Archive for March, 2012

As much as I read, I don’t find myself rereading too many books. I’m no Larry McMurtry, revisiting the same book year after year. Mostly, I reread essays, and the pieces that I find myself returning to with most frequency were written by Luc Sante, Calvin Trillin and Joseph Mitchell.

In his documentary stories for the New Yorker, pioneering nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell celebrated both eccentrics and the average Joe, and in turn, he immortalized a scruffier, working class era of New York City. He also wrote what might be the longest quotes in our genre.

When first published in 1956, Mitchell’s classic “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” contained 12,056 words; over nine thousand of them were directly attributed to Hunter as quotations. Many of the stories in Mitchell’s book The Bottom of the Harbor are like that. “Up in the Old Hotel” contains a quote that runs for over four pages. “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” has one that goes for eight pages. “The Rivermen” boasts the longest of all: ten and a half pages – or six pages followed by four more, if you count the three-lines of intervening dialogue as an interruption. I don’t. But it’s not simply the length that interests me; it’s what length requires of a writer’s memory.

Take this quote from “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” where Mr. Hunter tells Mitchell about picking a plant called pokeweed: “I went up there one morning this spring to pick some, but we had a late spring, if you remember, and the pokeweed hadn’t come up. The fiddleheads were up, and golden club, and spring beauty, and skunk cabbage, and bluets, but no pokeweed. So I was looking here and looking there, and not noticing where I was stepping, and I made a misstep, and the next thing I knew I was up to my knees in mud.” Mitchell didn’t use a tape recorder, and he rarely took notes, which raises certain questions: how did he remember these details? The precise order in which Hunter listed them? And, if many of his quotes aren’t verbatim, then how much of his nonfiction is to be believed?

In his article for the Oxford American, “The Collector of the Everyday,” author Sam Stephenson doesn’t believe that Mitchell necessarily remembered details accurately every time – that Mr. Hunter said golden club before spring beauty before bluets – only that Mitchell got the larger truth right. William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, agrees with Stephenson and defends Mitchell’s technique and integrity: “Now, nobody thinks Mr. Hunter really said all that in one spurt. Mitchell did a heap of splicing. Yet I have no doubt that Mr. Hunter did say it at one moment or another—that all the words and turns of phrase are his.” Zinsser describes Mitchell’s stories as mosaics, literary composites that reflected Mitchell’s journalistic technique. He would befriend a knowledgeable and colorful source – a fishmonger, oysterman, tugboat captain, etcetera – and make multiple visits over the course of weeks or months, sometimes years, gradually gathering quotes, history, scenes and a sense of the cultural landscape. Then, Mitchell would assemble his stories over time, layering the material like some sort of phyllo dough pastry; yet he rendered these portraits to depict a particular occasion – a single visit to a graveyard, a single chat with a Bowery barfly – so that they are composites of facts, collages. He likely fashioned his Olympian quotations the same way.

Certain critics might say that such composites are fictions, because the information portrayed didn’t exist in the real world in the precise way it was rendered. The composite only exists because the artist created it. I used to agree with this line of thinking.

When I first discovered Mitchell at age twenty-five, I believed that George Hunter said those words in that way verbatim, because I assumed all dialogue in nonfiction was verbatim. Not a spliced rendition, not a near-accurate depiction, not a highly educated guess, but a replica, a photograph in text. I was naïve about the mechanics of nonfiction writing, and the complex nature of truth. Now, after a decade reading and writing narrative nonfiction, I still expect accuracy whether I’m reading a magazine or a memoir, but I also know that truth is more complicated than the usual “accurate/inaccurate” dichotomy suggests. If the parts that Mitchell used to fashioned his hybrid stories and hybrid quotes were facts themselves, then is not the collage of facts also true if it captures the larger truth of his subjects? By larger truth, I mean the essence of Mister Hunter’s personality, and the particular texture of his speech. And on a thematic level, I mean the emotional truth of Hunter’s situation: aging and looming specter of his, and everyone’s, impending death. This is part of what Zinsser means when he says that “all the phrases and turns of phrase are his.”  He means that despite the splicing, Mitchell captured Hunter’s essence by accurately portraying his diction (like the way Hunter said “spring beauty” rather than “beauties”). Mitchell didn’t make quoted phrases up, didn’t invent information; rather, he simmered the facts so they accreted into a more potent truth, which is why the quotes sound like his speakers, rather than like Mitchell. This is also why I consider Mitchell’s stories nonfiction.

