Nonfiction is a baggy-pants term, in whose bulging pockets one finds autobiography, memoir, the essay, literary journalism, and book-length studies of ideas, trends, and much else. The only thing these various forms have in common is that all are written in prose and are based, supposedly, on fact.
Attempts have been made in recent years to elevate serious nonfiction, to pump it up into the realm of high literature. In their day, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote claimed to be writing nonfiction novels, by which they meant little more than that they brought a fiction writer’s sensibility, and a few of the techniques of the novel, to factual material. In some academic circles, nonfiction is referred to as “literary nonfiction,” or—man that pump: huff, puff—as “creative nonfiction,” and a magazine called Creative Nonfiction has been in existence for nearly 20 years now. But is nonfiction in all its various subgenres sufficiently unified for a book of advice on how to write it likely to be of much value?
Such a book has been written by a veteran writer of nonfiction named Tracy Kidder and his former editor at the Atlantic, the Atlantic Monthly Press, and Houghton Mifflin, Richard Todd, who now teaches at Goucher College. The authors claim that Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction is
mainly a practical book, the product of years of experiment in three types of prose: writing about the world, writing about ideas, and writing about the self. To put this another way, this book is a product of our attempts to write and to edit narratives, essays, and memoirs.
Though the book is written, for the most part, in collaboration, certain sections of Good Prose are written and signed by one or other of the two authors (for example, “Being Edited” by Kidder and “Editing” by Todd). Setting out the questions, problems, and issues that beset the writer of serious prose based in fact, it is earnest, sensible, and never foolish, if, at times—as perhaps all books of advice must—lapsing into the commonplace.
Kidder has written for magazines, but he is better known as a writer of what he and Todd refer to as “nonfiction narratives.” He has written at book-length about, among other subjects, early computers (The Soul of a New Machine, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982), home construction (House, 1985), nursing homes (Old Friends, 1993), environmentalism (Mountains Beyond Mountains, 2003), genocide in Burundi (Strength in What Remains, 2009), and his days as a young lieutenant in Vietnam (My Detachment, 2005).
Todd has been Kidder’s editor for more than 40 years. This in itself is an extraordinary fact, since editors tend to be more migratory than most birds, and rarely stay at the same publishing house for long. Publishing house editors are either fired for failing to bring in commercially successful books or they leave because, having succeeded in finding such books, they are in a position to better themselves by going to work for a firm with more prestige.
Kidder and Todd discovered each other when the latter was an editor at the Atlantic and the former, not long out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was eager to publish in a big-name magazine. Kidder’s subject was the effect of a serial killer on the people of the Sacramento Valley. Todd showed great patience in working with Kidder in helping make the piece publishable, even though the principal editor of the magazine, an obtuse man named Robert Manning, thought Kidder was without talent.
I call Manning obtuse not only because he was wrong about Tracy Kidder, but because the Atlantic under Manning’s editorship was unusually dull. I also harbor a mild but genuine personal grievance against Robert Manning. In 1969, he invited me to Boston to interview for a job as an editor at the magazine. We lunched at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He ordered a carafe of red wine, almost all of which he drank on his own. I laid out various ideas for the Atlantic, but, as he polished off a second carafe of red wine, I was presenting my carefully rehearsed plan for enlivening his magazine to a man utterly schnockered. If he heard a single word I’d said, the alcohol obviously erased it.
Despite Manning’s misjudgment about Kidder, Todd stood by him. The unusualness of their relationship is what makes Good Prose an interesting book, at the same time that it limits its general usefulness. No one is likely to come upon so full-court-press an editor as Tracy Kidder found in Richard Todd; nor is any editor likely to find so malleable a writer to work with as Richard Todd discovered in Tracy Kidder.
The way they work together is at the center of Good Prose. Kidder comes to Todd with an idea for a new book, which they discuss, and, if the idea appears workable, they hone and refine it. Through reading, interviews, and legwork, Kidder assembles the material required to write the book. In a great swoosh of energy, he plunges into the writing, putting down everything that occurs to him in the first of what may turn out to be 9 or 10 drafts. Todd makes points small and large, in the margin and in conversation, on the various drafts. The manuscript begins to take shape.
“No writer known to me revises so energetically and even enthusiastically as Kidder,” writes Todd. As a writer, Kidder is expansive, abundant; as an editor, Todd is meticulous and spare. And so, between the two of them, like the English nursery rhyme’s Mr. and Mrs. Sprat, they lick not the plate but the manuscript clean.
When the book on which they have been working is finally in type, author and editor go off to some distant place—Maine is mentioned; so, too, St. Martin—to read page proofs to each other and make final corrections. One of their habits when doing so, they report, is to imagine bad reviews for the book—the notion here being that such reviews once imagined will not occur in reality. Have they, I wonder, already imagined this review?
After all these years, each man is aware of the other’s weaknesses and strengths. Kidder is used to Todd’s taciturnity and respects his demands for the utmost clarity; Todd is used to Kidder’s propensity to seek out goodness in the subjects he writes about, and sometimes to overdo his emphasis on virtue. Kidder can no longer quite decipher Todd’s marginal comments, owing to his deteriorating handwriting, but so long have they been working together he knows by instinct the intentions behind them. Over more than 40 years, they report, neither has spoken in anger to the other. About how many marriages can that statement be made?
What makes the Kidder-Todd relationship noteworthy is not merely its duration but the fact that editors have long since ceased to lavish such attention on their authors. Within large publishing houses nowadays, the job of editor is often broken down into that of procurement editor and that of manuscript editor: The job of the first is to sign up the author; that of the second is to make his or her book presentable for publication. The more successful a contemporary editor in publishing is, the less likely is he to spend lots of time working on his authors’ manuscripts.
Maxwell Perkins, at Charles Scribner’s Sons, is easily the most famous of American publishing editors. Perkins is to publishing as Clarence Darrow is to law: the representative, the exemplary figure. He acquired his fame as an editor through the fame of his authors, who included, among others, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, John P. Marquand, and Erskine Caldwell. Some needed more attention than others. Fitzgerald required emotional support, Wolfe extensive surgery on his overblown novels. (Wolfe wrote so elaborate a dedication to Perkins for one of his later novels that the dedication, like the manuscript itself, had to be cut roughly in half.)
Not even Maxwell Perkins supplied his authors with the attention that Todd provides Kidder. Any writer reading Good Prose will naturally ask if he would like to have such attention paid to his own compositions. The answer will have a good deal to do with the writer’s confidence in his own skill: his sense of proportion, feeling for structure, and mastery of prose style. The more confident he is of these, the less is he likely to yearn for such heavy editing.
Over and above literary skill, ego often enters the equation, in some cases emphatically. In my mid-20s, I had an article accepted by Harper’s, a prospect immensely pleasing to me. The glow of pleasure wore off, however, once I received a copy of my article, which had been edited to the point of its having nearly been rewritten by an editor there. My choices were four: (1) withdraw the article (and lose the fee and dollop of fame its publication promised); (2) accept the heavy editing (who, after all, would know, except the editor and me?); (3) work out a compromise; or (4) demand the manuscript be returned to its original form.
Those who feel that compromise should have been the clear and simple solution know little of the vanity of writers. I demanded that everything be returned to the way I had written the article, and—doubtless setting a bad precedent for the rest of my career—I got my way. The fact was, the thought of words I had not written appearing under my name, in however grand a place, made me nearly physically ill.
One gathers that Todd does not change many of Kidder’s words. Instead he edits for emphasis, structure, and flow. “The best thing an editor can do,” he writes, “is help a writer to think, and this is the most satisfying part of an editor’s work, collaborating at the level of structure and idea.” He adds that “[e]ditors ideally can hear and see prose in a way that the writer cannot. And to notice [a problem] may be enough, preferable to trying to fix it oneself.”
Kidder holds that “writers who need editors have to learn to listen, really listen, to advice that no one wants to hear—that you should jettison hard-earned pages, that you must start again.” Todd’s praise is generally restrained, but his editorial advice, one gathers, though authoritative, is tactfully delivered. His relationship with Kidder has never slid into the adversarial. “Editing at its best involves the editorial engagement between editor and author,” he writes. “Editing at its worst is more like combat.”
Reading about Kidder and Todd, one thinks of one’s own experience with editors. The fates of my book-length manuscripts in the hands of editors have been wildly varied. I had an editor for one of my books a few years ago who frequently wrote in the margins of my manuscript: “More texture.” I hadn’t a notion what she had in mind by “texture,” and we soon parted ways. In a little book I wrote on Tocqueville, I mentioned that Tocqueville’s father served as a prefect in Metz, which caused its editor to set out in my margin, “More about Metz.” I replied that if he wanted to learn more about Metz, he could consult a Baedeker, for he would get no more about the French provincial town from me.
The editor of my first book was a man in his mid-30s named Hal Scharlatt. He was one of the hot editors of the day—the early 1970s—at a time when many editors were well known, at least within the scribbling trade. Some of the better known among them were: Henry Sutton, Ashbel Green, David Segal, Robert Gutwillig, Elizabeth Sifton, Aaron Asher, and Robert Gottlieb. Unlike Richard Todd, Scharlatt was the reverse of reliable. He didn’t answer letters, returned calls only after long intervals, and might show up 40 minutes late for a lunch meeting. In dealing with my manuscript, he never deigned to offer particular criticism. Instead, at the end of a chapter he might write, “Things slow down here. I’d cut this chapter by 20 percent.” No indication of how or where to cut; nor any word about how he derived the figure 20 percent. The astonishing thing is that he was always right. After a French lunch and a workout on the tennis court, Hal Scharlatt dropped dead of a heart attack at 39.
I have had other good, if not so eccentric, editors for my books. The fine literary taste of a woman named Pat Straughn made itself quietly felt in a book I wrote on the subject of snobbery. A young editor named Webster Younce was largely hands-off with the manuscript of a book I wrote about friendship, except to suggest (rightly) that I ought to begin the book with what was then its third chapter. Carol Houck Smith was my editor for roughly 15 years at W. W. Norton, and I have no recollection of her ever suggesting a change or touching a sentence in the nine books I published with her. What I do recall is lots of laughter and a shared love for the singing of Blossom Dearie.
