Underread #1: The Nonfictional Dream

Underread #1: Bee-Brained, or The Nonfictional Dream

Most people I know who write true stories for money work like this: They spend months or years thinking about, researching, and finally writing, revising, and publishing a 6,000-ish-word article on a subject or angle never before described or told, to the exclusion of almost all other demands of their time and better-paid work elsewhere.

Then, in most cases, the story vanishes.

It never gets collected in any anthology or expanded into a book. There is no follow-up or fallout. As the writer, you might see a small uptick in personal web site traffic and receive somewhere between zero and ten emails praising (or dumping on) the piece, but after a while these slow down and then stop altogether. That's it. You've done your part to light a little candle in a corner of the world. The oblivion that follows is a part of the business that nobody complains about for fear of looking petty.

In this newsletter mini-series, "Underread," I'm going to be vicariously petty and advocate for insufficiently adored pieces of nonfiction writing from 2017 or earlier. Each will be a true reported work that didn't sync with the zeitgeist or go viral on publication. Here's the first:

Bee-Brained by Vauhini Vara in Harper's Magazine

This story about an Indian-American spelling bee competition approaches my Platonic ideal of magazine writing. Vara blends memoir, cultural criticism, reportage, and history with a style that feels effortless and eternal, almost like it's the natural order of things and has been since Herodotus. The story is filled with memorable characters and facts that open onto a world I previously knew nothing about. Her approach to the material is literary, even (at one point, explicitly) Proustian, but never arch. The writing is understated yet interesting, alive to the creative possibilities of language even as she's describing the most uncreative use of language imaginable: correct, competitive spelling. The kids are cute but not clichéd. The scenes are warm but never treacly. The themes are big and chewy--migration, belonging, tradition, parental love, pride and achievement among Indian Americans--but we're kept firmly in scene, not in some abstract pontifical cloud.

And it's just weird! Filled with moments that could only exist in a piece of reported nonfiction, like this early incidental moment in a restaurant:

"Our waiter came over, and I made sure he knew that he was serving the 2016 Scripps cochampions. He was impressed. His name was Chris, he said, and he’d won his school bee years ago, but lost at a regional competition in Orlando. His losing word was coelacanth. Nihar spelled it for him."

It may be obvious, but I want to look at this moment and discuss why it could only appear in a piece of narrative or "literary" nonfiction, because I think it discloses a larger point about how the genre is different from other types of prose writing. You'll probably want to read the story first. Ready? OK.

On the one hand, the paragraph doesn't pull enough explanatory weight to appear in an academic text or hard news story on spelling bees. It's not information-dense. (Scene, as opposed to summary, never is.) As a result, it belongs in a narrative piece of writing, where scene and summary alternate according to the writer's rhythm and style. On the other hand, it's the sort of scene that would be rightfully criticized as "convenient" in a work of narrative fiction, meaning it would bear too plainly the stamp of its author, someone shaping reality with too keen an eye on theme, idea, or argument. It characterizes the drive and intellectual obsessions of spelling bee participants with a conspicuously useful cameo from an otherwise silent supporting cast. A novel couldn't bear it. We believe in modern fiction--we find ourselves lost in the fictional dream, to use John Gardner's phrase--only when the work's reality feels sufficiently random and undesigned. We don't believe in too-tidy narratives or too-perfect details, which at best smack of other, more explicitly patterned genres, like the fairy tale or its recent mutation, the superhero movie.

So while it's not a big deal when Thor falls through a wormhole and happens to run into his fellow Avenger The Incredible Hulk on the distant garbage planet Sakaar, fighting in the Grandmaster's Contest of Champions, invented stories that show us how we live by corresponding to our lived experiences tend to exist in a world paradoxically designed to seem as undetermined as our own. Even subdued works of autofiction by writers like Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, or Karl Ove Knausgaard generally adhere to rhythms that resist easy patterned thematization.