Mitchell’s literary standard was that of both the artist and the reputable journalist. He organized his facts in a creative arrangement in order to best serve the story. As Zinsser says: “Although Mitchell altered the truth about elapsed time, he used a dramatist’s prerogative to compress and focus his story, thereby giving the reader a manageable framework. If he had told the story in real time, strung across all the days and months he did spend on Staten Island, he would have achieved the numbing truth of Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a man having an eight-hour sleep. By careful manipulation he raised the craft of nonfiction to art. But he never manipulated Mr. Hunter’s truth; there was no ‘inferring,’ no ‘fabricating.’ He has played fair.” By employing these techniques, Mitchell spared readers the superfluous details, framed the relevant information, and distilled the piece to its essence, for the sake of the audience’s reading experience. In this way, Mitchell’s stories predated the “nonfiction novel” of Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, as well as the 1960s “new journalism” that followed after: using dialogue, character development, narrative arc, foreshortening, well-sequenced scenes, emergent themes, dramatic tension in nonfiction, rather than the who, what, where, when, why of standard expository reportage. Mitchell’s Olympian quotations are sure to remain one of nonfiction’s most peculiar attractions – an extraordinary monument to truth’s complex incarnations – but it’s his stories’ artfulness and readability that have made them endure.

On a side note, I found this short documentary, about the old Fulton Ferry Hotel, from which Mitchell’s classic essay, and his collection, take their name:

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Over at HTMLGiant, I wrote a short review of Craig Taylor’s epic oral history, Londoners, which is both a joy to read and a study in the form. I’m eating some crisps to celebrate the fact that I still have a number of pages left to read — comforting to know the book’s not over. Here it is:


I Like Oral

Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It by Craig Taylor

Ecco, 2012 448 pages / $29.99

Buy from Amazon  /  Powells


Looking at a map of London, you see neighborhoods with familiar names such as Chelsea and Greenwich, and you see neighborhoods that sound like cheeses (Rotherhithe), erectile dysfunction pills (Vauxhall), Tolkien inventions (Isle of Dogs) and enormous breakfasts (West Ham). Maybe you’ve visited London, but for those of us who haven’t and who still harbor a deep curiosity, despite the dreary weather, bad food, soot, lootings, and long shadow of Bill Buford’s soccer hooligan book Among the Thugs, Craig Taylor’s Londoners both confirms and broadens London’s reputation as an enchanting, holy polluted kickass clusterfuck. And it does so in a way that proves as interesting as its subject.

Londoners is an oral history, a fact suggested by its old-McSweeney’s-ish subtitle: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told By Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long For It. Unlike a traditional narrative or expository history, an oral history is, by its nature, a “through the eyes of” point-of-view. It isn’t theoretical. It isn’t analytical. It doesn’t offer insight into its subject by editorializing or examining, or by trying to contextualize things in a bed of paraphrased or distilled information. Instead, it’s a collection of trimmed and sequenced quotations – just spoken words, the voice of the people rather than the journalist.

Those who frequently read about music will recognize the format from Legs McNeils’ canonical Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, John Cook’s Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, and Mark Yarm’s recent Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. All use the oral history form to great effect. Taylor’s is equally engrossing. Over the course of five years, he interviewed over 200 people in London, producing some 950,000 words of transcribed interviews, before winnowing his selections down to the wriggling mass of text that fills these 400 pages. The book not only asks, “What is London?” it asks, “Who is a Londoner?” As Taylor says in the introduction, his goal was “to assemble a collage of voices that could yield a richness about a place and time.” He wanted to do so in a way that created the “narrative arc and emotional truth” and “pace and texture of a good novel.” He isn’t fooled about the project, though. “Whatever it is,” he says, “Londoners is not a definitive portrait; it’s a snapshot of London here and now.”

In Londoners’ case, the oral history format also reflects the nature of not just London, but cities in general. They’re knowable yet not entirely fathomable. They can’t be reduced to simple characterizations, because as well you can describe them physically, their essence is more elusive. As a composite of various, often conflicting impressions, an oral history might come the closest to capturing a city’s character, because the form itself is a bundle of contradictory, overlapping voices. Londoners is a case of form as function. The portrait that emerges from it is, like its subject, a pastiche, and like any community, it’s comprised of its residents’ experiences, and as Shakespeare says in the book’s epigraph, “What is the city but the people?” (It should be noted that, despite the book’s format, Taylor’s intro stands alone as a stellar first-person narrative essay on London, the nature of place, travel, home and being an outsider.)