In Good Prose, Kidder and Todd take up the nonfiction form of the essay, but without any special penetration. Their examples of consummate essayists comprise the usual suspects. They write the standard goop on those old bores Emerson and Thoreau, and are not much fresher on Virginia Woolf. E. B. White, like a literary Muhammad Ali at a major sporting event, puts in his standard appearance. William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb and Max Beerbohm go unmentioned. Closer to our time, they exalt A. J. Liebling and Joan Didion. They seem to miss the key note in Didion, which is depression, and the fact that Liebling, amusing though he could be, was chiefly slumming in most of his essays.
Kidder and Todd are not much better on the memoir. They fail to make the crucial distinction between memoir and confession, a mistake many contemporary writers of memoir make—much to their readers’, if not their own, embarrassment. Every memoir should be “a record of learning,” they write. Tell that to the duc de Saint-Simon, who used his memoir, the greatest ever written, chiefly to revenge himself on his enemies at Versailles. Kidder has produced a single memoir, My Detachment, about his days in an administrative, not a line, company in Vietnam, and it is one of his less successful books. The reason for this is that Tracy Kidder, an honest and an honorable writer, has neither an interestingly complex mind nor an original point of view. His virtues are doggedness and decency. He was made to write about other people, ordinary people, and he does best to include himself in his writing only when he is absolutely required to do so.
Which is why the portion of Good Prose devoted to what the authors call “narrative nonfiction” is the most interesting, and also the most controversial, portion of the book. Making books out of other people’s lives is fraught with complications. Not the least of them is whether, as Janet Malcolm contended in her book The Journalist and the Murderer, all such projects are corrupted from the start. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” Malcolm wrote. Kidder and Todd, naturally enough, do not agree—or at least they think Malcolm’s assertion needs to be highly qualified. They set out rules for removing the element of corruption from the transaction between writer and subject, which consist chiefly of candor on the part of the writer to his subject from the outset, in what amounts to a literary version of a prenuptial agreement.
Corruption, though, can derive from both sides. Often in these arrangements, each party (subject and writer) is out to seduce the other, each for his own motives. The writer wants his story; the subject wants to be written up in a way that will enhance his reputation, glamorize him, or one way or another redound to his greater glory. Invariably, the two are using each other, no mistake about it.
A number of years ago, I allowed a piece to be written about me by a reporter from the Chicago Tribune. Our interaction began with a call in which she told me how much her mother “adored” my short stories. I let her attend a class I was then teaching; she claimed to find my teaching highly polished. I took her to lunch, where we talked amiably, almost intimately, about common experiences we had undergone in Chicago, where we had both grown up. We parted amiably, she to write a profile that portrayed me as pretentious, affected, snobbish, and mildly out of it. I suppose I have no right to complain, since my motive was to come off as immensely charming, or at least likable, with the result that the pleasing publicity would bring me many new readers. The frog (me) in this case didn’t know what he was getting into when he agreed to transport the scorpion (the reporter) across the pond.
Journalism entailing interviews, or allowing the writer to hang around the subject as he goes through his normal life, is a form of documentary—with a cinéma vérité touch added. As such, it perforce requires the writer to be selective, to make decisions about what to put in and what to exclude. The more the element of selection is in play, the lower the truth quotient of literary, as of film, documentary. This is why “narrative nonfiction” has a lower status than fiction. “Fiction is where the truth can be found,” Frederic Raphael has written; “documentary is too often where it is confected.” One thinks here about the most famous nonfiction narrative of the past century, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, about which witnesses continue to come forth to attest that Capote invented some of the most crucial scenes in his very readable book.
Good Prose is something of a misnomer as a title, until the book’s end, where the authors include eight pages of notes on grammar and usage. Here, they are, for most part, on the side of the angels. They rightly favor H. W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage over all other guides to careful English. They allow for change in the language, yet retain a sensible distaste for many words and constructions because of their imprecision and awkwardness. “Iconic,” “parenting,” “impacting,” and “proactive” are among their bugaboo words, and they would outlaw all sports metaphors from contemporary prose. They don’t much care, either, for “going forward” in place of “in the future” or “soon,” and contemn “folks” in place of “people”—two locutions that, if legally outlawed, would render our current president nearly speechless.
Kidder and Todd fail to announce a ban on “journey,” the great overworked metaphor of the day (so that now, among the psychobabblous, marriage, raising children, cancer, and life itself are flaming “journeys”). They concede that “to Google” has entered the language and that it no longer requires quotation marks. They neglect to note, though, the comic awkwardness of the phrase “I Googled myself,” which is something every writer does frequently and which sounds like nothing so much as the mental equivalent of an act that 19th-century medical encylopedias referred to as “the secret vice”—a vice Googling oneself all too closely resembles.
Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet.