23 March 2009

McPhee, John. "Spin Right and Shoot Left." The New Yorker. 23 March 2009. 54-61.

I like nonfiction for reasons similar to what I once heard Philip Lopate say about his genre: I read it to watch a mind at work. I don't think much about truth or reality distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. I'm not interested in memoir, usually, at least I'm not interested in memoir because it might be telling me a story that may actually have happened to someone in this world. I'm not interested in nonfiction telling me a story at all. I read fiction for stories. Nonfiction gives me ideas about things.

I've read a smattering of John McPhee in my day, almost always in nonfiction writing classes. Usually I find him longwinded. Impressive but dull. Smarter than anything I'll ever accomplish but encumbered by data.

So what happened to McPhee when he wrote this lacrosse piece? Remnick should always hand McPhee a 4,000-word limit. His prose here jumps and pops like an ants-pantsed Kerri Strug. There's this looseness throughout, the work of a man so in control of his subject—McPhee's some honorary faculty member/teammate for Princeton's lacrosse team—that he's able to drop little facts of the matter in the most curious of his paragraph's spots. One paragraph about the International Federation of Women's Lacrosse Associations suddenly, five sentences in, slips into a discussion about the Iroquois and the Indian National Lacrosse Foundation. It's either some factor of septuagenarian wisdom or New-Yorker-veteran flippancy. Another paragraph about FOGOs (Face Off, Get Off players) consists chiefly of a long quotation from some lacrosse trade mag, then ends this way:
In 1888, Princeton's face-off man was Edgar Allen Poe. His granduncle (ibid.) wrote "The Raven."
And who cares? Factoids are like Doritos for the research-high nonfiction writer. We grab and grab and grab at them hoping they'll sustain us. Because we've uncovered so much stuff and having spent so long to find it and write it down we damn well better find a way to make the reader appreciate it.

The only way to handle it is to throw it in and get the hell right out. Quit building scenes and just string facts together. You'd think I'd've learned all this from "Slouching Towards Bethlehem". You'd think I could trust the material on its own by now.


Post a Comment

<< Home