Reading irrespective of the subject: Geoff Dyer on nonfiction

Regular readers know of my lit-crush on Geoff Dyer (see here and here). In this interview with ASH Smyth over at Guernica on the occasion of his new book Zona,  he has many interesting things to say, but here I’ll focus on what he says about nonfiction book proposals and the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction.

As with all of Dyer’s books, Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room takes a subject as its starting point – in this case Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker – then proceeds to pull it apart, turn it inside out, and offer its fragments to the reader as a kaleidoscope through which to see the world through Dyer’s eyes. I have just re-read Out of Sheer Rage, his book about trying to write a book about DH Lawrence that Steve Martin described as the funniest book he’d ever read – as inspiration for my own work in progress.

I admire Dyer for several reasons. One is that he’s funny in a witty and self-deprecating way while always being provocative and full of insight into the ways we live. His books are utterly unlike each other in subject matter and form, but they are all identifiably his. That’s because his voice – that word that agents and editors bang on about endlessly – is unique. He doesn’t sound like anybody else, and couldn’t if he tried. And while the Guernica interview shows that Dyer talking is very similar to Dyer writing,  the “I” on the page is always constructed and manipulated – maybe exaggerated, pushed or pulled in certain directions – for calculated effect. At a New Yorker Festival event last year, for example, he confirmed that he was “not nearly as crazy” as the narrator of Out of Sheer Rage, but that the narrator was an “exaggeration” of him.

This may sound odd coming from someone who writes as well as agents books, but I respect Dyer’s healthy disregard for some of the conventions of book publishing:

I’m most interested in the book which is completely un-sellable on the basis of a proposal or contract. One of the reasons so many nonfiction books are so boring is because what they’ve done, very diligently, is fulfill the terms of their proposals.

Obviously when you’ve written 12 works of fiction and nonfiction you can be assured of your 13th manuscript receiving the attention of editors. It’s more difficult (and not encouraged) to be blase about proposals when you’re yet to be published. But he’s right about the enervating quality of some nonfiction books that begin life as a great proposal. It’s like all those dates that should have worked – he or she looks good on paper, you’ve got so much in common, friend of a friend etc – yet for one reason or another it’s a fizzer. As a reader I love to be intrigued, enchanted, surprised.

Most intriguing are Dyer’s thoughts on a key difference between fiction and nonfiction:

Fiction is not really about anything: it is what it is. But nonfiction … we define in relation to what it’s about. So, Stalingrad by Antony Beevor. It’s “about” Stalingrad. Or, here’s a book by Claire Tomalin: it’s “about” Charles Dickens. And what I’m really interested in, as a reader and as a writer, is this idea of the nonfiction book that is not defined by its content, by its “about”-ness. Where you read it irrespective of whether you’re interested in the subject.

All of which explains the intellectual thrill and sheer fun for me in reading Dyer’s fiction and nonfiction, and why Reality Hunger author David Shields says, “There is no contemporary writer I admire more than Dyer.”

The “content” of my own nonfiction work in progress relates to the ways in which studying a musical instrument throughout childhood and adolescence shaped my identity. But in the writing process I’m finding that other strands keep recurring – to do with the Internet, with body hair, and clothes, and surprising connections between Beethoven and Leo Tolstoy. My job is to wrestle my material into a structure that provides a clear through-line. I want it to draw the reader onward using tone and humour and insight, relying less on pure chronology to do the work for me. In short, I aspire to write the sort of book Dyer describes above. They are less about plot and more about voice, but they are always about telling stories.

And good epigraphs:

Whatever people may say about my books—and it always amazes me when people don’t like them, but sometimes they don’t—the epigraphs have always been top-drawer.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. With this quote, I can particularly concur: “One of the reasons so many nonfiction books are so boring is because what they’ve done, very diligently, is fulfill the terms of their proposals.”
    That’s how Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary? left me feeling upon laboriously completing it.
    “What was so fantastic about that?” I pondered with a fellow publishing friend. (Evidently, so did Slate: http://slate.me/y3vzxb)
    “That’s what happens when a publisher asks YOU to write a book you obviously don’t care to write.”
    Ah, but we can’t always write every piece with zeal and vigor now, can we?
    Cheers.
    Nichole L. Reber
    http://www.architecturetravelwriter.com/

    1. Hi Nicole, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. There are many nonfiction books that turn out to be less than the sum of their parts. I don’t enjoy reaching the end (or middle, I’m getting more impatient every year) and thinking, well nothing surprised me or offered me a different way of seeing the world. There are so many wonderful essays published daily that to commit to a book really does raise the level of expectations that the reader brings to it. Unfortunately you’re quite right that we can’t write every piece with equal enthusiasm. I would suggest, however, that for a long time to come it will still be books that define the legacy of any writer, so writers should make the extra effort if they are going to write a book.

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