As we noted recently, TriQuarterly Online has published a provocative anonymous essay entitled “The Facts of the Matter.” Writing in the first-person, the essay’s anonymous male narrator confesses to rape. In the footnotes, the anonymous author confesses that she is a woman, who has never raped nor been raped, and she is interested in the question of the importance of facts in alleged nonfiction, particularly in nonfiction of the “creative” variety.
It’s generated a little bit of commentary around the web, and was even the topic of a Jacket Copy article by David L. Ulin at the LA Times.
A week ago today, the often excellent online magazine Brevity commenced a “roundtable discussion” of “The Facts of the Matter.” Included in the roundtable are the anonymous author as well as “three leading writers/scholars in creative nonfiction”: Sonya Huber, Matthew Ferrence, and Ned Stuckey-French. The questions were posed by Brevity editor Sarah Einstein, who began the discussion by declaring
As a reader, I left my first reading of this essay very angry. I felt that I had to constantly extend myself to the author in order to accept that the work was a work of nonfiction because I found the narrator difficult to believe. When it was eventually revealed that I should not have been so generous, I felt betrayed. To quote from the essay, “A lie can be a violation, a forced entry, a kind of rape.” While it would be a gross exaggeration to say that I felt raped, I did most certainly feel that my trust had been violated.
After which, Einstein asked the others for their own reactions.
The first “leading writer/scholar” to respond, Sonya Huber, explains that a friend had first forwarded the essay to her “in the middle of a rushed and busy day.” Huber says she could tell that her friend “was clearly upset by what she’d been able to read up to that point.”
“Out of concern,” Hubert says, she opened the link on her phone. Like her friend, however, a busy Huber also
didn’t have either time or mental space to read the entire piece. The content was so difficult that it felt impossible to read this all at once, to force myself through the paragraphs when each sentence was astounding.
As a result of not reading the essay, Huber then spent the rest of her day in “turmoil”:
It was not the turmoil of a discussion about the nature of truth. It was a turmoil about the meaning of rape and rape narratives. I drove and sat in meetings, mulling over the presence of this real rapist. I am a busy woman and a mother with a full-time job and several extra obligations, and I did not have time to read the whole essay on my phone that afternoon.
“You could say I read the essay ‘wrong,'” admits Huber (apparently referring to not having read the essay). In the next breath, however, she argues “this is how we [sic] read now–especially online. I would argue that a piece of writing that asks me to sit down and finish it in entirety in order to understand any of it is asking for a privileged reader.”
Instead of reading the essay, Huber says she instead spent a large part of her day “making a list”:
the list of male older tenured nonfiction writers in the Midwest. Dear god. My mentors. I knew him. I had to, you see. Because our creative nonfiction community–especially in the Midwest, where I am from, home ground–is that small, still that close.
I picked up my son from school and stood in the kitchen talking to my husband as we cooked dinner.
“There’s a rapist,” I said. “Someone in the nonfiction community. Someone in the Midwest. Someone who said they’re not even sorry about what they did”….
Eventually, however, Huber also found the time to read the essay.
She now concludes it is “an essay on fire, an essay in flames, an essay that is not actually an essay at all.” She thinks its “tragic, and it is performance,” but, she adds, “I don’t think it’s possible to talk about it as creative nonfiction” — in spite of the number of people, herself included, doing precisely that.
For his part, Matthew Ferrence begins by opining that the essay is, “at heart, a polemic. . . . an argument, not so much an essay…. It is, at heart, an article, something Cynthia Ozick warns is “guaranteed not to wear well.”
That this flaming not-essay /polemic / article with two hearts has generated already more discussion than anything written by Huber or Ferrence over the course of their careers, is a fact that goes unexamined at the roundtable.
Perhaps it will be explored in Brevity‘s promised Part 2 of the discussion.
It’s also worth noting that Bookslut‘s Jessa Crispin doesn’t like the essay either, but for entirely different reasons.
A) It is incredibly cynical about men’s inherent nature, acting like they are all sexual predators just waiting for an opportunity, and B) it is really poorly written. “It was a pleasure. Strange. Rare. Like fugu. A risk that leaves the lips tingling.” That is some sub-par college student creative writing class short story bullshit right there.
“If you want to read this kind of stuff,” Crispin continues, “about the darkness and perversions of a twisted type, read something that is good. Diary of a Rapist. The End of Alice. Something skilled enough that makes it clear this behavior is pathology, not something essentially male.”
To which we’d add — and perhaps Brevity will ask her to join the roundtable? — read attorney, poet, and non-fiction writer Vanessa Place. Read The Guilt Project; Rape, Morality, and Law. Read Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts. In very different ways, different from each other and from the essay at hand, these books, like Crispin’s suggestions, also trouble the waters in popular American narratives regarding sexual assault.
Place’s work also fills entire books, of course. One can only imagine the amount of privilege required to read one of those.
A shorter read are the rape facts in the TriQuarterly essay’s footnotes, not the least of which concern women in Congo, who have been and continue to be raped as a matter of course, as a matter of war, in numbers “we” can scarcely conceive–the fact of which, even when women are raped en masse, barely makes the U.S. news, pitched as it is, in soundbites, to its oh-so-busy viewers.
Not that anyone wants to think about that. Not when “we” have already wasted so much valuable cell-phone time reading this too-long post.