To Show and to TellPosted: November 8, 2021
To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction
Free Press (February 12, 2013), 242 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $10.39
I have been reading and writing essays since my days at Pitzer College in the 1970s. I believe it was the second semester of my senior year that I took a course in composition and fell in love with the form. In particular, I admired the essays of George Orwell, so much so that I bought the complete set of Orwell’s Collected Essays not long after graduation. (Along with everything else of Orwell’s that was in print, but we’re talking about nonfiction and essays here.)
Phillip Lopate is a professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where he teaches nonfiction writing, and has been director of Columbia’s nonfiction program. In the present volume he has a lot to say about the writing of nonfiction in general, and the essay in particular. Lopate states that “some of our best recent writers were arguably better at nonfiction than fiction.” I believe that to be true of Orwell, whom he lists, but he also includes Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Joan Didion in this category.
Lopate holds up the Frenchman Montaigne as the originator and the gold standard of the personal essay, an assessment that I’ve encountered before. In fact, I once bought a Kindle edition of one of Montaigne’s essay collections and found it practically unreadable. I have to allow that it may have been the translation, however. And in any case Lopate offers many other examples of skilled essayists, including Virginia Woolf, Loren Eiseley, and Edmund Wilson.
The author writes about the idea of obsession, and how that is a useful tool for fiction. But he says that “we nonfiction writers don’t need it.” He asks rhetorically, “Then what is needed to generate nonfiction?” His answer: curiosity. Lopate states:
The challenge faced by the nonfiction writer is to take something that actually happened, to herself or to others, and try to render it as honestly and compellingly as possible.
Lopate has given me a list of authors to add to my reading list. He says that the best writer of the nature essay is Edward Hoagland. I haven’t read him. He offers excerpts from the essays of James Baldwin. Magnificent writing I’ll have to pursue. He states that the best travel writers are Robert Byron, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Bruce Chatwin, and Kate Simon. I have only read Chatwin. (And how could he omit Paul Theroux?)
The book’s title comes from the overworked axiom constantly thrown at writers: “Show, don’t tell.” Lopate writes, “I would argue that literary nonfiction is surely the one arena in which it is permissible to ‘tell.’” Lopate does both superbly. It wasn’t until I got to the acknowledgments at the end of the book that I discovered it is a compilation of essays published elsewhere. The book flows beautifully as a single, cohesive work.
To Show and to Tell motivates me to keep reading and keep writing.