Katha Pollitt, Alice LaPlante and Albert Camus Walk into a Paper on Non-Fiction

by Jarrod Tallman

A well told lie is worth a thousand facts.

– Ondaatje

Katha Pollitt’s metaphor for living called “Learning to Drive” (which may have well been called “Learning to Live”) perhaps best connects with a particular group of women who found love and marriage in an era when “driving was a male prerogative and being ferried about was a female privilege” (TMOAS, 636). In the personal essay, or work of creative nonfiction––or creation of a narrative by way of carefully selecting and arranging embellished memories––Pollitt uses her personal experience of learning to drive to explore a particular, and clearly profound time in her life where she learned to live––at least if we are to believe Pollitt’s representation of The Actual.

In his essay “Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka,” Camus writes:

If the nature of art is to bind the general to the particular, ephemeral eternity of a drop of water to the play of its lights, it is even truer to judge the greatness of the absurd writer by the distance he is able to introduce between these two worlds. His secret consists in being able to find the exact point where they meet in their greatest disproportion (TMOS, 137).

While Pollitt’s piece is the furthest from an absurd work of art, the gratuitously sentimental narrative certainly binds the general to the particular, ultimately calling into question the relationship between the nature of art and the quality of an artistic production. Pollitt relies on ready-made symbolism, like street signs and driving metaphors, illuminating her vulnerability and grief with such pin-point accuracy that it leaves little room for the reader to absorb the general of her reconstructed memory in such a way that the reader might assimilate the narrative with their own particular perspective. This on-the-nose metaphor imprisons the reader within the confines of her story.

It is perhaps this reliance on a specific context that proves Pollitt’s biggest roadblock in the creation of a more universally resonating link between the general and the particular. I can only speculate on her motives for choosing to stick to the “facts,” but as it is, “Learning to Drive” is a perfect example of the challenge that employing a pretense such as The Actual presents when trying to get beyond facts to truth.

In the section titled “Getting Beyond Facts to Truth,” from her how-to-write guide, The Making of a Story, LaPlante cites Spalding Gray, noting that “Memory, for all of us, is our first creative act” (TMOAS, 622). One only needs to remember the oft hilarious results of that childish game called Telephone to question a written representation of The Actual that occurs from the process of subjectively experiencing something, recalling that memory later on, and then transferring that memory into words––oh, those inadequate and betraying words! This should be enough to prompt any reasonable mind to consider the likelihood of bringing back to life The Actual of a past experience. This idea of nonfiction is further complicated by the editing process of events, which naturally accompanies the relation of a recalled memory to the page. Even the most epic and inclusive of autobiographies, despite their boisterous size, are edited with extreme diligence. We won’t even get into the concept of subjectivity. Given the intentional nature of choosing which facts to report, any reader with an inclination toward speculation is not free from questioning whether the recounted facts of non-fiction are in fact not fiction and the work itself is worthy of being distinguished from its root “fiction” by merely adding the prefix “non” and a waving the semantic wand around like a magician in a cape and top hat. Tuh-duh!

LaPlante includes another lengthy quote from Gray which ends with the aphorism: “Meaning only exists in story.” Let us twist this worthy idea around just a touch to consider a slightly different facet of this statement: “Story provides us with meaning.” If we consider the desire for meaning as a precursor to story rather than simply attributing meaning to story, we are able to link something admittedly far-reaching, yet nonetheless worth considering. In his Master’s thesis, Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism, Albert Camus refers to Athanasius’s Defense of the Nicene Council as text that shows us “the nature of Neoplatonism’s influence concerning methods of resolution” (CM, 113). The italics are mine and I aim to focus your attention on that phrase: methods of resolution. Now let’s take a look at the passage Camus is referring to:

The essence of the Son is not procured from without, nor accruing out of nothing, but it sprang from the Father’s essence, as the radiance of light, as the vapour of water; for neither the radiance, nor the vapour, is the water itself or the sun itself, nor is it alien; but it is an effluence of the Father’s essence, which, however suffers no partition. For as the sun remains the same, and is not impaired by the rays poured forth by it, so neither does the Father’s essence suffer any change, though it has the Son as an Image of Itself (CM, 113).

The goal here isn’t so much to explicate the problem Camus is dealing with in his writing as much as it is to take a look at the method of resolution; scientific facts are used as metaphor to create a narrative for Christian metaphysics that comes to a nice, neat resolution in the effort to give credence to a set of dogmatic principles that aim to give life meaning. In this light, we might find a definition for story: that is to say that a story is a narrative writing based on facts and uses metaphor to get at truths. In this sense, is there really a need to delineate between fiction and nonfiction in our attempts to get at these truths? Does the world really need another worthless classification that further divides our experiences and the way we attempt to communicate these truths? Balderdash, I say––but the genre does sell a lot of books and make a lot of believers.

I could go on, and on, and on, and even further on––like on forever and ever––in regard to the concept of nonfiction and LaPlante’s somewhat flimsy chapter on writing creative nonfiction, but this is supposed to be a short essay. At the end of the day, Pollitt’s story is well written, she shows a command of language and the ability to keep a narrative moving. While this is an excellent example of craft, it hardly seems exemplary of the potential of art. She breeches the Nietzchean idea so often found in Modern and Postmodern writing, that great problems are in the street, but she fails to humbly offer the truth of her experience up to the reader and their own experience. In part, this seems to stem from the decision to limit herself by the notion that one is able to resurrect The Actual with a magic spell of what Laplante calls “journalistic integrity,” as if we shouldn’t ask for the same lucid awareness from all writers. Because of this decision, Pollitt never lets the story move beyond her facts. Additionally, the story’s metaphors, beginning with the title, pound the nail on the head from start to finish and never once give the impression that her aim is anything but to offer the reader a specific lesson from her life.

I’m going to end with a long-ish quote from Camus that best summarizes the relationship between the use of the symbol in art and the quality of art. Maybe that’s not what I’m supposed to do in an academic piece of writing, end with a quote, but given that this certainly borders on academic-ish, who really cares…

The surest means of getting hold of [the symbol] is not to provoke it, to begin the work without a preconceived attitude and not to look for its hidden currents.

– Albert Camus

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