Intro from Jay Allison: If you are at a party and Lawrence Weschler tugs at your arm, you are lucky because it means that something has fascinated him and he wants to tell you about it so you will be fascinated along with him, and that's pretty much how his writing works too. It's a friendly and welcoming technique. Now, Ren is our Transom Guest, tugging at our arms to talk about the dissemination of fascinations, in both writing and sound, and riffing on the musicality of words, why he doesn't write fiction, and the way radio can sometimes astonish you. Ren was a longtime staffer at The New Yorker, has written several fine books (including the just-released collection Vermeer in Bosnia), founded the hopeful magazine Omnivore, and is director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. He'll be at Transom for a little while, happy to converse.
Back in 1984, after I’d been at the New Yorker for a few years, reporting variously on the arts and foreign hot spots (cultural comedies and political tragedies as I came to think of my peculiar bailiwick), I received a note one morning from the magazine’s legendary editor William Shawn asking me whether I’d ever thought about trying my hand at fiction. I sent him back a reply explaining why, even though fiction was just about all I read, I could never imagine myself capable of the form, and he seemed to find my observations amusing: a week later, at any rate, he ran them in the magazine as a Notes and Comment piece (“A young reporter we know writes”) — a piece which I in turn came upon again recently when I was compiling my latest collection (out this month from Pantheon as Vermeer in Bosnia) and with which I decided to introduce the collection: “In Lieu of a Preface: Why I Can’t Write Fiction” (PDF).
The thing is, even though I still subscribe to everything I wrote there (and even though I can no more imagine myself writing fiction today than I could then, in fact even less so), as the years have passed it has become more and more obvious to me that it is the fictional elements of nonfictive narrative that most consume me (both as a reader and a writer, and I suppose I should add, in this context, as a listener). I’m not talking about the kinds of issues that regularly get stoked up into those recurrent media firestorms about whether some particular reporter has confabulated a particular source or a quote or an entire story — controversies in which the reigning inquisitors work themselves into a ferociously righteous lather at the horror, the horror of it all. Let us stipulate at the outset that reporters should be as scrupulous and fair as they can be in their reportage — although it’s worth noting that such aspirations are seldom as simple as they appear, the hyperventilating indignation of the thumbsucking commentators notwithstanding. I won’t mind taking up some of those (often pseudo-) controversies in the weeks ahead, if that’s what you want to do, but they’re not what I have in mind when I invoke the notion of “The Fiction of Nonfiction,” which as it happens is what I call the class that I teach from time to time (these days in the spring at NYU, with an abbreviated version in the fall at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and elsewhere).
Here’s how I characterize the core of my concerns in the prospectus for that NYU class:
All narrative voices–but especially the voices in true narratives–are themselves fictions. The world of nonfiction writing is divided between those who know this and those who either don’t or else deny it — a division that is roughly contiguous with that between writing that’s worth reading and writing that’s not. Nonfiction texts are fictions in that they deploy the devices of fiction (pacing, modulation of voice, considered sequence of revelation, irony, metaphor, etc.) but even more so in that they are constructs (they’re composed, they’re in-formed and made up). In this seminar we will revel in the architectonic of good nonfiction writing. We will consider admirable sentences and marvelous paragraphs. We will study foundations and jointure, account for senses of spaciousness and constriction. We will examine and upend the myth of “objectivity.” We will try to determine what makes one piece of writing “true to life,” while another lies there simply dead. We will read as if writing mattered, and write as if reading did.
And here’s how I characterize the shorter version of the class:
In this course, we will be endeavoring to explore two interlocking paradoxes at the core of the nonfictive enterprise:
- If it is at least in part true that everything is random chaos, it is also true that the writer’s task is to discern, to discover–or, perhaps, to impose–order on all that chaos: a form, in other words, that in turn rings true. To what extent is that necessarily a fictive enterprise?
- When fashioning any retrospective account of human activities, it is of course the case that everything that happened had to have happened the way it did–otherwise it would have happened in some other way. And indeed the writer’s task is in part to worry out and catalog all the strands that led to its happening in that particular way. But it is just as true that as the events were transpiring, they didn’t have to happen in that way. The protagonists were at all times free to respond in some other manner. How can the writer keep not just the illusion but also the fact of all that freedom continually alive across the length of any retrospective tale?
I cite these two programmatic synopses here because they encapsulate some of the issues I propose to explore with all of you in the weeks ahead, if you’d be interested. Not that I am unwilling to delve into some of the more practical considerations involved in reportage as well — you know, reporting technique, interviewing technique, whether I prefer to use a tape recorder when I’m off reporting (actually: no), how I order my material prior to writing (you’d be amazed, you’d be appalled, I wouldn’t recommend the technique on anyone), the smartest thing anyone ever told me about the challenge of reporting (the advice, as it happens, of a marine biologist of all people, couched in the allegory of a dead sea walrus)… Just ask and I’ll be happy to explore some of that terrain as well.
