River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative



review by Glen Phillips





River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative
Vol 1 No 1, Fall 1999
Joe Mackall and Dan Lehman (eds.)
Department of English, Ashland University, Ashland Ohio.
Annual subscription: $15 ($25 institution)
Website: www.riverteeth.org


The title page of this journal claims that the editors intend to combine 'the best of creative nonfiction, including narrative reportage, essays and memoir, with critical essays that examine the emerging genre and that explore the impact of nonfiction narrative on the lives of its writers, subjects and readers.' This first issue of the first volume from the Department of English of Ashland University in Ohio, U.S.A. certainly tackles these laudable but ambitious objectives. I suppose their very ambitions are pretty daunting to a reviewer. So what does this launch issue offer, especially to tertiary teachers of writing?

In the crudest terms we get some 140 pages handsomely bound with a full colour cover incorporating an attractive photograph of what looks like a very pretty creekbed in a wilderness bush location. There are ten or so contributions of nonfiction narrative plus the usual introductions and information for contributors. At US$15 for two issues it compares in cost quite well with such serial publications as The Atlanta Review. However, the question begged by a journal styling itself as offering 'nonfiction narrative' is whether it is possible to draw a satisfactory line between fiction and nonfiction. Not many modern historians, for example would find this an easy task. The popularity in some quarters today of 'faction' (as in Modjeska's novel Poppy) and the recent controversies over the supposed 'facts' expected by some readers in Nicholas Hasluck's Our Man K illustrate some difficulties of defining the watershed between narrative fiction and narrative nonfiction. Perhaps the creek on the cover symbolises this watershed? But no, the un-ascribed introduction, 'Facts that Matter', tells us that 'River Teeth' is an expression coined by writer David James Duncan and refers to the hard truths or facts that endure over time when more trivial aspects of recollected narrative are lost. Sort of Joycean epiphanies, key impressions which endure and give the substance of artefacts to specially remembered images of incidents or objects. Even more reason, one would think, for doubting the objectivity of such so-called factual narratives.

So let's look at a few of the hallowed narratives. Actually, there's quite a range of topics for the articles in this first issue of the journal. After David James Duncan's brief introduction to the concept of River Teeth, 'the hard, cross-grained whorls of human experience that remain inexplicably lodged in us,' we have Kim Barnes' account of a fishing trip with her family and the challenge of extricating her car from a washed-out bush track. Leon Dash and Susan Sheehan write about a displaced family and its deterioration into poverty, crime and murder on the part of some of its members. Nancy Mairs, a multiple sclerosis sufferer, gives a witty account of some of the problems facing her and other disabled people; and Jon Franklin tells the story of the death of a lemur in a 'Primate Center'. Another story of death is Joe Mackall's account (a 'factional' reconstruction) of his uncle's murder by the type of muggers who prey on homosexuals. R.J. Nelson analyses 'the language of love' in a Selzer novel and Brian Mooney writes about various family deaths from pollution. The issue finishes with accounts of war and misery in the Balkans in both 1915 and 1999.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that five of the pieces are by members of the editorial board of River Teeth. The more important thing is whether we need a journal of 'nonfictional narrative'. I for one do not, interesting as many of the above pieces are. The reason is that I can't help remembering how many times I have come across aspiring authors, including many of my writing students, who have the notion that 'factual' confers some holy writ status on their texts; a status that absolves them both from being judged as to the quality of their writing and from the responsibility to subject it to improvement through editing. It is as if the point of real achievement in writing is shifted back to a sort of primeval innocence which renders drafting and editing irrelevant. This is what I often call the schoolroom syndrome, the notion that the composition of written text could ideally be internalized to the point where the 'fully cut diamond' can be plucked directly from the mine, freed of all artifice that would fashion it further; freed of responsibility for the crafting knowledge and industry of writing which the myth of spontaneous creation opposes.

In the past, many literature courses (in the old canonical mode, anyway) encouraged this attitude in generations of elitist worshippers of the great literary texts, from whom the blood, sweat and tears of writing were concealed and who were recruited to the usually hopeless yet hopeful ranks of aspiring sonateers and other such would-be creators of great literature. I guess it cleared the way for the tiny percentage of genius writers who could produce admirable writing without apparent effort. We wouldn't be recruiting many students to tertiary writing courses if we had maintained that myth! In any case, such geniuses probable never need 'teaching'.

Back to our friends of the narrative nonfiction cause. It seems to me that the good bits of writing in this journal (and there are quite a few in most of the selected pieces) are usually the result of imaginative narrative approaches, the implementation of sufficient editing processes and the authors' strong emotional involvement in their chosen subjects. This is where their writing 'lives', with or without the slightly creaky 'river-teeth' theorising. It's a nonsense to suggest that narrative nonfiction has some special access to 'real facts' that is denied fiction writers. Even science fiction and fantasy at its most extreme distance from 'everyday reading' is only comprehended because readers can know such worlds by their variation from the 'constant' of the so-called normality of average readers' lives. Fiction writers and their even more untrustworthy partners in imaginative crime, the poets, seem to put larger and larger portions of time into researching information as an appropriate (even principal) ingredient of their writing. And, anyway who are these serious and self-selected editors and authors of nonfiction narrative? Have they discovered some unique methodology to insulate themselves from the age-old human limitation of subjectivity? Have they somehow bred themselves to be a race of reporters of 'facts' and 'realities' which are unchallengeable? The answer is no, of course not. Their narratives are most lively when they risk becoming emotionally engaged with their subjects. They become immediately boring when they deteriorate into merely parading their 'knowledge'. All of them could be considerably improved by even more judicious editing and re-drafting, together with acceptance that all narrative is an artifice of one kind or another.

With such provisos, I must conclude by saying I accept there's a place for a journal which can provide for the writer who wants to operate at this particular end of the fiction-factual writing spectrum. There are many writing students who, for good reasons, prefer to concentrate on 'finding' narratives to re-tell in the world 'out there' rather than challenging themselves to invent 'other worlds' within or beyond the one most known to all of us. River Teeth could provide such writers with some interesting reading and publishing opportunities.

  Associate Professor Glen Phillips teaches writing at Edith Cowan University, Perth.  


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Vol 4 No 1 April 2000
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady