It was its title that intrigued me. I confess I’ve been judging books by their titles a great deal lately. Indeed, it was on the strength of its title that I bought Joan Acocella’s collection Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays a few weeks ago without even knowing who she was. This was an impulsive purchase from a library book sale. I have no problem with that.
And so, as I stood in my local bookstore and considered the book before me, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett, I did not balk at the fact that I’d never heard of the book. Nor that, though Ann Patchett’s name sounded vaguely familiar, I hadn’t previously read anything by her.
I pretty much knew the book was creative nonfiction before I even picked it up. No one in her right mind would pen a piece of fiction with that kind of title. (And, judging from the front cover, with the proclamation of “New York Times Bestseller” under her name — does that describe the book or the writer? — I figured she knew what she was doing.)
Later, I found that Patchett would address this topic overtly, that happiness is generally not the stuff of fiction: “Stories are based in conflict,” she writes, “and when the conflict is resolved the story ends. That’s because for the most part happiness is amorphous, wordless, and largely uninteresting.”
On a whim, I decided to add the book to the top of my Christmas wish list. From its title alone, I figured it would probably be a good read. To write about happiness in an interesting way — you have to be a pro to pull that off.
The nice thing about acting on intuition is that, sometimes, you’re right.
After I received the book, and promptly started reading it, I discovered that Patchett had written nonfiction for magazines for a number of years to pay the bills, though she was in her mind actually a fiction writer. (This was a novel idea to me – that creative nonfiction could pay that substantially.)
I had erroneously assumed, probably from the phrase I’d found on the front flap which marketed it as “an irresistible blend of literature and memoir,” that This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage was a memoir about the life of a successful fiction writer, and that the “marriage” was perhaps even metaphorical for the union of her writing and some other important aspect in her life. So I was delighted when I discovered it was actually a collection of personal essays, and that the title stemmed from one of them.
What delighted me less was the implication from that phrase — “an irresistible blend of literature and memoir” — that fiction was a more serious sort of literature than nonfiction was; that memoir didn’t count as literature; and, that if a memoir did happen to be literary, why, then this was the exception, not the rule.
Eventually, I chalked it up to an error of judgement by the blurb writer. But the sentiment is echoed in the book by Patchett herself. She herself had not regarded the majority of these essays as literature when she first wrote them. “The job of these essays had been to support art, not to be art,” she poignantly offers in her introduction, “but maybe that was what spared them from self-consciousness.”
It turned out, I absolutely loved this book, despite the slight feeling of her relegating nonfiction to a space after fiction. Though I’d not read any of Ann Patchett’s New York Times Bestselling fiction, I have read a lot of personal essays, and this collection of hers was fantastic. Why? In part, because she is both relatable and likable as a person. And because she is a skilled writer.
It doesn’t matter what topic she’s covering, whether it’s her trying out for the LA police department for a book she never wrote, or purchasing a bookstore, or coming late to listening to opera, or caring for her aging dog or Grandmother or the nun that used to teach her, or detailing her writing career, or hiding from life for a week in an upscale hotel in order to get things done, Patchett is at once professional and personal. You feel like she is authentic on the page, like you’ve just met up with an old friend.
This is the kind of book that once you start it, you always want to be reading it. But it’s also the kind you don’t want to get through too quickly, because then it will end.
Though she is personal in her writing, and inevitably wrote about people who were close to her (she writes both about a happy marriage and another one that was less-than-happy), I feel like she is generous in her portrayals. If she is hard on someone, she is hardest on herself, without being self-deprecating.
Despite how much I enjoyed this book, I’ve had a difficult time writing this review.
I got stuck in the same rut which she describes in “The Getaway Car” when trying to write: “I will zoom through a whole host of unpleasant tasks in an attempt to avoid item number one — writing fiction.” In my case, it was writing this book review for a book which I thoroughly enjoyed. Instead of actually writing, I cleaned my desk, deleted 500 emails, and otherwise sat for hours in front of my screen having made little progress.
“Do you want to do this thing?” she asks. “Sit down and do it. Are you not writing? Keep sitting there. Does it not feel right? Keep sitting there. Think of yourself as a monk walking the path to enlightenment. Think of yourself as a high school senior wanting to be a neurosurgeon. Is it possible? Yes. Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found. Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.”
Perhaps my difficulty in writing this book review was the same premise for me buying the book: happiness is difficult to write about in an interesting way. And, an enjoyable book? Well, I’ve written about those before, but this one seemed to be in a league of its own, and the words to describe it have escaped me.
Everyone seems so surprised when creative nonfiction is actually good, as though it was some happy accident, rather than a purposeful craft of a distinct literary genre.
It didn’t surprise me that the writing was good. It just surprised me how good it was.
Question: What do you find difficult to write about?
I find it difficult to write about EVERYTHING. Ha. I have millions of ideas but when I come to write I just freeze sort of…I’m in a library writing group and I’m finding that just the group exercises are good for me, because it teaches me to just puke it all out. You can always edit, and in fact, so many things are HEAVILY edited before they are the beautiful things they are today. This book sounds SO good. I’ll put it on my list, but I MUST refrain from ordering it from the library. MY TBR pile is toppling. Thanks for the great review.
Good point! It’s actually doing the writing — not coming up with the ideas — that is the difficult part! What a great idea to do writing exercises with your library writing group. For a few months, I would do a “freewrite” nearly every day, and I found that this allowed me to write without being overly concerned about what the finished product would look like, or if I would even use it at all. And so, instead of staring at a blank computer screen, feeling psychologically paralyzed, I was just — and actually — writing!
You may be interested to know that Ann Patchett speaks to both of these things in her essay “The Getaway Car” — that writers often aren’t lacking ideas, and also, that one of the most important and foundational things she learned about writing early on was you just need to write, whether it’s good or not. But I don’t want to unwittingly tempt you away from your already well-stocked pile of books to read, so I’ll just leave it at that. 🙂
Thanks for your comment!
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The things that I find most difficult to write about are the things which catalyze the greatest emotional releases. It is less about the initial desirability of the subject and more about the emotional experience I expect to undergo during and after writing. Sometimes I feel unprepared for that kind of energetic investment, and so I put it off.
I’m also notorious for putting off writing when I start to head in a direction that isn’t working and need to change my ideas or backtrack. If I write myself into an unpleasant corner, I’m tempted to leave it because I don’t like it as much as I feel I should. I’m getting better at recognizing this as a cue that I need to actively change the course of my current text instead of abandoning it outright.
I do want to comment on genre categorization. I always wonder who is served by any given label. Does Ann use those labels because of what she attributes emotionally to her writing experience? Is it a publishing decision aimed at bookstore shelf organization or appeal in the customer end game? Who is defining literature, particularly, which in itself tends to have loose attribution if not also definition. Sometimes I wonder at the line between fiction and non-fiction. These labels create useful expectations, but is there ever grey area? Fiction and non-fiction are each commentariea on our own experiences and understandings to an extent, and all creative forms embody artifice. Picasso famously stated (though in the context of cubism and research) “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” I think that it is often the realm of metaphor that carries writing outside of the context of literal truth in order to convey perspective. Fiction, while perhaps less consciously representing truth, is in some ways a much more developed metaphor. Perhaps there is a line somewhere, between non-fiction saturated in metaphor and fiction borrowing heavily from reality, and stepping away from the onus to specify a fictional or non-fictional premise for readership, that even these labels may blend? Regardless, I think it’s fascinating to consider our attachment to labels in writing, the relative clarity and obscurity they espouse, and who they ultimately serve.
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Every so often, I will go to the “spam” folder in my WordPress account and discover a genuine comment which has been incorrectly flagged. Your comment got caught there and I only just discovered it! I’m sorry about the wait in having it published! You bring up some keen insights on writing, and raise some important questions about genre, ones which I’d like to explore more. I will comment a little later tonight when I have the chance to respond properly. Thanks for the great insights!
I think these are both important aspects of writing that you’ve identified as difficult to do, and that very well may be for others as well (I know I could relate to both). I agree that there’s often a psychological experience that happens when I write – no matter what the subject. And when the writing goes in another direction – yes, I hear you! It can be challenging — deflating sometimes — to know you have to backtrack, or even begin again. I want to think more about the emotional / psychological experience that happens.
I’m glad you asked these poignant questions about genre categorization. This is an important conversation, one that is not always given the chance to even consider having. I don’t know have any definitive answers, but I do have some thoughts.
Though I write primarily creative nonfiction, I grew up reading — and still thoroughly enjoy reading — fiction. There was always a big part of me that resisted the thought of it being “not true,” even though I knew it was “fiction” that I was reading. I recall in high school when a classmate asked our English teacher why we were studying Hamlet, someone who wasn’t even “real.” I was dumbfounded and upset that he asked such a question (Hamlet was one of my favourites), especially when I realized I had no way to answer (I’d never even considered such a thing)! What I would answer now is that literature, whatever its genre, conveys an emotional truth, even if the characters depicted or events portrayed are not “real.” On some level, and in my case usually a personal one, the writing resonates. Does that not make it “true”? But this may be an aside to genre categorization.
My entire creative writing theory course in my MFA was focused on questions of genre classification, pushing against the assumptions of what we had previously considered it to be. The entire reading list consisted of books that were not readily relegated into one genre (one of the books was called *This is Not a Novel,* which it definitely was not, but it was hard to say, then, what it actually was). We were asked by our professor, and in turn asked ourselves, what genre was, and for one assignment were required to write definitions of the genre we wrote wrote in, detailing the rules and boundaries of it. It was more difficult than I had anticipated. Creative nonfiction, for instance, which is often identified as literature which is true, naturally includes personal essays and memoir, but what about poems which are true? (What about poems which are fictitious?) Form comes into play as well. There are “prose poems” which are “true” — does that then make them creative nonfiction? Also, what about the lyric essay? Why is it more “essay” than “poem”? (Indeed, there is often a debate about the prose poem / lyric essay — I’ve heard that some have initially been published as one, and then anthologized as the other.) I don’t know who decides what genre a piece is, or the motivations to pick one over another, whether it’s the writer, agent, publisher, or whoever. I’ve heard of some books which have been repetitively rejected as one genre (fiction), but have been readily swept up when when marketed as another (memoir). I think the divide between fiction and creative nonfiction can be particularly difficult to navigate. So many novels we dub “autobiographical,” yet we also probe at pieces of creative nonfiction to try find any places in which they may be fictitious! This makes me wonder if we just want to difficult, if we have a tendency to disbelieve! Or, perhaps more accurately, we want to get to the truth of the matter.
James Frey’s book, *A Million Little Pieces* (which I’ve never read but which is notorious for this and is spoken of derisively in creative nonfiction circles), was marketed as a memoir while later it was discovered that he grossly exaggerated timeframes and other details. There was outrage among its readers. But it was only a book – why should we care?
And yet, there are many novels which are “thinly veiled autobiography” – perhaps a few facts were changed. How does this affect us when we find that out?
The class I was in came to a consensus where CNF and fiction are concerned that perhaps in some cases, the only difference between fiction and nonfiction is the truth-claim that CNF is making and fiction is not. If a piece I write goes out into the wild as CNF, my readers will have certain expectations of not only the piece but also of me as the writer. Indeed, there is now an implied truth contract between them and me, at least in how I represent and write about an experience / memory / interpretation. If they later find out that I’ve been intentionally misleading, there is a breach of trust. The contract falls apart. Personally, I don’t quite understand why it matters when I read or even watch something that alleges to be CNF or “based on true events,” but I somehow I have an additional emotional investment in it.
As for Ann, it seems that she personally saw a clear divide between her fiction and nonfiction writing. “Unlike in my fiction, where I prided myself on making things up, I found these articles wanted personal experience,” she wrote in her Introduction to *This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.* I found myself resisting this and other statements she made, however. Was it really so cut-and-dry that in fiction she “makes things up” and in her essays she used “personal experience”? (Here I am, questioning her very truth claim!).
And now I think about the ways in which essays use techniques often found in fiction (like imagining, albeit, in a self-conscious way if used in CNF). But I think I will have to end here for now. It’s just such a huge topic!
Thanks for your comment, and for opening up this discussion!
I decided to read this book after reading this review. I am really enjoying it! Thanks for the recommendation!
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That’s wonderful to hear! I’m so glad you’re enjoying it! 🙂
So much of making sense of the world seems to require the need to classify and categorize. Thus, we classify species of birds, types of music, the realm of politics, and kinds of writing, to name just a few. Categorization sometimes isn’t all it’s cracked up to be–it has an affinity to pigeon-holing–but by and large it seems necessary to bring about a degree of knowing. I like to think that categorizing writing, for example, ascribing a genre, is useful because it helps us see differences. It brings order to a chaotic world, that this thing is different from that. The trouble with that notion, however, is that we become locked in to the classifications, the differences, and adopt a rigidity that isn’t warranted, that oftentimes can seem pedantic, arbitrary.
Perhaps a proper system of classification might look like a series of Venn diagrams, wherein we not only see the differences between things, but also their similarities, what they have in common. Various forms of prose, therefore, are separate yet similar, as is the case with the various forms of poetry. And prose and poetry, too, have their overlaps. None of those similarities, however, overwhelm so much that we lose sight of the differences. We simply are given to understand that life is muddled, messy, that seeing differences, and valuing them, is necessary but not sufficient. Life requires seeing a bigger picture, in all its smudged boundaries.
Liked your review, by the way. Patchett is a very fine writer. Her “Bell Canto” (fiction) I liked very much. It had truth in it. She was a friend of the late Lucy Grealy, who wrote the acclaimed “Autobiography of a Face,” which I’ve read and highly recommend. Patchett wrote her own memoir–“Truth and Beauty: A Friendship”– of her friendship with Grealy, which I”ve not read but one of these days will.
Thanks for your post. It made me think.
I really like your idea of a classification system being a series of Venn diagrams. You’re totally right about classification tending to pigeon-hole . . . and yet, we still have the (human?) need to classify, categorize, organize, and order. The Venn diagram idea allows those overlaps to occur and still valuing all of life’s muddiness and “smudged boundaries.” Wonderful phrase!
I’m glad you enjoyed my book review. Since reading *This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage* I have seen lots of Patchett’s fiction around. I’ve not dipped into either her *Truth and Beauty* or Grealy’s *Autobiography of a Face* but they look interesting. Thanks for your recommendation of the latter. Patchett wrote an essay called “Fact vs. Fiction” in which she speaks about her friendship with Grealy (it was a convocation address) which appears in *This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage*; it also touches on her writing of *Truth and Beauty.* Thank you for your insightful comment!