Sunday, January 3, 2010

On Schneiderman's Fear of Intimacy

On the Best American Poetry blog, Jason Schneiderman charms with the common and slightly annoying fear that there’s a “false intimacy” between memoirists and their readers.

Here's the link:

(Be sure to scroll down for the post entitled "Here on the Island of Misfit Toys [Jason Schneiderman]")

Here is the link:

In a bouncy and sweet style (meant descriptively, not coyly), he describes his trepidation towards poets who cross over to memoir. He charms with the claim that he fears a “false intimacy” between memoirists and their readers.

For me, the phrase false intimacy is as suspect as the unreliable narrator—words so feverishly elasticized that they have lost much of their meaning. But perhaps more troublesome is mainstream critics of memoirs use peculiar adjectives like risk-taking and courage and intimate to praise autobiographical writing.

In a creative non-fiction course, I taught Julie Gregory’s “Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchhausen by Proxy Childhood.” By transforming her parents into farcial one-dimensional characters, she catapults herself into heroine status, escaping their clutches and fighting to bring the issue into the public. No surprise that critics called it an “intimate” portrayal of a poisoned childhood, etc. etc. What disappointed me about the book is it never investigated what would have taken true courage to do: to add weight to the childhood memoirs of being relieved in going to school, etc. That’s courage: to admit the joy in your own victimization.

I know that a lot of people worship Kathryn Harrison’s father-daughter incest narrative “The Kiss.” While I do empathize for sexual abuse survivors and their abject victimization, their stories don’t necessarily (on subject alone) catapult themselves into works of art. Critics praised “The Kiss” for its rawness, its courage, its intimate confessions. There’s no courage for me in simply sharing autobiographical experience, no matter how tragic it may be, and it isn't even necessarily courageous. To publish a book is to want, to ask for, whether or not its visibility, money, praise, sympathy, or all of the above.

This is what makes “The Kiss” courageous: she writes the incest narrative in a style similar to that of a junky Harlequin romance. Take a look at the short, choppy declarative sentences, the vague sense of time and place, the reckless pacing to arrive at what are for most readers the most unfortunately “enjoyable” plot points: the sex scenes. Harrison’s success in expertly and shamelessly modeling her tale as a bad romance novel is where the courage lies. No matter how "sickened" some detractors may have been. "It's badly written," they shout.

From reading her novel basely loosely on the same material, it is readily apparent that she can write a complex, syntactically complex sentence. Here she makes what may seem the oddest rhetorical choice, but within those formal strategy is the risk-taking.

Perhaps Schneiderman is weary of intimacy, because he’s ultimately looking for it in the wrong place: the elements of the victim narrative or the redemptive moments. It may help Schneiderman to remember that he may be able to find the intimacy he craves in the same places he sees it in poetry: the formal strategies, the subversion of certain narrative expectations.

1 comment:

  1. I love Scheiderman’s post. This is brilliant: “But I also don’t entirely trust memoirs.  Poems calibrate a moment—they bring order to a chaos in order to make chaos visible.  Memoirs have a story to tell; they give meaning to chaos (hence the public’s taste for memoir and my accompanying distate).  But this explains why I suddenly had the uncomfortable realization (or feeling—perhaps if I read the memoir, I’ll find out his ambition was always to be a poet) that poetry was where you go when something is wrong with you.” I try to teach my students about the chunkiness of language and line in poetry, where language (and therefore, chaos) puts itself in the way of the reading. I think narrative does the opposite—makes language smooth to take you somewhere. And possibly, Schniederman’s right, that it takes you out of your chaos.
    I agree with you too, Steve, that Schneidman doesn’t look at the forms of memoir to see that some formal strategies of the memoir try to chunk up language too. I do think there’s a distinction between the narrative-driven victim narrative and the lyric essay. I’m not sure if that’s what Harrison does in “The Kiss” but you seem to suggest chunkiness in the incest/molestation scenes. So, where does the intimacy come from then? Neither of you seem to quite say, the line ties to me to you here. Or, the short sentence brings me closer to you there. Is the intimacy in the fact that the incest turns the reader on? That short sentences stab like paring knives to the heart? That because I am broken (as Schneiderman says, poetry’s where you go when something is wrong with you), I understand the line’s brokenness too?