But, as I say, the thing that most fascinates me in the writerly process (and by the way, that’s what I prefer to call the kind of nonfiction that interests me: not “literary nonfiction” or “creative nonfiction”–I don’t know what those words mean–but rather writerly nonfiction)–the thing that most interests me is what happens after all the interviewing and research and reporting is over and you’ve indexed your notes (oy) and weathered your blockage (double oy) (we can talk about that as well, if you are of a mind to), and at last the juices begin to flow and the sense of narrative kicks in. I am entranced by the marvel of narrative; I never cease being gobsmacked by the pull of a good tale (by the pull, I mean, almost more than by the tale itself).
And that is as true — if not more so — in radio work as it is in writing on paper. I am hardly an expert at fashioning radio pieces, though I have tried my hand in the medium upon occasion, as witness in particular three of my longer efforts, to wit…
A half hour documentary I reported and co wrote with producer Stephen Erickson for the LA Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Territory of Art” radio series, back in 1986, (material which I then revisited for my 1993 New Yorker profile of the Afrikaner poet, painter and political prisoner, a piece which was in turn included in my 1998 collection Calamities of Exile: Three Nonfiction Novellas):
The 1996 half-hour evocation of David Wilson and his marvelous Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles which Dave Isay and I fashioned for All Things Considered, based (here the process went the other way around) on my book from the previous year, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder:
A half-hour conversation between me, Ira Glass and my then eleven-year-old daughter, Sara, detailing the period, some years earlier, when we’d had a family of diminutive Borrowers living in our house and the cascade of complications that thereupon ensued, originally broadcast on the Fathers Day 1998 edition of This American Life:
From all those efforts, I have developed a sense of how doing radio work is different from doing written reportage (for starters, you have to use tape recorders!), and if you want to we can talk about that — but I’ve been more impressed by the convergences and confluences of the two media.
To get things started, I might mention two.
The first has to do with the musicality of narrative. It seems to me that story-telling (whether on paper or over radio) has much more in common with music than, say, with painting. Which is to say that it is steeped in time: the passage of time (and the marvelously confounding and convoluting ways in which time can be made to seem to pass) is of its essence. Perhaps my focus on this aspect of narrative owes something to the fact that my grandfather was a composer, the Austrian emigré Weimar modernist Ernst Toch. I’ve included a profile of him in my new book, drawn from a long piece I originally wrote for The Atlantic, and if you’re curious and don’t feel like buying the whole book, the magazine article, a profile of Ernst Toch (by Lawrence Weschler), is still online.
In this context, I might note something I’ve often found odd and even a bit unnerving. For the thing is, all my prodigious genetic inheritance notwithstanding, I have absolutely no musical aptitudes per se: I can’t read music, I can’t play any instruments, I have the very opposite of perfect pitch, whatever that might be called. And yet, whenever I write or else review my own or other people’s writings (or for that matter radio pieces), almost all of my judgments about the process tend to get framed in terms of musical metaphors: questions of pacing, modulation, tone, harmonics, counterpoint. I’ll sense that a given passage is out of key, or could use a little more syncopation, or needs to shift from the dominant to the subdominant — and I don’t even know exactly what any of those terms mean, technically speaking. I have a profound sense that I am engaged in a compositional enterprise, involving the sequential deployment of material across time in a formful manner, which is to say within a transparent architectonic structure (one of my grandfather’s favorite words, by which, precisely, he was invoking the sense of architecture across time rather than space). When teaching my writing classes, I often assign my grandfather’s book, The Shaping Forces in Music, and though I can’t fathom a single one of its nearly four hundred musical examples, I understand exactly what he’s talking about on every page, and subscribe to virtually all of it, feeling I couldn’t have parsed the matter better myself. (“Architectonic,” he keeps intoning, but then he invokes another metaphor as well almost as frequently, the notion of the organic: As he wrote at one point in a letter to a would-be composer, “A composition must grow organically, like a tree; there must be no seams, no gaps, no foreign matter; the sap of the tree must pass through the whole body of it, reach every branch and twig and leaf of it. It must grow, grow, grow instead of being patched, patched, patched, unorganically.” Think, in this context, I suppose, of a tree as itself an instance of organic architectonic.) When I’m alone, typing at my keyboard, I often hear music in my head — especially as my pieces approach their climaxes — and almost invariably the music in question (when I stop to think about it) turns out to be my grandfather’s. In fact, in retrospect, there are passages of my own prose that turn out, in pacing and melody and formfulness, to be virtual transcriptions of passages from his quartets or symphonies. As I say, it can get to be a bit disquieting. (If any of you are interested, I can provide you with specific instances, though I suppose this particular aspect of things may be more fascinating to me than to others.)
