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Human Versus Literary Transcendence
A Major Difference Between Fiction and Memoir Reading You Should be Aware of.
My alarm bells started ringing in May of 2021 after a glance at the spreadsheet where I kept track of the books I’d read so far that year. The spreadsheet listed nine books: eight nonfiction and one lone novel (if you’re curious, The Overstory).
Such a nonfiction-heavy reading life ran counter to the way I thought of myself as a reader and writer. It started in college with obsessions with the works of Vonnegut, Faulkner, and Hemingway. It continued through my post graduate life when I immersed myself in Updike, Bellow, and Morrison. I later took deep dives into the fiction of people closer to my age—Wallace, Almond, Patrick deWitt. I even managed to work my way through every word of In Search of Lost Time. During this span of fiction intoxication, I switched my major to English, quit a successful rock band to become a novelist, earned a graduate degree in writing, finished writing four novels, self-published three, and generally saw myself as someone who occupied the world as a fiction enthusiast. That represented over 30 years deep in the language of made-up worlds. I assumed it would last forever.
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My glance at my reading list to that point revealed that my fiction devotion might be waning, if not over.
The change wasn’t a complete surprise. I’d felt the prose terrain shifting beneath my feet for a while. Looking back at my 2020 reading spreadsheet (I know, I know. Let me have my spreadsheets), fewer than half the books I’d read for the year (12 of 26) were fiction, to go with seven memoirs or hybrid memoirs. Even that ratio was deceptive because a good number of the fictional works I’d read that year were autofiction, which more or less reads like memoir. I seemed to be making a choice for memoir-style narratives. What happened?
Many things, but having read dozens of contemporary fiction titles over the past decade, these works seemed less capable of transporting me the way fiction of the past had. Contemporary fiction writers face centuries of stiff competition. Take a stroll through your local bookstore and size it up—Austen, Baldwin, Cervantes, Dickens. If you aim to create fiction that impacts humans beyond getting them to turn pages, you’re asking people to read your work instead of that of Homer, Shakespeare, Twain … the list goes on. Contemporary literary fiction has plenty of advantages over these musty authors, but one of them isn’t proven staying power. I’d read many novels-of-the-moment that, six months later, I’d more or less forgotten about, and I was tired of it.
Replacing my desire to seek out the nuggets of wisdom I associate with reading classic fiction was my desire to have someone render a nonfiction account of their story that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. I read Sing Backwards and Weep by Mark Lanegan—former lead singer of the Screaming Trees—with my jaw on the floor, in awe of the perilous plight of the narrator as he suffers through heroin addiction. Meghan O’Gieblyn was the first author to make me aware of the Singularity (Google it), and her hybrid memoir God Human Animal Machine chronicles her journey from Christian to doubter while analyzing the advances of the computer age through the lens of classic thinkers. After reading these two titles within a month of each other in 2021, there was no point in denying that my literary DNA had realigned. I preferred nonfiction. There, I said it.
Still, my favorite memoir was just ahead of me, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I was decades late on this title, but after finishing it over the summer of 2021, it struck me as the holy grail of the form. The book offers crystalline prose revealing the childhood and teenage years of its author. Angelou, raped at the age of eight, seemed to understand deeply the trauma she’d been through and was somehow together enough to think and write clearly about it. To be violated at such a young age and to retain a strong understanding of both the deep unfairness of what she’d been through as well as the need to somehow get beyond it represents the memoir at its best. One can only imagine how many people who have suffered similar traumas have better understood their plights through Angelou’s work. That the various attributes to accomplish the book emerged in one person seems remarkable.
Which begs the question, why would I care if a book is fiction or memoir? Isn’t the goal of reading any long-form narrative to have experiences like the ones I had with these titles? You’re pulled in by characters, you follow along as they go through struggles, you rejoice when they win, are disappointed when they lose. What does it matter if that result comes from a work of fiction or nonfiction?
