You open your late Aunt Charlotte’s bottom desk drawer and find there two sheaves of manuscript, one her unpublished novel or collection of verse, the other her journal. Which would you read first? And which would you read if you only had time or opportunity for one?
Most of us would choose the latter, I think, for good literary, and non-literary, reasons. Ask anyone what makes a diary, or journal, literature and most likely you’ll be told . . . well, the quality of the writing . . . and perhaps as an afterthought: The writer. And most of the literary criteria then offered in elaboration will serve equally well for describing the aesthetic virtues of fiction or poetry. That’s because those aesthetic qualities originate in those genres, which have no other things to purvey in the pleasure trade, no other means to claim our attention and justify their existence.
In December 2002, a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was castigated by his colleagues for delivering a legal opinion in quatrains.*
The case involved a woman who sought damages from her estranged, much older fiancé because he had lied to her about the nature of her engagement ring (not to mention its value). The majority of the court denied her claim, declaring that she, given the difference in their ages, had relied foolishly on his assurances.
You can renounce food, shelter, sex—but you cannot renounce character because, at the very least, it is the expression of the body in time. This is why, in the most immediate sense, character is destiny (as the Greeks thought) or character is the threat of fate (as the more optimistic contemporary social scientists assert).
The word “character” derives from the notion of the memorable, what impresses itself on memory. You cannot renounce making an impression on others if your living flesh is present. You cannot flee presence, however much you may travel out of the body. And neither can a character in prose avoid making an impression (if a character in prose would ever have such an aspiration) because character’s presence begins with the first word put down: that incarnation.
The human mind is by nature spiritually responsive, but since it is unavoidably burdened, one must, in order to gain access to it, use as a substitute something that does not have a mind.
—Shen Gua (11th century), commentary on The Book of Changes
The poet manifests his personality, first of all, by his choice of subject.
—Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel
A. L. Kennedy’s On Bullfighting, Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, and J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine take up quite literal—and not overly eccentric—nonfiction topics: the lore and logic of a cultural institution, the mystery imbuing a terrible misadventure, the doings of creatures in the wild. Each book reports brilliantly, in exemplary detail. But each is driven to its compelling engagement with the facts (or the putative facts, as some would have it) by an ongoing, intimate crisis its narrator suffers. This traumatic state is explicitly revealed to varying degrees, with Kennedy’s book being the most forthcoming and Baker’s the least. But it is most fully and compelling manifest in the factual content’s becoming a metaphor for the narrator’s quandary. Thus, the nature of these books is doubled. Each is nonfiction report and memoir by inference. The latter is not so much subtext as “side-text,” if you will—personal narrative of distress, in distress.