Nonfiction’s ‘meta’ moment

Reviewing an anthology of “writings about the writings”

Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction | Edited by Jill Talbot | University Of Iowa Press | 242 pages, $39.95

The word “meta” has become an inescapable part of the pop culture zeitgeist. In early May, the Boston Globe published a column by Ben Zimmer about the word’s seeming omnipresence. Zimmer also appeared on NPR to discuss it, saying, “The way [meta] gets used now really refers to anything that is self referential, self parodying in some way in this kind of recursive fashion.”

In its original usage, Zimmer writes, meta means “‘above or beyond’ (the metaphysical realm is beyond the physical one) or ‘at a higher level of abstraction.’” Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction falls into the latter camp. There’s nothing so glib as the phrase “That’s so meta” in this collection of essays. These pieces are “the writings about the writings,” as editor Jill Talbot describes them, and they’re definitely at a higher level of abstraction: The essays collected here show their writers at the height of their powers. (A lower level of abstraction might be, say, that meta crime fighter character on Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures who was a bat that dressed up as a bat.)

The approach each writer takes goes from—bear with me— supermetawriting (the author “Anonymous” creates a character that may or may not be real who may or may not have raped a college student who was passed out, drunk, after a party); to mild metawriting (Robin Hemley’s “Pickpocket” doesn’t seem to be meta until one realizes that Hemley’s very funny efforts to have his pocket picked while abroad are a form of manipulation created specifically for the purpose of crafting a particular type of essay about having his pocket picked); to metawriting-because-its-subject-is-a-writer (Bernard Cooper explores his strained relationship with his father in the wonderful “Winner Take Nothing”).

And while each writer’s approach to metawriting may be difficult to describe (and does anyone really want to read further descriptions, which, technically, would be writing about writing about writing? I mean, how meta!), Talbot, in question-and-answer sessions she conducts following each essay, lets the authors explain themselves.

At first, the discussions about the writings may seem as enthralling as listening to actors talk about acting or the production team Stock-Aitken-Waterman discuss the Bananarama years. But each writer describes the ways they work without becoming wonky or tipping into self-aggrandizement. The Q&As help contextualize the essays and clarify what the writers are trying to do. For example, readers may not realize Brian Oliu’s essay is based on video games until he mentions it in the Q&A.

The biggest issue at stake in the collection is the notion of truth versus accuracy in creative nonfiction. Each writer approaches the topic directly or indirectly at some point. In an interview following her essay, Kristen Iversen says, “[T]he truth in nonfiction has in recent years been held hostage via a mandate for accuracy. I find this dangerous in that the concept of creating becomes the sole property of those who live on the fiction side of the block, leaving those of us on the nonfiction side in dark, empty houses.”

Pam Houston, in her prologue to the anthology, goes a step further, writing about characters she invented for a nonfiction magazine piece, and then asks in reference to James Frey’s fictitious memoir A Million Little Pieces, “Who cares really, if [the character Lilly] hanged herself or slit her wrists, when what really matters is that James Frey is secretly afraid that he’s the one who killed her?”

(Later she adds, “Did I mention that when James Frey was an undergraduate, I was his creative writing teacher?”)

Talbot herself sums up the truth-vs.-fact argument succinctly. “‘Metawriting makes its own rules’ is one of the central concepts of this anthology,” she writes. “And ‘metawriting moves the conversation forward’ is one of its goals.” It’s hard to say whether the anthology meets that particular goal, perhaps because “the conversation” is such a nebulous concept. Better, instead, to take things on a case-by-case basis. For example, as much as A Million Little Pieces moved me when I first read it, its factual inaccuracies make it difficult to take Frey seriously as a nonfiction writer.

After reading Metawritings it’s easier to understand how a manipulation like Frey’s could happen. The difference between Frey and the writers here is that they’re up front about what factual changes they’ve made in their essays. Maybe A Million Little Pieces would hold up if Frey grappled with truth-vs.-accuracy on the page. Whether that tack would have worked within the narrative is anyone’s guess.

When My Friend Leonard, the follow-up to A Million Little Pieces, was released, I took a pass. Seven years and one reading of Metawritings later, it’s still not on my list.

There is one dud in this collection, and that’s Lena Dunham’s “Excerpts from Creative Nonfiction.” Written in screenplay form, it focuses on its writer’s thoughts and actions and the screenplay the writer is attempting to write (say that five times fast). Unfortunately, its lead character is just as uninteresting as the script with which she’s struggling.

In the script, a woman is held captive by a college professor. She then flees. He follows and pops up again and again like an unkillable movie villain. She shoots him. The end. It’s written with a wink and a nod, but it’s dull.

(But as Hemley and Talbot say in the question-and-answer section following Hemley’s essay, there’s no such a thing as an unexceptional subject, just unexceptional writing. Chalk this up to unexceptional writing and skip it.)

There are probably some readers out there who wonder whether these essays are just excuses for writers to eat their own tails and be praised for it. I certainly did. Ultimately, I was assuaged by the overall quality of the work within Metawriting’s pages. These are thoughtful, gripping pieces that deserve to be read, re-read and pondered until, hopefully, Talbot edits a follow-up anthology that’s just as good.

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David Riedel was managing editor of the New Haven Advocate. He's currently a Boston reporter and film critic. Follow him on Twitter @ThaRid. Tags: , , , , , ,