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So there’s that: this question of the musicality of narrative that both written and audio narrative have in common. And then, as well, there’s that moment to which both writers and audio artists ought aspire, the experience, as I like to think of it, of “pillows of air,” by which I mean to invoke those instances of hushed astonishment or absorption when a pillow of air seems to lodge itself in your mouth and you suddenly notice that you haven’t taken a breath in a good half minute. The sort of experience where you get lost to yourself and given over to the marvel of all creation (indeed, to everything but yourself). A phenomenon, I must say, that I tend to find more often these days on radio than I do on the printed page. Alas. Indeed, it’s been in an attempt to reclaim a space for that sort of writing that I have recently been trying to launch my own utopian magazine, Omnivore (oy, don’t get me started on the tribulations involved in such an effort, I just keep finding myself recalling Mr. Shawn’s comments back when Si Newhouse had first announced his intention to effect his hostile takeover of the New Yorker and a group of us went up to the Old Man and suggested how we ought all to just quit and launch our own magazine. “But, people,” he sighed in his tremulous whisper of a voice, “you don’t seem to understand: writers don’t found magazines. Millionaires found magazines.”)
Anyway. (Anybody out there know any stray millionaires trawling for a hopelessly utopian, desperately needed cause — let me know!) If you’re curious about my plans for the magazine, see the prefatory rant (below) I included in the prototype issue (in which, incidentally, I wax at some length on that theme of pillows of air); and if you’d like to see the issue itself, we’ve finally decided to deploy some copies for sale at a few bookstores (notably at the bookstore of the The Museum Of Jurassic Technology). But the point is — and let’s talk about this, maybe: What is it with those pillows of air? How are they achieved? What might it mean to address readers and listeners as fellow citizens, subject to raptures of marvel, rather than just as Pavlovian consumers (abject objects of the jolt-salivate-spend technology that has so come to dominate the preponderance of our media environment).
So there: enough? Does that give us something to talk about? Your turn.
Prospectus for Omnivore Magazine
Pillow of Air. That’s the name some of us actually wanted to use for this magazine. Well, a few of us anyway. Others of us emphatically did not. “It sounds like the name for some soft-core porn digest,” they said. To which those others of us groused, “So what would you rather call the thing? ‘Stick in the Mud?’” “No,” the hold-outs replied, “that sounds pornographic, too.” Shows you what they had on their minds. But anyway, so we didn’t.
Still, “Pillow of Air,”perfectly describes the reigning aesthetic of the enterprise — even the holdouts agree on this — in that it invokes those moments of hushed astonishment or absorption when a pillow of air seems to lodge itself in your mouth and you suddenly notice that you haven’t taken a breath in a good half minute. The sort of experience where you get lost to yourself and given over to the marvel of all creation (indeed, to everything but yourself).
The sort of moment, that is, that has proven increasingly fugitive in the temporal frenzy that has come to characterize the increasingly peg-driven, niche-slotted, attention-squeezed, sound-bit media environment of recent years. An environment wherein, as a friend of ours recently parsed matters, “the funnels and the piping, the ducts and the belts, the overall design strategies used to convey capital efficiently from the ‘consumer’ to all the correct bank accounts — all of it has become ever more frighteningly efficient.” And the method is almost everywhere the same: “A short, sharp whiff of stimulation,” as our friend put it, “ followed rapidly by a hand in your back pocket. In short: crack.”
What our friend likens to a sort of drug-pushing, we sometimes prefer to think of in terms of neo-Pavlovian conditioning: jolt, salivate, spend — move on. In either case, we are speaking of a kind of death of the soul — or, at any rate, the successive parching of the staging ground for any sort of idiosyncratic readerly-writerly communion of souls.
And we don’t like it. We don’t like being treated that way and we don’t want to have to treat others that way, either. People tell us: “Tough luck, that’s just the way the world is going nowadays, nobody has time or patience for any other way of being, get used to it. “ Well, we just don’t buy that, and we’re betting it’s not true.
Indeed, that’s the defining wager of our entire enterprise.
For instance, consider the fate of long-form pieces of narrative reportage in American magazines over the past several years. The tradition of Liebling and Hersey and Mitchell and Capote and Baldwin and (more recently) McPhee and Sheehan and Kramer and Malcolm and Frazier and all the rest at the New Yorker — but not just there. The tradition of Hunter Thompson at Rolling Stone and Mailer at Esquire, Clay Felker’s crew at New York and Willie Morris’s at Harper’s, and all of those. The sorts of pieces you might curl into, of an evening, having no prior notion that you could even become remotely interested in their subject, and through the sheer narrative energy of the writing, you’d find yourself becoming caught and then held, completely immersed, lost to the world for hours at a time, desperately eager for Part Two and Part Three — and secure, furthermore, in the knowledge that, come the weekend dinner, you’d be encountering others like yourself who’d been similarly transported and similarly surprised.
A distinctly American innovation, that — the extended, writerly, not-necessarily-immediately-topical piece of nonfiction reportage, intended for and exposed to a general-interest-magazine readership — and indeed one of the greatest contributions of American culture to world literature in the twentieth century… and now virtually obliterated, famished where not already completely effaced, especially here in America. Hardly any of the legendary masterpieces of those aforementioned masters or any of their ilk could find a home in any of their old venues, as currently constituted, or anywhere else, for that matter, in the reigning mainstream magazine environment today.
People just don’t have that sort of attention span anymore, they’re all too busy, the magazine editors will all plead in their own defense — and it is true: they don’t seem to, they themselves all are way too busy.
But is that true of everyone else as well? People sure seem to be reading more books than ever. And in other venues — radio, especially (at This American Life, for example, or among the folks at Sound Portraits or our friends over at www.transom.org) — a felt hankering seems to be being sensed and lavishly addressed.
Hankering: that, too, might have made a nice name for this magazine. Or: Hush.
Stop rushing us. Give us time to tend to the world.
And not just in terms of writing. In terms of the visual world, as well. Don’t keep pushing and jostling us like that. Slow down, give us leave just to look and to see and to admire and to be amazed, and then to rest for a few moments, to lounge in all that splendor.
Here, in these precincts, we promise to be devoted to duration and not embarrassed by devotion.
Pebble. That was another name we’d considered. Partly on account of the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s lyric of the same name, a poem we’ve in any case managed to work into this prototype issue (as prelude to Michael Benson’s Asteroids pictorialsee page 103). A Pebble constituting, in Herbert’s conception, “a perfect creature / equal to itself / mindful of its limits / filled exactly / with a pebbly meaning.” We liked that, and also how Herbert notes the way that “Pebbles cannot be tamed / to the end they will look at us / with a calm and very clear eye.”
But on account, as well, of a passage from Herbert’s marvelous contemporary, Czeslaw Milosz, from the latter’s Treatise on Poetry, in which he notes that though you know that history is but an avalanche, still you want to be the pebble that changes the course of the flood.
That’s pretty much exactly where we hope to pitch this magazine, somewhere between the cascading megalomania of the Milosz and the abiding humility of the Herbert.
In the end though, “Pebble” struck us as a little—what?—a little fey, a little recherché? — and we settled instead upon Omnivore.
Because, finally, that’s us: we want it all, there’s nothing we won’t pause to consider, there’s nothing we won’t tarry to absorb.
So: Come. Join us. The banquet is served.
A further note on this specific issue,the one you hold in your hands. As we say, consider it a prototype. Which means, among other things, that it was printed in an especially limited edition, not intended for sale or general distribution, but rather to be passed about to potentially interested parties, colleagues, foundations, possible investors or other kinds of potential partner: a token of the kind of thing we’d like to be able to continue producing if we can garner sufficient support.
We could have done things in the more conventional manner: held focus groups and t hen worked up a statement of intent and accompanying business plan, nailed down our legal footing, lobbied potential sponsors and advertisers, secured the requisite distribution channels, strategized the mass-mailing campaign, hired on the necessary staff, and then, at length, launched out with an official inaugural issue, accompanied by a big party and all that razzmatazz.
But in the end we chose not to. For one thing, every time we broached the conventional way stations, we were being advised not even to bother: The whole thing was hopeless. The economy. The general media environment. Yada yada yada.
But then we recalled the example of the Polish oppositionists back in the mid-seventies, mired in the midst of the general Brezhnevian soft-totalitarian miasma. People like Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron who likewise kept being advised not to bother, that resistance was futile. Then they hit upon a novel formula. If you want to have free speech, they took to asserting, just start talking freely. If you want a free trade union, form one. If you want to have a free press, just start printing something. They did. And look what they ended up accomplishing.
Not that we’re likening our situation (or the risks we face) to anything as miserable and dauntingly oppressive as theirs. Of course not — though there is something softly totalizing and conventionalizing and strangulating about the corporate hegemony currently holding sway over most of our own media environment. It’s just that their response inspires us: If you want something, don’t keep planning and theorizing and testing and strategizing — just start doing it.
We did, and so here we are.
All of which is to say, again, that this is a prototype, a provisional first stab at things. For example, we haven’t fact-checked all the articles. None of the contributors got paid. (We raised just enough money to send the thing to the printers for our extremely limited first run—and to those donors, our angels, we are especially grateful.) We haven’t yet nailed down all the things we intend to should we be able to convert this issue into an actual inaugural first issue (at which point, for example, contributors will get paid).
But we hope to be able to. And soon.
And, oh yeah, our working slogan:
Hopelessly utopian. Desperately needed.