The biggest difference between these two forms is that reading fiction is necessarily reading a work about an imagined world, and reading a memoir is necessarily reading a work about the real world. These vantages offer different possibilities for the experience. Specifically, a memoir is about a real person, and therefore on some level about that person’s interactions with the world we all live in. A conventional work of fiction is more about an imagined world—even if that world happens to be based on our own. I think that conventional fiction’s imagined world becomes the backdrop that allows the reader the mental/emotional flexibility to be open to the possibility of transcendent moments.
“Transcendent” is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Current English as “to go beyond the range or limits of.” It’s a word I and others use to describe that moment in a story when a reader feels transported beyond the general plot toward something true, beautiful, ineffable. The word is forever linked to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who referred to himself as a transcendentalist and influentially used the term to describe truths beyond the reach of a person’s senses.
If this all sounds a little mystical, you got it. “Transcendent” often gets used synonymously with “supernatural” or “metaphysical.” When reading, it’s one way to describe the indescribable feeling that the writing transports you somewhere special, worth going, perhaps—for you—spiritual.
While those descriptions come close to what I mean when I use the word “transcendent” to describe what good fiction is, I always think of it as simply the moment when a story transports me to some better place emotionally than, to that point, I realized I was going. The place feels more important than anything the plot revealed to that point and in retrospect makes a weird kind of sense. The transcendent comes with a rising above the back-and-forth of the plot, which often deals with the individual struggles of the protagonist—whether she will get to be with the person she loves, whether the convict will escape the law, whether the boxer will win the fight—and touches on something that feels more substantive. To be clear, the plot is necessary to rope the reader in. It helps if you’re engaged with the plot, if you think it’s the important thing, for the transcendent moment to work—but once the transcendent lands its blow, the plot can seem unimportant, even petty. The transcendent moment says, this is the important stuff, the reason the story was written, the emotional knowledge you should take away from it.
To offer an example, in “In the Cart,” Anton Chekhov tells the story of a lonely schoolmistress being driven home by horse-drawn cart. The setting is rural Russia. It’s cold and miserable. The schoolmistress is deeply unhappy with her life, and maybe for this reason, Chekhov introduces into the story a monied, not particularly desirable man riding home in a cart as well. The schoolmistress and rich man know each other, and the schoolmistress at points in the story entertains the idea of a…I wouldn’t call it a romance with him, but the idea that if the two happened to be together, maybe her life wouldn’t be so bad. The plot progresses when the schoolmistress’s driver attempts to cross a flooded stream, and in the process, the schoolmistress gets muddy and her badly needed food supplies get drenched and ruined. It’s a miserable moment in a miserable day in a miserable life, and the reader wonders what else could possibly go wrong for this woman.
It is at this moment that Chekhov chooses to have the woman witness a train going by. The train is being illuminated in a certain way by the sunset, and the woman notices another woman visible on the train’s platform. By coincidence, this second woman looks just like the schoolmistress’s mother, and instantly the schoolmistress is transported back to her childhood in Moscow, remembering a time when she was happy and loved. Her mood is suddenly boosted, and the conflicts and issues that hovered over the entire story seem to recede. She cries, thinking of her mother, family, and childhood.
After the train passes, the schoolmistress’s cart continues on. In a real sense, it’s understood that the moment was no solution to her problems, but it does serve as a kind of balm against the many things that have gone wrong in her life. As George Saunders wrote about this moment in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, “Relief has arrived in the form of a memory. She recalls who she once was. She is who she once was.” It’s a beautiful scene, and bigger than whether the schoolmistress is going to marry the rich guy or how she’s going to eat that weekend. Those, in the grand scheme of things, are smaller issues than the fact that she has been loved and cared for in the past. There’s hope. In this way, the story transcends the minor, daily issues of the woman’s life and reminds us that while bad moments are very bad, they go away. It’s the kind of writerly trick that feels rejuvenating and makes me glad to have read the story.
Central to the transcendent moment is its mystery. Not everything is spelled out. You could argue it’s not there at all, and some do. I think the transcendent moment in a story is a place that holds the magic of reading for some people in the same way that the historical fiction, fantasy, or sci-fi genres hold magic for others. If you like reading, you probably like where it transports you: 1940s London, Middle-earth, Tralfamador. Transcendent moments are the precise moments in books when I experience the magic of reading at its highest intensity. Without these moments, books hold less appeal.
