I've added a new title to our virtual newsstand's "nonfictions" department: The Seneca Review. It is, in some ways, a traditional literary journal, but it has also been at the forefront of development of the "lyric essay," which John D'Agata and Deborah Tall define here. I'm a little leery of the formalism implicit in setting the lyric essay apart from other forms of nonfiction that pursue similar ends or rely on similar means. There are journalists who are lyric essayists and lyric essayists who veer toward journalism. The cross-pollination matters more to me than the demarcation. That said, I'm glad that The Seneca Review has made space for those essays that more conventional journals would puzzle over and reject as "in between." It's worth reading on a regular basis; and I recommend especially the Fall 2007 lyric essay special.
Seven Days, Vermont's fine alternative weekly paper, has just published a long profile of 40 Towns by writer Corin Hirsch:
40 Towns, which debuted in June, is named for the 40 or so towns that compose the Upper Valley. Its aim is to collect the region’s stories and “myths of small places” into “artifacts of real life along a northern stretch of a cold river,” according to its website. The 14 inaugural stories — all of them written by students from Sharlet’s creative writing and nonfiction classes — plumb the murky, quirky depths of the Upper Valley, puncturing its Rockwellesque façade of friendly neighbors with unlocked doors...
Read the whole thing at Seven Days.
In the email today: An invitation to the launch party of [wherever], which describes itself as a "print journal of travel literature, travel culture, and travel politics." Here's the website, but there's not much on it; print, they said. Still, it sounds promising, another entry in the great flourishing of little magazines dedicated to some variation of literary journalism. Travel is often the frame, as with Vela, an online magazine of travel writing by women. [wherever], as it happens, is run by four women, which is another reason to be glad for its arrival.
Peter Trachtenberg, one of the most innovative -- and wittiest -- nonfiction writers at work, on "thin facts," "thick facts," and Another Insane Devotion.
My essay "Quebrado," on an anarchist journalist who filmed his own murder, is Longreads.com's Member's Pick this week. -- Jeff Sharlet
Literary journalist Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes on the problem of facts and the great Janet Malcolm's new book, Forty-One False Starts.
The 1993 film Silverlake Life: The View From Here, by Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman, is a documentary classic. It began when Joslin started keeping a video diary of his lover Mark Massi's struggle with AIDS. Then Joslin began dying of AIDS. Massi, in better shape, took over the camera. When he died, a former student of Joslin's, Peter Friedman, edited the film. The result, according to Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly, is
a glory of documentary-making and an important addition to the defiant stockpile of AIDS-inspired art being created in these modern Plague Years: Silverlake Life: The View From Here is intimate and dry-eyed, charming and powerful, idiosyncratic and wrenching. It's also, at times, blessedly comic and light. The grace of the film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is in its ability to mix dying with living-deftly, wittily, superbly--so that we come to know these men as full individuals.
Now some students of filmmaker Abraham Ravett, a professor at Hampshire College, have carried on that legacy, editing 10 hours of footage for a film left incomplete when Joslin died. The result this time is called Architecture of Mountains. Reports the Valley Advocate:
"This came about because I was teaching a class on recycled material in visual arts and writing as well,” explains Ravett. “I called [Hampshire alum] Ken Levin and asked whatever happened to the footage. He said, ‘It’s been sitting in my garage in L.A.—I didn’t know what to do with it.’ I told him about this course and asked if he would consider letting us take a look at it.”
For Ravett, working with the footage provided another surprising resonance with Joslin’s later work. In Silverlake Life, Joslin films himself in bed late at night. The roots of that idea can be seen in Architecture. In that film, Joslin explains that he wants to get at his own dreams, so he installs a camera and a light, all set to go on at random intervals in the night, in hopes that he could convey his dreams. Since Joslin blurs the lines between fact and fiction in Architecture, it’s not immediately apparent whether he actually created that setup.
Ravett says that Joslin really did. “He was truly awakened—he had an alarm that turned on the camera. There’s a mixture of truth and non-truth [in the film], but ultimately he’s very self-concious—he was, always. He was interested in the power of dreams, the subconscious. He wanted that in the film. What strikes me is how prescient he was in terms of how he looked in that footage [and how he looked in Silverlake Life]. For us it was really startling.”
Read more in The Valley Advocate.
Even though I wasn't an English major, I agree with almost everything Mark Edmundson writes in this essay, "The Ideal English Major." Ignore the awful title; this is a passionate argument for becoming human. Yes, becoming. It takes work. Reading helps. "Real reading," writes Edmundson, "is reincarnation."
I recently read Katherine Boo’s 2012 National Book Award–winning portrait of a Mumbai slum, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, with my students in a creative nonfiction class at Dartmouth College. Boo spent a little more than three years in the slum, Annawadi, practicing what’s sometimes known as immersion journalism. It’s a term she may have taken too literally: “To Annawadians,” she writes in an author’s note, “I was a reliably ridiculous spectacle, given to toppling into the sewage lake while videotaping.” That’s close to all we know of her adventures, though, becauseBehind the Beautiful Forevers is written in a voice that might be called “strictly third person.” Besides that note, there’s no hint of Boo’s presence in the lives of the slum dwellers.
“Dickens,” observed one of my students—as in Charles, as in fiction. The word “paternalism” arose, though more as a question than a charge: Did Boo, in assuming the role of an omniscient narrator, inadvertently set herself up to look down on Mumbai from on high? Another student wondered why one of the blurbs on the back was from David Sedaris. “Isn’t he, like, funny?” Behind the Beautiful Forevers is not a funny book, but it wasn’t the blurb-presence of a humorist that caught my student’s eye. It was what Sedaris wrote: “It might surprise you how completely enjoyable this book is, as rich and beautifully written as a novel.”
Read more of "Like a Novel: The Marketing of Literary Nonfiction" in the Summer issue of Virginia Quarterly Review.