouldn’t Barthes be creative nonfiction, but if he is, what isn’t?


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