Several weeks ago, I received an email from a reader named Walter. He asked—very politely (this Walter was Canadian)—why it was that, as of issue no. 238, The Paris Review had decided to list both fiction and nonfiction in the magazine’s table of contents simply under “Prose.” You can read my attempt to answer his question here, but it strikes me now that you can also find a host of other responses, albeit oblique ones, in the pages of our Fall issue, out today.
Take the Australian writer Helen Garner, who has been accused by more than one indignant reviewer of trying to pass off her personal diary as fiction, and whom Thessaly La Force interviewed over the course of several months this year. For a while, we agonized over how to categorize their conversation. Weren’t Garner’s enthralling, emotionally astute journalistic accounts of legal trials worthy of an Art of Nonfiction? Wouldn’t her collected journals, which are as immersive as any novel, merit an Art of the Diary? In the end, we went for Art of Fiction, if only as a call to action for anyone who hasn’t yet read The Children’s Bach. (For me, The Spare Room comes in a close second.) Garner herself might well have made a different call: “All those comments I’ve had to cop about my novels not being novels—they rest on that idea that the novel is mightier than every other form,” she tells La Force. “Men tend to care more about those hierarchies than most women writers do.”
The poet Terrance Hayes, interviewed elsewhere in the issue by Hilton Als, would prefer that MFAs be offered not in poetry, fiction, or nonfiction but simply in “creative writing.” Still, he says, the very constraint of form can offer “a way to get free.” Rules are there to be broken, or at least bent. “Writing sonnets meant that I could frame my panic and despair in love,” he says. “Box it.” Boxes in the issue come in the forms of a sestina (by Natalie Eilbert), a grace prayer (by Kathleen Spivack), a revolt (by Stephen Ira), and a pelt (by Diane Seuss).
Walter, in his letter, interrogated his own desire to know, when reading a work of literature, Was this ever true? A piece of writing may of course be factually accurate (even indiscreet) and still, in essence, false, while the most formally traditional fiction can attain a kind of honesty that’s rarely possible in everyday life. When I read Michelle de Kretser’s short story “Winter Term,” I was reminded of Shirley Hazzard, a writer de Kretser loves, both by its emotional restraint and the force of its devastation. Meanwhile the voice of Sam Pink’s brief, tripartite “Ceremony” affects the casual intimacy of a phone call, even as the author performs a kind of magic trick; by the end, you’re not sure just how he’s pulled it out of the bag, but that is definitely a rabbit.
I first read Nancy Lemann’s 1985 novel Lives of the Saints during an early pandemic lockdown, and swiftly became one of her (many and notoriously fervent) proselytizers. Her funny and poignant “Diary of Remorse” is told by a Lemann-like writer from New Orleans who documents her adventures as a courtroom observer alongside her attempts to locate the sources of her self-loathing. Meanwhile the narrator of Christian Kracht’s “The Gold Coast,” who appears to share much of the author’s biography, endures a visit to his difficult mother—an alcoholic who recently spent her eightieth birthday on a locked psychiatric ward—in part by picturing her as the Pucci-clad young woman he recalls from childhood summers by the pool in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.
Such pieces might be an exquisite kind of torment for a reader prone to wonder exactly how made-up a story is. Incidentally, when our fact-checkers sent Kracht a list of questions, he answered like a true novelist. (To the query “Our checker wasn’t quite sure which Dürrenmatt work was being alluded to in the Winterthur section,” he responded, “Neither is the narrator.”) But he also offered us a photograph of his mother, lounging like some louche Swiss Gwyneth Paltrow, in her Pucci bikini.
Photograph courtesy of Christian Kracht.
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