Last fall, James Wolcott roasted me (as the "godfather behind creative nonfiction") and this journal on the pages of Vanity Fair (October 1997). In a 4-page article "Me, Myself and I," Wolcott lambastes most creative nonfiction writers, including Phillip Lopate, Tobias Wolff and John McPhee. We are "navel gazers" writing "civic journalism for the soul." Creative nonfiction, says Wolcott, is a "sickly transfusion, whereby the weakling personal voice of sensitive fiction is inserted into the beery carcass of nonfiction." Although his imagery is unique, an examination of the substance of this and a few other Wolcott articles demonstrates that meaning and journalistic integrity have little to do with what James Wolcott or Vanity Fair are all about.
When I read this article, I was stunned, flummoxed. I felt like Henry Fonda in the movie "The Wrong Man," suddenly and inexplicably accused of the murder of people he had never known at a place he had never been. Wolcott was using my name and this journal—he knew where I taught and what I had written, sort of—but he couldn’t be talking about me, as the spokesperson for memoir, beating the bushes for Caroline Knapp ("Drinking: A Love Story") and Kathryn Harrison ("The Kiss") and dozens of other confessionalists. This couldn’t be the Lee Gutkind my students complain about, who forces them into endless journalistic immersion situations and makes them write essays and articles without once using the word "I" in reference to themselves.
Not that Wolcott was lying; most everything Wolcott says is factually accurate. But in his attempt to be cute and clever, his article is one-dimensional and skewed so that it says exactly what he wants it to say—without really saying anything of substance or significance. Although he seems to consider himself a literary journalist, the truth is he didn’t interview me or anyone else for "Me, Myself and I." It was total ambush: The cultural critic and contributing editor of a magazine with a circulation of 1 million bludgeoning the unsuspecting editor of a journal with a total circulation of 4,000.
In "Me, Myself and I," Wolcott criticizes creative writing programs where creative nonfiction is taught. According to Wolcott, it is OK to be writing about writing for Vanity Fair, but endlessly amusing to write books about writing (for which I and others are sharply criticized) or to teach writing at the university level where, he says, "people are getting coddled and swaddled."
The fact that some of the most prestigious writers in the U.S. teach in these programs—Joyce Carol Oates, Tobias Wolff, Annie Dillard to name only a few—or participate in conferences which bring interested and thoughtful people from throughout the country into instructive experiences with George Plimpton, Barry Lopez, Gay Talese, Tracy Kidder and Diane Ackerman is of no consequence to Wolcott, who developed his writing style during a stint at the Village Voice in the circulation department. "I worked there for a couple of years before getting published," Wolcott was quoted in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. "A lot of the craft you can pick up as you go along."
Clearly he didn’t "pick up" enough craft or "go along" far enough. I am proud to have not written this sentence, which appeared in a second Wolcott article in the same issue of Vanity Fair as did "Me, Myself and I" about the photographer Weegee: "In this unlikely genie, the spirit of pulp fiction and the stalking habits of the paparazzi formed a hot pastrami sandwich." It seems that the literary objective, if you are James Wolcott, is only to be clever. Meaning, substance, intellectual value and insight are incidental—OK if you can achieve it without forcing the reader (or the writer) into the nasty habit of thinking about issues and ideas. "Introspection," Wolcott told the Chronicle "… won’t last you long in the publishing world." This may in fact be a sad truth, but it’s not the only truth.
Wolcott’s proclamation that too many memoirs are being published is hardly earth-shattering. And that we seem to be writing too much about ourselves without presenting a more universal sense of the experience has been said repeatedly by many others over the past century much more succinctly and skillfully than has Wolcott, obsessed with his own navel-gazing pastrami sandwich imagery.
The thing is, when you are paid as much as $5 a word and you have the power of 1 million readers behind you, you can say anything you want about a journal which pays $5 a page and has barely 4,000 readers. But it doesn’t mean you are the better writer or writing for the superior publication—or that you know (or care) what you are talking about, as long as you keep talking and sound engaging. But in the tradition of the oldest and most respected literary journals, (The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review and many others) which helped launch the careers of many fine writers, Creative Nonfiction makes every attempt to maintain the highest literary standards. We aren’t opposed to making people laugh or even to being clever, but our primary goal is intellectual substance.
Our audience appreciates the occasional pastrami sandwich, as do I—but also thoughtful and insightful prose written about science, art, politics and sports. We encourage a personal voice with a universal viewpoint. We would never publish the sentences Wolcott is permitted to write or his half-baked allusions to literary culture. Our readers expect Creative Nonfiction to set a high literary standard and to tell three-dimensional stories with emotion, intelligence and impact, something a bit more than clever fluff and nasty opinion. I don’t mind being attacked or criticized—we deserve and appreciate thoughtful and constructive criticism. But Wolcott’s work is egocentric, self-serving and shallow; worse, it’s not high-quality writing. Wolcott might actually take a look at a book about writing to gain some pointers—or better yet take a writing course and learn how to think. But then he’d lose his job at Vanity Fair, at which point he’d have no choice but to write a memoir.
The essays in this issue are strong examples of how writers can blend style and substance, while using a personal voice. In "Memoir? Fiction? Where’s the Line?" Mimi Schwartz confronts challenges and conflicts in writing memoir in the intelligent and analytic way James Wolcott seems unable or unwilling to attempt. We at Creative Nonfiction don’t necessarily agree with Schwartz in relation to the liberties she endorses (composite characters, etc.), but her essay is thought-provoking and well-written. Through use of dialogue, "Snakebit" by Connie Weineke confronts the writer’s difficult and frustrating search for accuracy and truth.
Weineke is, of course, telling a story, which is the essence of the creative nonfiction genre, as demonstrated by two major storytellers and novelists, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer and Madison Smartt Bell, in this issue. Story is the way in which style and substance are achieved. "Love, War and Deer Hunting" by John Hales provides a compendium of fascinating information about a variety of subjects with spiritual and intellectual insight—weaved in a story with dramatic intensity. "The Five Glorious Mysteries" by Genevieve Cotter is exhilarating, eerie, personal—and true. The essays in this issue demonstrate the true potential of creative nonfiction and the fallacy of Wolcott’s shallow perception.