Writing an oral history isn’t easy. Taylor and McNeil didn’t just dump a bunch of quotes onto the page and slap a cover on it. This isn’t an exercise in transcription. Transcription is only the first step. The job of a narrative historian is to write history by metabolizing existing information, paraphrasing and selecting quotations, and telling the story in his or her own words. The job of the oral historian is to shape the exact words of others into a story, by interviewing innumerable sources, then cutting, refining, editing, grouping and sequencing quotations into a tightly curated composite that forms a larger portrait. That’s a different challenge than the traditional narrative author’s job, but no less of a chore.

After conducting thousands of hours of interviews, the oral historian has to sift through the tape to cull the choicest quotes, the ones that actually say something interesting, substantive, or revealing. As most journalists know, not all sources give good quotes, and not everyone is a natural storyteller. Some people ramble. Others jump around. Some say ‘um’ too much, or ‘like,’ like, um, way too much, and double back on themselves, don’t get the point, repeat and repeat, or can’t remember enough specifics to make their comments useful. So authors edit and refine such quotes. When including a block of quoted text, oral historians also have to leave out their own comments in order to preserve the quote’s integrity, namely, the comments the interviewer made in the middle of the conversation in order to extract more information (“So what was that like?”) and to keep sources talking (“Cool, tell me more.”). And they have to cluster and order their text so that the story’s arc, or a gestalt, emerges. That’s hard work, and an art in itself.

In the end, Taylor fails to “sort out just who is, and who isn’t, a Londoner” or fully comprehend his home. This is central to the book’s success, because this limitation acknowledges the fundamental elusiveness and complexity of the world’s most interesting cities. This isn’t to say nothing is learned. Londoners is overflowing with life and detail. It’s one of those books whose pleasures derive from dipping randomly into the pages, slowly savoring what you find over months’ time. Aside from the wild anecdotes and charged language, what Londoners offers above all is an antidote to all the common, negative characterizations of the city as cold, difficult, dirty and mean. As a Transport for London Lost Property clerk says in the second chapter, despite the “bleak view of London,” “there’s a hell of a lot of good people here. It’s a testament to the honesty of Londoners and people in general who hand things in.” It’s something I think about during my regular bouts of Anglophilia, where I rewatch Fawlty Towers and eat crisps in the desperate ways armchair travelers do when they can’t afford a plane ticket.

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Wrote another post for the Portland Farmers Market Blog here.

A Planet Made of Fabric Softener

Spring – who needs it? In our industrial era, every day is spring. Spring rolls. Spring greens. Spring onions. Temperature controlled environments. Like Kurt Cobain said, “Nature is a whore.” Just kidding. Those peaches we get from Chile in winter are horrible. Have you had them? They’re scented rocks. I don’t care if I sound like a hippie: there is no replacing the native rhythms of Mother Earth. We need seasons. Seasons make food possible, like fall chestnuts and winter pears. And as much as I appreciate sunny central California for producing berries year-round, I’m looking forward to some fresh spring nettles for tea, rhubarb for pie, and summer melons.

In the meantime, think of all those imposters that are spring in name alone. A few visible offenders:

Spring onions – What are these? They used to be pungent shoots that came up through the soil when specific meteorological conditions rang alarms on their genetic clock. Now they’re a euphemism for scallions. You can get imported bundles of them for less than a dollar year-round.

Spring rolls – Rolled, yes, but not only in spring. The illusion is especially seductive during the dark middle of our long winters. The truth – meaning Wikipedia – is that “In Vietnam spring rolls, sometimes called summer rolls, is a Vietnamese delicacy known as gỏi cuốn. Depending on region, spring rolls were made differently. Spring rolls refer to the freshness of the spring season with all the fresh ingredients, therefore frying takes away that feeling.” See? Summer rolls. What a fraud, like me lazily pasting aggregated text into this post.

Field greens – Not always grown in a field. Same with spring greens. I eat them in December all the time.

“Spring breeze” scented laundry detergent – Maybe this smells like spring if you grew up on a planet made of fabric softener, but where I come from, it smells more like the cosmetic aisle at CVS, as well as the headache I get from trips to certain department stores.

Really though, the foods I crave aren’t ones that are ever in or out of season. I’m a product of refrigeration, globalization and grand-scale delusion, and I’m poorer for it. But I still eat well, because as much I love my warm weather fruits and veggies, the things I crave I can get year-round: phō, bean burritos, tea, chocolate, nakji bokum and doenjang jigae. Though I have to admit: even buried beneath jalapeños and onions, the hot house tomatoes in winter pico de gayo are usually godawful.

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