But that’s fiction, and for some reason I now prefer memoir. Does this form also offer the possibility of transcendence?
At first glance, there is no reason for it not to be so. Like much fiction, memoirs are narratives that focus in realistic ways on characters, even if the “characters” in memoirs actually exist or existed in real life. The memoirist uses most if not all of the linguistic tools that the fiction writer uses. They have all the power of the English language at their disposal, just like the fiction writer.
Still, I think transcendence in a memoir is different. When reading a memoir, I am squarely, at times painfully, in the author’s and my shared world, which makes my reactions to their plight more potent in a specific way.
Common to the memoir form, but not guaranteed, is the narrative of an author rising out of difficult circumstances to achieve something remarkable, even if that remarkable thing is just something resembling a normal life. Memoir serves as an effective medium for authors who have had harrowing experiences and manage to get on top of them, such as Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
After her rape comes to light, Angelou and her brother are sent from St. Louis to Stamps, Arkansas, to be raised by her paternal grandmother, Momma, in her general store. Through Momma’s diligence, Angelou receives the foundation that will make her transformation from her traumatizing experience possible. Angelou manages to understand during adolescence some of the consolations of a life with so much unfairness. Despite experiencing a level of trauma most can only imagine, and at such a young age, Angelou still possesses the ability to see her world as a place that might have a larger plan for her, one that invites spontaneity, one that—despite everything—might have capacity for good. Imagine all of the people who suffer as Angelou did but never manage to get back to that mindset.
After Angelou’s brother witnesses the corpse of a Black man being fished out of a local pond, Momma decides it’s time for the kids to live with their estranged parents in California. It's not until Angelou makes it to her mother’s new place in San Francisco that she begins to see how she might emerge as some version of herself in the world. In high school, she gets deeply involved in art and—despite her six-foot frame—dance. She comes to appreciate teachers who treat her as an equal and is dismissive of the more traditionally liberal presences. During a trip south to visit her father, Angelou drives her passed-out dad 50 miles back from the Baja across the U.S. border, this despite not having a license and never having driven a car. Her excursions outside of school lead to her becoming the first Black street car conductorette in San Francisco history—as well as to her first child, with whom she is eight months pregnant by high school graduation.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings succeeds not because of any concern for the transcendence of its language. Its prose—clear, careful, elegant—focuses primarily on the transformation of the author. The book is not, in the strictest sense, creating an imagined backdrop upon which to cast transcendent moments, such as Chekhov’s fiction example above. It seeks to reveal the author’s ability to use language to rise above her unfortunate real-life circumstances, to define those circumstances for herself, to transcend them. In other words, the memoir isn’t primarily concerned with transcendent moments so much as the transcendence of its author.
Memoirs are often triumphs of overcoming one’s past disadvantages and experiences not necessarily to do something literary but to regain control of one’s own mind, one’s own sense of goodness and possibility in a world that tried to take it away. It doesn’t really matter if the language of such a book transcends. What matters is the author has managed to transcend their fortunes to the point that they can write clearly and effectively—even forgivingly—about it. In many cases, that’s a tremendous feat that makes any literary concern pale in comparison.
Both memoir and fiction have the capacity to offer understanding and enlightenment to the reader, but that doesn’t mean the forms don’t have individual facets they do well. When I read fiction—even when the work relies on the real world in substantial ways—the terrain is ultimately about a fictional world, an imaginative one. This world allows me to roam more speculatively through the prose. The end result of such a perspective is that when an author offers a transcendent moment in their fiction, I’m free to read it as such.
The memoir, however, relies necessarily on a real person in the real world, making the memoirist the focus of the story in a more visceral way than a character in a novel. While a memoir might be less likely to offer transcendent prose, it offers the ideal framework for prose to reveal the personal transformation of someone who has suffered and emerged healed in some fundamental way. As such, fiction offers the best vantage from which to render transcendent moments, and memoir offers the same for rendering transcendent people.
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