Skip to Content

Share

Karol Nielsen: In Defense of Nonfiction

January 18, 2011

Bookmark and Share


By **Karol Nielsen**


Karol Nielsen.jpg“Do you want to be a reporter?” said the Buenos Aires bureau chief for the Associated Press. We met through an Argentine friend who’d been a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania while I was an undergraduate. She had written for La Nacion during the “dirty war” when thousands disappeared, risking her life by criticizing the military government’s economic policies, and she’d invited me to stay with her in Buenos Aires once I finished college.

“No, a writer,” I said, even though I was working as a staff writer for the Buenos Aires Herald at the time. It was a plum job for a foreigner without working papers, more so because I was so young and green. But the editor hired me because I showed up right after one of the paper’s few staff writers had left, and he liked my stories for the Penn World Review. Think pieces about the debt crisis in Argentina and Brazil, terrorist bombings in Paris, liberal reforms in the Soviet Union.

I was never a snob about nonfiction, like my mid-college boyfriend, the son of a diplomat who helped broker peace between Egypt and Israel. He was an English major who wanted to write short stories and novels instead of articles. I’d wanted to study English, too, but my mother did not approve of the idea. “Besides,” she said, “if you want to be a writer, you have to have something to write about.” You generally didn’t win an argument with my mother, though I often tried, so I decided to study international relations because I wanted to travel and write about other countries, like Hemingway had. He was an adventurer, like my grandfather, a pilot who flew men and cargo over the Himalayas, the camel’s hump, from India to China during World War II.

After a year at the Herald, frustrated by hyperinflation that made my salary almost worthless, I backpacked through South America where I met an Israeli reserve soldier on the way to Machu Picchu, publishing stories about our adventures and the fragile democracies of Argentina and Peru in the Advocate, my hometown newspaper in Stamford, Connecticut. I’d mailed the articles to the paper—no editor, no section—and had the good fortune that the op-ed page editor was a graduate student in Latin American studies at New York University.

[H]ow does journalism intersect with literature?

She offered to hire me, but warned that it would be boring compared to writing for the Herald. She didn’t have to warn me. I already knew I couldn’t go from writing about post-“dirty war” Argentina on the brink of a coup to covering education and the school board in my hometown. This felt like a slow death. So I found a job writing the newsletter for the Americas Society in New York City, taking vacations with the Israeli reserve soldier who’d come to New York. First we went to Mexico, and then Israel during the first intifada. I published a story about the uprising when I got home.

It was the summer of 1990 when my Israeli boyfriend asked me to marry him and move to his country—to get to know his family, his language, his culture. We were still in New York when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and soon after arriving in Israel the first Gulf War broke out. I sent a story to the new op-ed page editor about the Scud missile attacks on nearby Haifa and Tel Aviv, wondering how long Israel would stay out of the war. He asked me to rewrite it focusing on the mood. I did. It was grim.

I always knew that I wanted to do more than journalism, so that I could tell the stories behind the stories I’d covered in Latin America and the Middle East, but I needed to work, too. When I returned to New York with my fiancé, I earned a master’s in journalism from Columbia University, long before the MFA had become a popular alternative for nonfiction writers. I also wrote essays and poems and a draft of my memoir, and along the way I took a heap of insults about being a journalist, especially in literary crowds.

I used to feel apologetic, and sometimes defensive, knowing that even Hemingway had never escaped this judgment. But I couldn’t escape the fact that when I stopped writing articles and began to teach writing and edit manuscripts for hire, I could finally hear my own uninterrupted voice, not just the faint voice that would whisper to me at night or on the weekend or the rare lunchtime run. But the strong inner voice that grew louder and more confident as I began to write and revise my work every day.

So why am I defending journalism now that I no longer work as a journalist? I worry about my past profession in this time of fabricated “facts”—the sort that appear too frequently in memoirs, the sort that led us into the war in Iraq. A former soldier turned novelist told me recently that he expects memoir to contain some element of fiction. It saddened me because I took to heart what we learned in journalism school: find credible sources, get both sides of the story. Whether fiction or nonfiction, research and reporting add context and depth to a narrative, like the historical footnotes about the Trujillo dictatorship in Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

I’ve published several thousand articles, covering Latin America, the Middle East, and New York City, as well as international finance, but little appears online. My early work for the Advocate, the Buenos Aires Herald, New York Newsday, and other general-interest newspapers and magazines came out before internet archiving began—my articles still don’t show up in searches—and before the New York Times gave credit to its stringers for contributing reporting to stories. My most recent work as a maritime-shipping correspondent for Jane’s transportation-finance publication and as the Americas editor of Thomson-Reuters’s infrastructure-finance magazine is mostly unavailable except for short subscriber extracts.

