Mays, Chris. ‘“You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’: Complexity, Facts, and Creative Nonfiction.” College English 80.4 (2018): 319-41. Print.
Chris Mays explores the creation of meaning in writing through an examination of the relationship between “fact” and “fabrication” in the genre of creative nonfiction (321). He links this analysis to a 1985 article by Jim W. Corder arguing that adherence to the “narrative” each of us creates to structure our lives makes it difficult to “accommodate . . . differences” we encounter with others’ narratives (319). Mays finds an illustration of this difficulty in debates over factual accuracy in creative nonfiction.
Mays argues that writing in general excels in giving an impression of representing facts in “straightforward” ways, often appearing most praiseworthy “when a writer ‘just tells it like it is’ . . . or writes in ‘plain language’” (320). Any “simplicity” thus created, Mays contends, masks writing’s “own incredible complexity” (320). Ultimately, in Mays’s view, the power of writing to make the meaning it creates appear straightforward and uncontestable, while hiding the process through which that meaning was produced, leads to the kind of insularity Corder describes (321, 337).
Mays approaches the issue of meaning in writing through genre theory. He reports scholarship on genre that depicts genre as a categorization that “organizes writing into recognizable forms” (326); quoting Carolyn R. Miller, he portrays genre as the “form” of writing that “shapes the response of the reader or listener to substance by providing instruction . . . about how to perceive and interpret” (qtd. in Mays 324). Genres, he writes, tend to look “stable” but are actually in constant flux, with the result that readers respond to representations of facts differently when they encounter them in different genres, which themselves are responsive to different contexts (325):
[F]acts emerge out of genres, and how the boundary lines of fact and fiction are drawn is dependent on the genres in which one is observing the facts. (325)
For Mays, looking at creative nonfiction as a contextualized, fluid genre illuminates how genre assumptions affect attitudes toward facticity particularly because the history of this genre reveals ongoing tensions over the degree to which authors of creative nonfiction deal with “facts” versus “subjective experience” (321). Mays finds that, even though writers in the genre acknowledge the subjectivity introduced by literary techniques, definitions of creative nonfiction emphasize its allegiance to facts (321, 324). He argues that the tension inherent in the genre is especially useful in revealing how concerns about the facticity of writing “shift the focus away from the complex mechanism by which all facts are created and maintained” (326), thus illustrating an important feature of writing itself.
To explore these issues, Mays dissects controversy over the use of facts in the satire of David Sedaris. He analyzes the critique of Alex Heard, who condemns Sedaris’s use of elaboration and apparent invention as violations of what Heard sees as a sacrosanct obligation of writers of creative nonfiction: not to “make things up” (qtd. in Mays 329). Other respondents defended Sedaris as engaged in telling stories in which fabrications lead to “composite truths” valuable in themselves (328, 335). Mays’s interest revolves around the degree to which the criteria applied to Sedaris are “extremely passionate” (328) and “rigid” (327). He argues that the negative critics of Sedaris create inviolate genres that they believe are stable and judge the handling of facts by these rules (330). “Observers” of the creative-nonfiction genre, he writes,
often just do not perceive that there are different ways of drawing genre boundaries and intensely defend the singularity of their views. (328)
For Mays, this reaction to fact within the genre, which he depicts as widespread (321), sheds light on the tendency to forget that writing as writing is always, in Kenneth Burke’s terms, both a “selectio[n]” and a “deflection of reality” (qtd. in Mays 338; emendation in Mays). Mays contends that writing disguises the process of selection that generates a multiplicity of “facts” (329).
Mays further argues for the contextual nature of facts by noting that although “community influence” (330), for example that of the community of creative nonfiction writers, may affect decisions about what counts as an acceptable allegiance to facts, even writers within the community still generate bounded genres that drive their attitude toward the representation of their material. Writers in the genre may contend that Sedaris’s exploitation of subjectivity shirks what Heard calls the “ethical requirements” of fidelity to reality in order to sell more effectively (qtd. in Mays 330), yet Mays also cites memoirist William Bradley, whose criteria recognize “different kinds of truths” (331), and the controversy surrounding Mike Daisey’s depiction of working conditions at Apple facilities in China. Daisey asserted that his genre was “theater,” not “journalism,” and thus his problematic representation of the conditions he reported was justified (333-34).
Mays ties the question of how facts are made to the classroom by referencing “the oft-made demand for a focus on plain facts in first-year writing” (336). This demand, in his view, can be attributed to an ongoing hope for “perfect writing” that fully represents reality (337). For Mays, such writing can never exist because “writers will never be able to fully control or stabilize what is truth, fact, or fabrication in their writing” (336). In his view, complexity theory suggests that problems arise because one’s construction of reality precludes the ability to perceive what is left out of that construction (332). The act of writing in itself creates complexity, which imbues writing with this characteristic blindness (332, 335). Thus, a section title asserts, “All Writing is Dishonest (and Honest)” (333).
Citing Bronwyn T. Williams to note that some reliance on facts is necessary for day-to-day living (325), and recognizing the challenge of a “workable” acceptance that all facts are contextual (332), Mays agrees with Jane Bennett that “recognit[ion] that . . . other divergent configurations exist, even if we cannot perceive them,” is “an ethical necessity” (333). He concludes that Corder’s exhortation to extend our awareness beyond our own narratives inevitably encounters the degree to which the creation of those narratives generates the very conditions that make moving beyond them so difficult (337). Mays argues for intensified awareness of the partiality of any written truth and of the degree to which a rigid insistence on facts can limit our appreciation of different kinds of writing and what this diversity can achieve (338).