On Writers

Address to the Salamanca Arts Festival

Tasmania 1987.


Writing about facts is called Non-Fiction, so far as I can guess, for reasons largely to do with perplexity. Using the same currency, editorial commentators use Non-Labour to unite, in a word, every political party opposed to organizations of workers. Both non-terms carry similar senses of boundary, of antagonism. It is as if Non-Fiction is a coalition, to keep Fiction out of office.

AJ Liebling, at his most successful with the New Yorker, was asked why he wrote no fiction, and replied: “And write about things that are not true!”

Liebling had written fiction. He also wrote about sport, and food, and politics, using very many of the tools of fiction. And he seems to have most admired other writers whose writing showed the smooth joinery of storytelling. At one time this was called Reportage. Lillian Ross thought Reportage a pretentious word. “A writer doesn’t do writage. A writer does writing. A reporter does reporting.” The examples of reporting she had in mind are now, more happily, called Pieces. Perhaps this is because of the astonishing carpentry in the best of them, the refractory polish, a sense that the form and the function are delighted with each other.

This is the sort of writing I will discuss here. Its territory is discrete. We can expect it to appear in newspapers only on days of rest, or when paucity of news causes an editor to reach further into the ‘features’ file. Journals can carry it more frequently. The New Yorker became renowned for it. Certain specialized periodicals will surprise you. How many subscribers to the New England Journal of Medicine expected to read a passage like this, by a doctor writing on schizophrenia.

Actually, it would embarrass me to be told that more thana single self is a kind of disease. I’ve had, in my time, more than I could possible count or keep track of. The great difference, which keeps me feeling normal, is that mine (ours) have turned up one after the other, on an orderly schedule. Five years ago I was another person, juvenile, doing and saying things I couldn’t possibly agree with now. Ten years ago I was a stranger. Twenty, forty years ago… I’ve forgotten. The only thing close to what you might call illness, in my experience, was in the gaps in the queue when one had finished and left the place before the next one was ready to start, and there was nobody around at all. Luckily that has happened only three or four times that I can recall, once when I’d become a very old child and my adolescent hadn’t appeared, and a couple of times later on when there seemed to be some confusion about who was next up. The rest of the time they waited turns and emerged on cue ready to take over, sometimes breathless and needing last minute briefing but nonetheless steady enough to go on.

Those subscribers were then reading Lewis Thomas’s rich and happy pieces, collected now as The Medusa and the Snail.
Pieces by the writers I am thinking of have, in common, at least four characteristics. It is tempting to conclude they must have all of them in order to qualify. First, there is a story to be told or, anyway, an event to be described in the manner of a story. Then there is other information to be reported on. Third, a function of the story, apart entirely from its interest as spectacle, is to act as a vehicle for the less explicable information. And the story relies for success on techniques normally reserved for the writing of fiction.

The information to be reported on is sometimes statistical. Very often it concerns the economic, the social, the legal conditions under which people of the time and the place are living. These are facts usually reported, when they are topical, as news items. In any longer form, they can make very dull reading indeed. In pieces like these, facts are not impeded by such considerations as time and topicality, so long as they are still facts.

John McPhee very often presents his reader with an abundance of technical information. The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed concerns the principles of flight. The Curve of Binding Energy describes the mathematic fundamentals of a fission bomb. Oranges is about oranges. Many novels are no longer than each of these books. Few are as entertaining. In Coming Into The Country, much of the information is geographical and zoological.

The reader has arrived, before this paragraph, on the Kobuk River in Alaska in company with a fisheries warden and a party of canoers:

Stell Newman catches another salmon, of about the samesize. I catch one, a seven-pound adolescent, and let it go.Pat Pourchot, whose philosophical abstinence from fishinghas until now been consistent, is suddenly aflush withtemptation. Something like a hundred thousand salmonwill come up the Kobuk in a summer. They are counted by techniques of aerial survey. The Kobuk is three hundred mileslong and has at least fifty considerable tributaries – fiftybranching streams to which salmon could be returning to spawn – and yet when they have come up the Kobuk to this point, to the mouth of the Salmon River, thirty thousand salmon turn left. As school after school arrives here, they pause, hover, reconnoiter – prepare for the run in the home stream. The riffles we seeoffshore are not rapids but salmon. Pourchot can stand it no longer. He may have phased himself out of fishing, but he isabout to phase himself back in. Atavistic instincts take him over. His noble resolve collapses in the presence of this surge of fish.
McPhee uses information, as do other writers in this mode, to sustain the story, and uses the story to float the information. The reader has now sufficient understanding of the facts to grasp the excitement of the event. Both the event and the information are made more credible standing together. And here’s a further advantage: The geography and the zoology are suddenly memorable.
That memorableness is worth watching a moment. Straight information, hard facts as press people sometimes call them, are not generally memorable, unless they are part of a discipline in which the reader has training. Hard facts are smooth and slippery, difficult to hold on to for long. In the pieces we are talking about they are given a place to lie in, a sort of natural habitat. The habitat is the story.

In the first line of the White Album, Joan Didion says: ‘ We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ Somewhere in his Lectures on Literature, Nabokov says: ‘We tell stories because we like stories.’ Both views – and I guess they’re not so opposed – justify the same premise, the same promise. The importance of the story is not challengeable.
Since Nabokov was a writer of fiction you could be suspicious that his evidence is, as lawyers like to say, self-serving. Didion too, as publishers say, does fiction, but she is as popular now for her pieces, so highly regarded that they’re given the status of essays. In those essays the importance of the story is not challengeable.

Here is the last paragraph of her essay ‘In Bogota’. She is about to leave Colombia, a country she reports on as if it were not a union of thirty-two districts so much as a federation of uncountable stories.

She waits in the dining room of a Hosteria, on an Andean precipice, served by Colombian boys around twelve years old, all of them costumed as fine European waiters:

I sat there for a long time. All around us the wind wassweeping the clouds off the Andes and across the savannah.Four hundred and fifty feet beneath us was the cathedral built of salt in the year 1954. “This house, this pioneer democracy, built on foundations, not of rock, but blood as hard as rock.” One of the little boys in white gloves picked up an empty wine bottle from a table, fitted it precisely into a wine holder, and marched toward the kitchen holding it stiffly before him, glancing covertly at the maîtred’ hotel for approval. It seemed to me later that I had never before seen and would perhaps never again see the residuum of European custom so movingly and pointlessly observed.

The more I read the writers of whom I am talking, the surer I became that they show, in their pieces, a common regard for certain identifiable tools and components of style and substance.

True, many of these instruments are found most often in the writing of fiction. Many, it seems, originated there and were appropriated by writers of fact. Though they are identifiable, instance by instance, they are not so easy to aggregate and exhaust. These writers use any instrument which usefully comes to hand – just as riggers and boatbuilders do who live in places too remote for ready-made supplies, where you will find a fishing-boat whose efficient deck ports might be more familiar to you as kitchen vents, and whose trawling winch once did duty as the gearbox in a Ford sedan.

These writers inhabit remote places in the writing of fact. The instruments which come usefully into their hands are more familiar to us as tools of fiction because they use the structure, the form of a story to transport other information. It is an experiential form. Implicating the reader in the experience, in the event, is the exuberant job of fiction.
Here, implicating the reader in the event, when the event is horror, is Michael Herr in Dispatches. He is in Khe Sanh, bloodied:

Far up the road that skirted the TOC was a dump wherethey burned the gear and uniforms that nobody neededanymore. On top of the pile I saw a flak jacket so torn apartthat no one would ever want it again. On the back, its ownerhad listed the months he had served in Vietnam. March, April, May (each month written out in a tentative, spidery hand), June, July, August, September, October, November, December, January, February, the list ending right there like a clock stopped by a bullet. A jeep pulled up to the dump and a Marine jumped out carrying a bunched-up fatigue jacket held out away from him. He looked very serious and scared. Some guy in his company, some guy he didn’t even know, had been blown away right next to him, all over him. He held the fatigues up and I believed him. “I guess you couldn’t wash them, could you?” I said. He really looked like he was going to cry as he threw them into the dump. “Man, “ he said, “you could take and scrub them fatigues for a million years, and it would never happen.”

I see a road. It is full of ruts made by truck and jeep tyres, but in the passing rains they never harden, and along the road there is a two-dollar piece of issue, a poncho which had just been used to cover a dead Marine, a blood-puddled, mud-wet poncho going stiff in the wind. It has reared up there by the road in a horrible, streaked ball. The wind doesn’t move it, only setting the pools of water and blood in the dents shimmering. I’m walking along this road with two black marines, and one of them gives the poncho a vicious, helpless kick. “Go easy, man,” the other one says, nothing changing in his face, not even a look back. “That’s the American flag you getting’ your foot into.”

This book, Dispatches’ was used for the first half of the film Apocalypse Now was. It is not difficult to guess that Herr’s fire and vividness on the page might have influenced Coppola to imagine it in filmic terms. The search for vividness can take the writer of fiction into territory governed by hyperbole, and hyperbole is dangerous ground for writers of fact. But listen to McPhee, in Oranges. Here he is moving his story from the orange groves of St Johns to the Indian River, where people have a different quality of like altogether:

The plantation society of the St Johns was fairly metropolitanin contrast to life on the Indian River. Families had settled allalong the Indian River, but even twenty years after the Civil War they were few enough so that when they saw a sail miles away they could usually tell by the cut of it who was approaching. At night, a family would go out in a small boat, light a lantern, talk, drift, and in thirty minutes catch enough fish to feed the them for a week. On trips for supplies in sailboats, they would sometimes see ahead of them a darkness formed on the water’s surface by five hundred acres of ducks. As a boat approached, the ducks would rise with a sound of rolling thunder, leaving on the water five hundred acres of down. Everyone slept on down pillows and down mattresses. The river was full of oysters. The shores were full of cabbage palms whose hearts, boiled, were delicious. Currency was almost unknown. The nearest bank was in Jacksonville. When families put up Northerners who came for part of the winter, payment was often make by Cheque at the end of a visit. For months, these cheques would go up and down the Indian River as currency, until they had so many endorsements on them that they looked like petitions. In Titusville, near Merritt Island at the north end of the river, there was a group called The Sons Of Rest. Any member who was found with perspiration on his face was fined twenty-five cents. At the end of each month the money was used to buy a pair of overalls for the member who had worked the least. A man named Cuddyback won four pairs of overalls in a row and the organization disbanded. There was one lawyer on the river. He raised oranges because his practice was so small.

It is difficult to separate, from the ideal of vividness, two quite viscid others: point of view, and voice. Voice is easiest to deal with. As an object of effort by the writer it should be discounted. No writer who searches, finds it. Like political stance, it just happens.

But point of view is another matter altogether. In all these pieces, the point of view of the writer, and therefore of the reader, is clear. It may move, as it may in interesting fiction. But the viewpoint chosen is most often the one which will extend the emotions. It is unusual that some of the scientists are so skilled at extending the reader’s emotions. Lewis Thomas is one. Another is Richard Selzer, a Connecticut surgeon whose early attempts at fiction, and whose persistence, so dispirited Esquire’s famed editor Gordon Lish that Selzer was asked not to trouble them further until he was writing about something he knew. Selzer came back. He had with him the first of the essays now collected by Simon and Schuster as Rituals of Surgery, Mortal Lessons, and Confessions of a Knife, Mortal Lessons is dedicated to Gordon Lish.
This is from “The Exact Location Of The Soul”, a piece describing certain uncommon surgical operations. If sometime you read it all, it will strike you that the soul to which the title refers is not so much the patient’s as it is the surgeon’s.
Here, the surgeon’s patient is a young woman whose diabetes has pitilessly complicated the treatment of an ulcer on her foot. She has gangrene. She is also blind.

For over a year I trimmed a way the putrid flesh, cleansed, anointed, and dressed the foot, staving off, delaying. Three times each week, in her darkness, she sat upon my table, rocking back and forth, holding her extended leg by the thigh, gripping it as though it were a rocker that must be steadied lest it explode and scatter her toes about the room. And I would cut away a bit here, a bit there, of the swollen blue leather that was her tissue.

At last we gave up, she and I. We could no longer run aheadof the gangrene. We had not the legs for it. There must be an amputation in order that she might live – and I as well. It was to heal us both that I must take up knife and saw, and cut the leg off. And when I could feel it drop from her body to the table, see the blessed space appear between her and that leg, I too would be well.

Now it is the day of the operation. I stand by while the anesthetist administers the drugs, watch as the tense familiar body relaxes into narcosis. I turn then to uncover the leg. There, upon her kneecap, she has drawn, blindly, upside down for me to see, a face; just a circle with two ears, two eyes, a nose, and a smiling upturned mouth. Under it she has printed SMILE, DOCTOR. Minutes later I listen to the sound of the saw, until a little crack at the end tells me it is done.
They deliver the experience to the reader, these pieces, or perhaps deliver the reader into the experience. They are narratively strong, they’re vivid, they make use of emotions and of the imagination (the writer’s and the reader’s), they might click into the close-up lens of dialogue and, although they are written to report facts, are anthropocentric enough that the facts are made critical to the human condition.

Helen Garner is very good at this, the central human perspective, and I guess part of what I’m saying here is that, since she’s a fiction writer, we should expect it to be so in this manner of reporting. Not long ago, the Melbourne Age ran her series on Births, Marriages and Deaths. Toward the end of her visit to the Crematorium, a guide takes her to a chamber behind the furnace-room, where the ashes are drained into plastic satchels, and those keepsakes which have outlived the fires are boxed and stored.

On a special shelf, by themselves, are treasures that have survived the cremation of children: a metal piggy-bank with the coins still in it, a little porcelain dish with a decorative knot of porcelain flowers on its fitted lid, the kind of thing a young girl might have on her dressing table.
“We get babies here too,” says my guide. He reaches upto a high shelf and brings down one of the plastic containers,a very small one. He opens it, and draws out a sealed plasticbag, which he shakes so that its contents slide down to one end. He holds it out to me on his palm.
“See? Hardly even a handful. The babies are stillbirths, mostly. We call’em billies, I don’t know why.” We stand in silence, looking at the tiny quantity of ash in the bag. I like very much the fact that he handles it so tenderly, and that nothing he says about it is sentimental.

I didn’t start crying and shaking till tow days later. And on myway home I had, for the first time in my life, a conviction – I mean not a thought, but knowledge – that life can’t possible end at death. I had the punctuation wrong. I thought it was a fullstop, but it’s only a comma, or a dash—or better still, a colon: I don’t believe in heaven or hell, or punishment or reward, or the survival of the ego; but what about energy, spirit, soul, imagination, love? The force for which we have no word? How preposterous, to think that it could die.So here, to end, is Lewis Thomas again. this is a good piece to leave with because it displays another property common to the reporting I am talking about6. This property is not plain to me until I have read to the very end. It is this: I then have a clear feeling of gratitude.

The piece is called “On Natural Death”. Thomas first discusses a theory about painlessness and approaching death. The hormones, endorphins, are produced in the pituitary and the hypothalamus, so the theory runs, to disable the cells responsible for our perception of pain. Then:

The worst accident I’ve ever seen was on Okinawa, in the early days of the invasion, when a jeep ran into a troop carrier and was crushed nearly flat. Inside were two young MPs, trapped in bent steel, both mortally hurt, with only their heads and shoulders visible. We had a conversation while the people with the right tools were prying them free. Sorry about the accident, they said. No, they said, they felt fine. Is everyone else okay, one of them said. Well, the other one said, no hurry now. And then they died.

Pain is useful for avoidance, for getting away when there’s time to get away, but when it is end game, and no way back, pain is likely to be turned off, and the mechanisms for this are wonderfully precise and quick. If I had to design an ecosystem in which creatures had to live off each other and in which dying was an indispensable part of living, I could not think of a better way to manage.

Now, I’m grateful to have read that, and to have read it written like that.