Applying her method of reading as a writer reads to Pam Houston’s Contents May Have Shifted, Judith Kitchen asks, “So is this memoir, masked as novel? Or novel, masked as memoir? That’s one of the first questions that a reader of this book asks. “What does it matter?” you might venture. Here is our guest author’s explanation.
Reading as a Writer Reads: Judith Kitchen on Pam Houston’s Contents May Have Shifted, Part 2
(Presented in Port Townsend, WA , March 25, 2013 for the 2013 Town Community Read)
This is NOT a complaint or a criticism. Houston’s template delivers a character in flight, one who can fly all over the world and find the irony in any situation and take pleasure in the improbable and whose mind is flexible and curious so that it fills up an otherwise empty life with enough oomph to heat a house all winter. In fact, watch how the individual sentences build in a kind of muscular momentum: here, from page 64—“Time slows down the way it always does when death is lurking behind the next bad decision, and I watch Joe take what seems like forever to climb up on one of the now-in-motion car-sized rocks, and then jump from it to another, and another after that.” The “always” suggests that this person is familiar with life-threatening situations, then the “next bad decision” reveals a wry self-awareness, so the narrator can enter the present by simply stepping back to watch, painting the picture with car-sized rocks, and action following action. Thus, we grow to like the Pam who delivers the one-liners in Pam’s book.
Ah, right on time, this brings us to the big question—Is this book fiction or nonfiction? That question is not as trivial as it might seem, so we will have to return to it. First, I want to tell you that I’ve just returned from a big writers’ conference in Boston where I talked on a panel where the topic was “Why Genre Matters.” The big—I mean BIG—argument these days is how much you can make up in nonfiction. It’s somehow assumed that you CAN make things up. So now writers are haggling over the price, so to speak. Lance Armstrong lied for all those years, but the outrage is nothing compared to how writers—with their envies—can dig into each other’s working premises. Since I fall into the category of “if there is such a thing as fiction, you should call it fiction when you make something up,” I approve of Pam Houston’s decision to call this a novel. But is it a novel? I’ve been thinking about its similarities with and differences from my latest book. Half in Shade, like Contents May Have Shifted, is basically a series of short pieces, almost vignettes, and I had to decide on how to arrange them for best effect so they would add up to a “meaning” that someone would think they understood before I did. I think of it as a book of non-fiction. In it, I am looking at old photographs and also at my own illness and trying to fit both into an examination of how we—all of us—live in the moment before history—our history—is writ. The book itself is a nonfiction project. But . . . here’s the rub: I did not know most of the people in the photographs. I could hardly be writing a history, biography, even memoir. I was forced to speculate, project, imagine. In short, make things up. I wonder if maybe Pam Houston was not working in reverse—needing some nonfiction to make her fiction real. Well, writers have always done that, so we need to dig deeper. We have to try to pick this apart and see what does and does not work—and what works for you may not work for me, and vice versa.
So . . .
What kind of a person do you grow up to be when your mother takes you out of school once or twice each week to take you into New York City while she auditions and then you ride home with the top down, drinking Italian ices?
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