The Critical Work of Creative Nonfiction

by Deborah Thompson
Photo by Christina Schmidt

Photo by Christina Schmidt

        A few years ago I wrote an essay on hamsters, which I titled “Consider the Hamster” in homage to David Foster Wallace, and which appeared in Under the Sun in 2013. In his classic essay, “Consider the Lobster,” Wallace turned an assignment from Gourmet magazine to report on the Maine Lobster Festival into an examination of the very ethics, not to mention aesthetics, of boiling lobsters alive; he ends on the verge of questioning the eating of animals altogether, but then pulls back. Among the many reasons “Consider the Lobster” is a brilliant essay, one is that it de-familiarizes lobster eating; Wallace took an activity so familiar, so normalized and even celebrated that it was beyond questioning, and made it newly strange and weird. Then he expanded on the specific instance of lobster eating to question culture at large. In my essay, I wanted to use my memories of my childhood hamsters as a way to hold up for examination the very weirdness of keeping hamsters in cages as pets and ultimately of the pet-keeping phenomenon at large. I hadn’t anticipated how the process of writing that essay would also stimulate a key debate in creative nonfiction.
        In my childhood, hamster-keeping was so popular it was practically a rite of passage. It never occurred to me that things were ever any different, or that this tradition was a new invention. I’ve since learned that hamsters, notorious for their ability to hide, are native to the deserts of Syria, where they burrow underground, out of human sight. They did not reach the West until the 1930s, when one researcher, on the look-out for easily breedable medical test subjects, imported them to Europe. Soon, researchers began taking these little creatures home in their pockets to make pocket pets for their children.
        In the 1950s, the mass-market for hamster cages and other supplies began to develop in the US along with a growing suburban middle class. When I began to keep hamsters in the early 1970s-my bedroom smelling of cedar chips, my slumber sound-tracked by the spinning of the wheel–what seemed like a traditional childhood rite of passage was barely a generation old. I thought I loved my hamsters, but it never occurred to me to question if they were any better off as pets than as medical research subjects. I never asked what the hamsters’ frantic pawing at the cracks in the cage really meant, or why they ran the wheel with such desperation. Pet-keeping was seen as a civilizing activity, a way to make children more human and humane, but we never thought to consider the hamster.
        The essay I attempted to write, decades later, considered both that hamster and the cultural context that kept me, a fairly sensitive kid, from wondering what pet-keeping meant for my pet. As I recovered the history that gets erased in a typical pet store’s display of hamsters for purchase, I found my essay roaming widely along with the hamsters, from the anthropocentrism underlying medical research (and current attempts to challenge it), to the commodification of living creatures, to the global politics of neo-colonialism allowing Europe to view Syria as a natural resource providing for western needs. I even wondered if a colonialist mentality underlay pet-keeping.
        When I workshopped the essay with my writing group, whose members are quite savvy about the current standards of literary writing, I was told that the essay was too intellectual, had too much tell over show (that well-worn refrain), too much exposition, not enough scene. Above all, my fellow writers urged me to shift the attention to character, not culture. They noted the smattering of scenes I offered of my father, my hamster, and me, and encouraged more such scenes of family dynamics. “We want to see more Debby.” For my part, I was sick of Debby, the character. It’s not that I’m shy about revealing myself in my essays; my all too gratuitously confessional body of work bespeaks otherwise. But in this case, there was nothing remarkable about my childhood or its hamsters; what was remarkable, and worthy of remarking on, was how unremarkable my family took pet-keeping to be. We were interesting only in being representative of a much more interesting phenomenon, one whose weirdness was so naturalized that it wasn’t self-evident through show, but needed to be told, pointed out, discussed, and critically dissected.
        My writing group was right, of course. The job of its members was to workshop my essay according to the prevailing standards of good writing, not to workshop those standards themselves. Because of the group, to which I truly am grateful (even if I do sound a tad bitter here), I was able to shape a strong scene-based essay with bits of expository analysis, which was published in the 2013 issue of Under the Sun.
        But I still have regrets about not being able to make a focus on culture (rather than character) work in a piece of creative nonfiction. To the extent that I failed to be David Foster Wallace, the incident says more about my individual failure as a writer. However, writing group members also faulted DFW himself for being too lofty and philosophical, and wondered how he could get away with all that abstract intellectualizing. I read to them my favorite part of the essay, its climax a series of questions, including, “Is it possible that future generations will regard our present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Mengele’s experiments?” and
                  For those Gourmet readers who enjoy well-prepared and –
                  presented meals involving beef, veal, lamb, pork, chicken, lobster,
                  etc.: Do you think much about the (possible) moral status and
                  (probable) suffering of the animals involved? If you do, what
                  ethical convictions have you worked out that permit you not just
                  to eat but to savor and enjoy the flesh-based viands […]? If, on the
                  other hand, you’ll have no truck with confusions or convictions
                  and regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much
                  fatuous navel-gazing, what makes it feel truly okay, inside, to just
                  dismiss the whole thing out of hand? That is, is your refusal to
                  think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just
                  that you don’t want to think about it? And if the latter, then why
        At this point in the essay, where it shifts from a posture of objective reporting to a mode of true questioning, some members of the writing group faulted DFW both for being too overtly political and for straying too far from scene. The cruelty to lobsters should be shown and felt, they argued, not pointed out; it should speak for itself. (If the scene speaks for itself, I wonder, then why do so many Maine Lobster Festival attendees, who watch lobsters boil alive, still eat them with such gusto?)
        My writing group’s comments reflect a trend to disparage creative nonfiction that moves too far from character to cultural criticism—in other words, that doesn’t work like fiction. It’s this trend that interests me now, at this moment of the MFA-ization of creative nonfiction, when the future of the genre is at stake. So I want to take this personal incident (a writer’s singular frustration) as an occasion to question this aesthetic itself. That is, in the way that DFW went from the Maine Lobster Festival to animal rights, and the way I tried to go from memories of my hamsters to the ethics of pet-keeping, I want now to go from my particular writing group to the ethics of our aesthetics and from focusing on character to focusing on culture.
        Certainly there’s a character-based story in my writing group’s critique and my writing of this very essay. We might look at my petty jealousies and hurt feelings and insecurities and need for a belated comeback. My motives for writing this piece themselves are suspect—a passive-aggressive attempt at revenge? All of these interpersonal phenomena commonly occur in writer’s groups and merit their own attention—but that doesn’t take away from the questioning of our prevailing writing aesthetics.
        The theater director and theorist Bertolt Brecht devoted his entire career to subverting character-based approaches to drama. Theater, of course, is inherently even more character-based than prose. Brecht argued that when theater represents individual characters onstage, it gives the illusion that they exist in-and-of themselves, outside of culture, history, and ideological context. Theater naturalizes these characters, making their actions and beliefs seem natural and universal rather than cultured, grown in the Petri dish of ideology. Brecht condemned a theater whose spectator says,
                  “Yes, I have felt like that too—Just like me—It’s only natural—It’ll
                  never change—The sufferings of this man appall me, because they
                  are inescapable—That’s great art; it all seems the most obvious
                  thing in the world—I weep when they weep, I laugh when they
        Instead, Brecht wanted to create a theater that made the spectator say
                  “I’d never have thought it—That’s not the way—That’s
                  extraordinary, hardly believable—It’s got to stop—The sufferings
                  of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary—That’s great
                  art: nothing obvious in it—I laugh when they weep, I weep when
                  they laugh.”
        In short, Brecht wanted to focus not on character but on the ideology in which a character is enculturated—to create a style of theater that encourages its audience to take a critical stance toward the ideology that, usually invisibly, makes characters think and feel and act the way they do.
        Brecht’s attempts met with continual frustrations. Perhaps a critical- and cultural-centered approach, rather than a character-centered approach, is nearly impossible with theater. It’s hard to see a person onstage and not relate to them first and foremost as an individual. But that’s not the case for prose. The essay form is ideally suited to balance character with culture, scene with analysis, the personal with the political, and a glimpse into the human condition with a healthy distrust of the concept of the human condition.
        Indeed, it’s often said that the role of art is to get at the human condition. This condition is seen as universal and unchanging; it transcends politics and ideology and historical context. The way to get to the universal condition, it’s said, is to get very specific and individual; the specific exemplifies the universal. What gets skipped over in the specific-universal dynamic is the level of culture. The universal ends up looking a whole lot like the culture representing it, and usually like the members of the representing culture’s ruling group. My culture’s prevailing ideology puts humans at the center of all considerations; we consider the human almost exclusively, and see this anthropocentrism as natural, as inevitable, and as so commonsensical that it’s beneath noting. When we reflect this worldview, we believe we reflect the human condition. When we question it, we’re being too political and too intellectual for good taste. We can attempt to show, not tell the weirdness of our cultural norms through character and scene, but ideological worldviews usually require a great deal of pointing out in order to be seen as anything other than the human condition. Ideology, like hamsters, is notorious for its ability to hide, burrowing underground below consciousness.
        In the case of hamster history, the notion of the human condition itself is at stake, and here the character-based approach produces radically different answers to questions of human-animal relations than the culture-based approach. Character-based approaches inevitably put humans first; since we can’t know if a lobster feels pain or if a hamster is in distress, even if we try to create the lobster or the hamster as characters, the best we can do is anthropomorphize, which ultimately reinforces an anthropocentric worldview. A culture-based approach, on the other hand, might render both the caging of animals and our common-sense anthropocentrism as extraordinary, hardly believable, alien, and deeply troubling.
        I guess what I’m calling for is for creative nonfiction writers, writing groups, and workshops to risk fatuous navel-gazing by stepping back and workshopping the genre itself. I’d like to consider nurturing a genre that is both true to our creative instincts and willing to question how those instincts, like Pavlov’s dogs’, may themselves be conditioned.
        My essay “Consider the Hamster” ends in the pet store, with the longing, despite everything, “[j]ust to hold, in your palm, a beating-hearted thing, soft and warm, furry and nervous. To smooth its angora fur with your fingertips to calm it, to feel so in touch with its slowing beats that the hamster itself becomes a heart in your hands. To feel your fingers wrap around it and call it your own.” What this image shows, on the level of character, is the greediness of touch. This greediness, this need to hold and own and objectify other creatures, however, may well not be universal at all, though in scene it seems so. At any rate, what matters is not how the image characterizes me as an individual character, but what it says about the character of our culture. Stepping back and examining the image of holding up the hamster, we might see a different perspective. Burrowed, hamster-like, deep underneath the human condition that this scene seems to show is a much more elusive, light-averse insight into how a human becomes conditioned.