This appearance of randomness in fiction actually takes a lot of work and skill. The mind finds patterns everywhere. If we flipped a coin 100 times and it landed on heads 99 of those 100 times, we could not bring ourselves to believe there wasn't some intentionality or artificial design at work, even though the events themselves are no more improbable than any other coin-tossing result--say, a more "believable" but no more likely 48 heads, 52 tails. Ditto if a character in a novel did the same. Humans are built to seek and recognize patterns; it's the fiction writer's job to bury those patterns so that we don't notice them, or at least don't notice we're noticing them.

(I'm know I'm eliding here many varieties of fiction and narrative that aren't trying to describe the world in conventional, Flaubertian ways, and instead want to subvert the expectations raised by reality-presenting work: for example, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, who in the opening scene do flip a coin almost a hundred times--and get heads every time. Writing is a big tent and I'm talking here only about ways fictional narrative tends to operate on principles different from those of nonfiction writing. In Stoppard's case, the rule-breaking is the point.)

Vara's scene works because real life, unlike the fictional dream, is filled with such inelegant conveniences as the restaurant waiter who happens to be a spelling bee finalist. If the bulk of contemporary fiction requires building a universe that feels real (meaning without heavy cosmic design), nonfiction is about finding design in a universe that simply is real, no matter how unlikely. The reader of a piece of nonfiction doesn't need to be convinced of a story's reality; reality is the mutually assumed fabric out of which the story is constructed. In nonfiction, both reader and writer agree that the search for moments of order is the story, and reality, to switch metaphors, the stage on which that story will unfold.

That's one reason I chafe when critics try to praise a nonfiction book by describing it as "novelistic." A work of nonfiction may share characteristics with a good novel; "novelistic" most often seems to signal that a writer has managed to create vivid characters and a page-turning plot, or to write with a deliberate prose style. But it's still a category error. Good nonfiction shouldn't aspire to look or sound like a novel. They're built out of different stuff. They enjoy different freedoms and constraints. What amazes readers in story-focused fiction--an artfully designed and deeply buried patterning of theme, event, and language--would feel like a betrayal of the truth in nonfiction writing, the construction of a reality other than the one that reader and writer share. And what amazes readers in much narrative nonfiction--the scarcely believable, the beautiful, the significant--is the simplest thing in the world for a fiction writer to achieve, and so feels uninspired.

So when I say Vara's article is filled with moments that could only appear in a piece of reported nonfiction, I'm giving the best sort of praise I know. This is a piece of writing that knows its medium, that doesn't try to sound novelistic or (worse) "cinematic." Vara uses readers' assumptions and expectations to her advantage. In nonfiction, minor characters like Chris the waiter can appear and disappear in a single paragraph without explanation or much relevance, but with lasting effect. Improbable coincidences are accepted, as they must be in life (and we see another example or two toward the end of the story). Nonfiction also doesn't have to busy itself to the same degree as fiction with that old saw "show, don't tell." When Chris is visibly impressed, Vara simply tells us he was impressed, rather than showing his raised eyebrows or gaping maw, which would be inelegant attempts to "novelize" the moment and keep the reader inside a fictive dream that is not at all the nonfiction writer's project.


Vara is also just a nimble prose stylist. She knows how to vary sentence length and complexity in a way that feels natural and conversational, and to end a sentence on its most interesting word--Orlando, coelacanth--which the reader appreciates at the instinctive level of rhythm and song while not being consciously aware of the technique. The story feels like it's telling itself, with Vara simply reporting one damn thing after another, although nothing could be further from the case.

The restaurant scene--such a small, insignificant scene!--is even allowed to continue for one more paragraph beyond its raison d'être to arrive at a wonderful button, the scene's key lime pie, a slice of perfectly characterizing nonsense I would defy you or anyone else to invent out of whole cloth:

When it was time to order dessert, Chris explained the restaurant’s gimmick, that everything was served in mason jars. S’mores in a jar. Key lime pie in a jar. For once, the kids seemed puzzled. Sriram asked, “What’s a mason jar?”

Thanks for reading, y'all. Archive of letters is here.