The alienation I felt as an outsider became fuel for my work, challenging me to give everything I had, to prove that I was more than a journalist.

Maybe it’s a blessing because this body of work, however hard-earned, isn’t the same as my literary work. So how does journalism intersect with literature? It’s a question I began to ask others after Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year. He had been a reporter, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ernest Hemingway and Walt Whitman and countless others who crossed over from journalist to novelist and poet.

I started with a journalism-school classmate who covered film before publishing novels. “I can always tell when a novel’s been written by a journalist,” he said, because it’s cluttered with details that weigh down the story, and while some journalism like Dexter Filkins’s coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is extremely lyrical that does not make it literature. This isn’t going well, I thought.

I remembered a conversation with a poet who works as a science, travel, and technology magazine writer. “I put the poetry into my articles,” he confessed, almost wistfully, as we sipped drinks at a posh book party. I admired this because I had never been poetic in my own journalism, more focused on accuracy and clarity than artistic style. I always drew a distinct line between my day job as a journalist and my literary work, dreaming about a large book advance until I realized I could get by on teaching and editing work.

Then I spoke to a fiction writer and journalist who’s writing a nonfiction book about soldiers and dissent. “Bob Dylan always looked down on Phil Ochs,” she said. “His lyrics were too journalistic.” Ochs had studied journalism and called himself the “singing journalist,” writing topical folk songs about the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. He committed suicide a year after the war ended, suffering from alcoholism, mental illness, and writer’s block.

I’d gone straight into teaching without earning my MFA, the degree that identified you as an insider, a member of the club. The alienation I felt as an outsider became fuel for my work, challenging me to give everything I had, to prove that I was more than a journalist. And by now, I had some literary street cred, having published essays and poems in literary magazines and my whole collection was a finalist for Colorado State University’s poetry prize. I’d also become the nonfiction editor of Epiphany, after the magazine ran an excerpt of my memoir, which was named a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2005.

It was the 20-year anniversary issue of The Best American Essays, and the series editor, Robert Atwan, spoke eloquently about the dawning recognition of nonfiction as literature, spanning essays and memoirs and even some journalism, quoting Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard: “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” I remember feeling vindicated, as if I’d no longer have to defend my choice to write a memoir instead of a novel. But this hasn’t been the case.

Memoir is still the underdog of letters, compared to the more widely-respected forms of poetry, which is pure song, and fiction, which unleashes the imagination. So is it any wonder that writers inflate and sometimes fabricate events to punch up the narrative, like James Frey did in A Million Little Pieces? I remember listening to best-selling memoir writers Mary Karr and James McBride speak at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in 2001. McBride, a graduate of Columbia University’s journalism school, said that he turned down offers to make his book, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, into a movie because he’d been asked to add more to the script. There was nothing to add, he said.

I also remember how Karr—a poet and the author of the memoir, The Liars’ Club—gave a passionate recommendation of Michael Herr’s memoir, Dispatches, a collection of Vietnam War reportage for Esquire. It read almost like Tim O’Brien’s short story collection, The Things They Carried, but rougher, rawer, and ravaged by a multitude of details that might overwhelm fiction but turn nonfiction into rich, poetic, powerful prose. Does that make it literature or only lyrical journalism? This all depends on your definition of art, and mine is an expansive one, probably because I’m more of an observer than an inventor. For me, the art isn’t in the imagination so much as the writing itself, how it unspools on the page, how it touches my soul.

Copyright 2011 Karol Nielsen

________________________________________________________________________

Karol Nielsen is the author of the memoir, Black Elephants, forthcoming from Bison Books in October 2011. She is an adjunct professor at New York University where she teaches memoir-writing workshops.

For more blog posts from others at GUERNICA, click HERE .

SUBSCRIBE TO GUERNICA’S RSS FEED

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

Share on FacebookShare on TwitterAdd to BufferShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrSubmit to StumbleUpon
Submit to redditShare on App.netShare via email

You might also like

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting