If You Are Absolutely Certain, I Get Suspicious

Monday, June 3, 2013

If creative nonfictionists build a persona, can persona-building also become a source of conflict and dynamism in writing? Can building a less-than-reliable persona be a deliberate strategy, much like the use of unreliable narrators in fiction, such as Nabokov's Humbert Humbert? Or does any kind of unreliability in the narrator undermine the entire premise of creative nonfiction? In this five part TriQuarterly series, five writers of nonfiction and one writer of fiction brainstorm creative ways for writers to make themselves unreliable narrators—with playful, conflicted, and imaginative results.


Unreliable narrators are everywhere: On Fox News or MSNBC, depending on your politics. In film, theater, and of course literature, which was the original focus of a term coined by critic Wayne Booth in 1961 to refer to a fictional narrator “whose credibility has been seriously compromised” (according to the hopefully reliable Wikipedia).

Many of these unreliable narrators are deliberately lying, but others just misread their world with varying degrees of fallibility. Some are too naive, some too full of themselves. Some are going mad, some are in denial, some are jokesters. The list goes on. For the sake of this eight-minute talk, I’m going to eliminate the deliberate liars—be they the Humbert Humbertses of Lolita or the James Frey of A Million Little Pieces—and focus on those whose unreliability is not premeditated. These narrators are reporting on the world as they see it—but the reader doesn’t buy it. Two questions I’d like to raise are how the labels fiction and nonfiction change the ground rules of response, both as readers and as writers, and what makes some of us accept the “I” as reliable while others question and even condemn that same “I” narrator.

For a start, let’s consider the “I” in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, brought by her husband in a country house for a rest. She hates it, she says on page 1:

There is something strange about the house—I can feel it!

I even said so to John one moonlight evening but he said what I felt was a draught, and shut the window.

I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive; I think it is due to this nervous condition.

But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control. So I take pains to control myself—before him, at least, and that makes me very tired.

She’s agitated, but who wouldn’t be with John for a husband? She’s trying too hard to seem reasonable, so I, as a reader, am getting suspicious, but it’s when she sees in the wallpaper “a strange provoking formless sort of figure that seems to skulk around behind the silly and conspicuous front design” that I can’t ignore how skewered her world is. There is no “The wallpaper reminds me of . . .” or “The wallpaper makes me think of . . .” No, there is a man skulking around back there; she is certain of it.

In The Yellow Wallpaper the “I” is invented, as are her controlling husband and the colonial mansion where she feels imprisoned. All are controlled by the author’s imagination, which, like a puppeteer, is pulling the strings of character, scene, and plot.

But what if this book were called memoir? Suddenly the puppeteer is gone; the people are real, the plot is preordained, and the “I” narrator is also the author. Can we read on equally engaged, or do we pull back from a narrator too unreliable to tell a true story? Not because she is deliberately lying; she is not. Not because her unreliability serves no purpose; it perfectly conveys a larger truth about women’s powerlessness in marriage long before Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.

But because in real life, be it at a cocktail party or in a memoir, we need to believe the “I” is credible, seeing life clearly enough to gain our trust. Gilman (who in real life did suffer greatly from depression and a bad marriage) could have written the above excerpt as creative nonfiction, if, early on, she signaled to the reader: “That was the old me, the one who felt that way one summer.” Maybe she’d do it by switching from present to past tense. Or by moving back and forth through time. Or by a series of “I didn’t know then ____” or “Later I will know____.” Or just by changing the font. In some way, I would argue, the nonfictive “I” must, to win a reader’s trust, find a way to process and reflect on her earlier self.

Of course that would ruin The Yellow Wallpaper, which happily is called fiction. The “I” character, who is not the same as the author, can and must be over the top, never yielding one inch of her certainty. At the end of the story she is down on all fours, announcing her victory over the enemy wallpaper that she has ripped from the walls: “Now why should that man have fainted?” she asks and then closes with “But he did and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”

What happened to “that man”? Did he faint, die? Or is he still standing there, coaxing her to stand up? Readers can’t really know, not from this narrator. All we know is that the “I” sees herself as finally free—and we see a woman destroyed.

This story, as nonfiction, sends subjective reality off the deep end of credibility. Even the most accepting readers—those who value the good story over fact and those who say “Well, everyone sees the world differently!”—would be hard pressed to defend the reliability of this “I.”

More often, there is less agreement about the quality of insight in the first-person nonfiction narrator. Some readers enjoy memoir told from a child’s perspective; others pull away, wanting more adult reflection. Many like exaggerated humor, content with the author signaling, “OK, I know I am over the top.” Others get annoyed, like Adam Kirsch in his article “The New Essayists, or the Decline of a Form?” in the New Republic. He singles out David Sedaris, who writes that when taking an IQ test he felt “really stupid, practically an idiot. There are cats that weigh more than my IQ score. Were my numbers translated into dollars, it would buy you about three buckets of fried chicken.” That from Me Talk Pretty One Day, which to date has also sold millions of copies; evidently most readers didn’t share Kirsch’s concern that “[t]he effect is to call the whole story into question. Did Sedaris actually take an IQ test at all, and if so did he really score lower than expected? The answer hardly matters.” The important thing, and what annoys Kirsch, is that “the idea of Sedaris failing an IQ test fits in perfectly with his persona as a “perpetually, amusingly incompetent at school, art, and learning French.”

That argument didn’t resonate for me, because we all have personas that star in our memories of self. Childhood personas, in particular, tend to be long-standing—“I was a hell-raiser” or “I was a goody two-shoes.” Unless some fact or event shakes them loose, we hold on to them. Personas shift more easily, I find, in here-and-now stories. One day I write as a widow; the next as a tennis nut; the next as someone trying to get out of jury duty. Collectively they add up to “me”—or so I hope in “When History Gets Personal,” a work in progress in which I keep changing personas, depending on what role I am playing in my life.

Unlike Kirsch, I’m fine with the humorous nonfiction “I”; what irks me are the very serious “I”s oversimplifying their lives. They seem totally unreliable, I discovered last year while judging the Penn New England Awards in nonfiction. In the mix of biography, researched history, narrative journalism, travel essays, and cookbooks, I read many coming-of-age memoirs, some of them very well written and well received—yet I found myself pulling away, suspicious. Compared to Nabokov’s Speak Memory or Russell Baker’s Growing Up, they lacked complexity, context, and reflection, sharing a shallow through line that something like this: “If it weren’t for my survival instinct, my parents would have destroyed me.” I found myself wondering: Was your father always horrible? Did your mother never protect you—or vice versa? These worldviews were not as skewered as the wife’s in The Yellow Wallpaper—but there was a similar unexamined certainty. I wanted more nuance. I wanted the speculation and struggle that come from what Bret Lott calls “challenging your own first assumptions.” He is referring to our need as writers to question the reliability of our first-draft opinions. One way to do that, I tell my students (and myself), is to find a line you wrote that you are most certain of—and write against it. That is where the true story lies in all its complexity.

A friend in my writing workshop wrote an essay after his father’s death, and on page 2 it says: “My father had never told me before that night in June that he loved me. Not when I won the All Star award or got all A’s at Yale. Not when I married the girl from a ‘good family’ to please him. Not any of those times.”

He told us he had needed to write the piece but now wanted to make it publishable, not just another piece about a dying parent. We homed in on this paragraph about his father never loving him. If it was true, why? What would his father say about those lines? What about the world his father came from? Did people say “I love you” to kids? I just read a second draft of the essay. This paragraph now follows one in a hospital room, when his father says “I love you”—and then the essay expands on his father’s life. I already trust the narrator more. He is looking at all sides, not settling for an easy certainty.

And if, as he writes more, the easiness draws him in, if the real energy comes from the pleasures of fury and neglect without moderation, if what he loves best is an “I” that speaks with absolute, over-the-top certainty and can’t tell it is funny, call it fiction please.