April 26, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 15

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    Artists will discuss how narrative plays out in their diverse works

    Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    Mark Slouka
    Photo by Jason Smith

    What does the future hold for narrative? Is narrative undergoing a transformation, creating new, hybrid forms? Where does narrative currently reside? And how do artists from different fields—from novelists to playwrights to painters—understand the term narrative?

    On Thursday, April 26 and Friday, April 27, leading artists who work in various media will gather at the University to discuss these questions in “The Role of Story in the Creative Arts Symposium.” The conference attendees include the cultural critic and memoir writer Sven Birkerts; filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia; author Carla Harryman; artist Tina Mion; writer Ron Rosenbaum, this year’s Robert Vare Nonfiction Writer-in-Residence; and Daniel Mendelsohn, a renowned author and critic, who is the Charles Ranlett Flint professor of humanities at Bard College.

    Organized by Mark Slouka, Professor in English Language & Literature and the College and Chair of Creative Writing, the idea for the conference began more than a year ago when Slouka read an interview with V.S. Naipaul published in The New York Times Book Review. In the interview, Naipaul, a Nobel laureate, observed that “the novel’s time was over,” that fiction had essentially been outstripped and perhaps rendered obsolete by “reality.” Naipaul, Slouka recalled, “noted that the need for story, for an imagined chronology was obsolete, that only nonfiction could capture the complexities of today’s world.”

    “This was not of course a new argument,” Slouka noted; “Fiction’s demise has been predicted for some time now.” But for Slouka, Naipaul’s assertion gave voice to a generalized sense, accurate or not, that some essential realignment was underway. A writer of both fiction and nonfiction, Slouka had noticed a change in the publishing landscape.

    “Nonfiction has been outselling fiction at almost every turn, “ he noted. “It’s much harder to get a collection of stories published than, say, a work of nonfiction. But what does it mean when the available space for fiction in the nation’s leading magazines begins to disappear, when a publication as venerable as The Atlantic cancels its fiction slot? Is it a temporary swing of the pendulum, or an indication of a permanent change in the cultural climate? I was interested in hearing what artists from different disciplines thought about the issue, and in learning how narrative functioned in their work.”

    There was also, Slouka recalled, the telling James Frey incident, which played out on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Frey, who was criticized for fictionalizing aspects of his memoir A Million Little Pieces, had originally tried to get his story published as a novel.

    “Apparently, he couldn’t find a publisher,” Slouka said. “So he pitched it as a memoir, succeeded and the book became a best seller.” This intrigues Slouka. “Clearly, people felt the book was more interesting when labeled as a memoir. Why is that? And what does it say about us that the work of the imagination has been demoted this way?”

    But Slouka perceives more than just a shift in consumer preferences. In his fiction class, he now shows examples of nonfiction writing to his students to make the point that the two genres are increasingly indistinguishable from one another, that voice, for example, is no longer a reliable indicator of genre.

    He speculates that perhaps narrative is under some form of transformative pressure: “What is broadly thought of as story is crossing into new territory, mating with forms previously seen as distinct, or, conceivably, it’s undergoing a renaissance.”

    The goal of the “story” conference, Slouka emphasized, is not simply to advocate for or against “story,” but rather to get a sense of what the term means to artists working in different fields, who are familiar with its particular possibilities and demands. The conference aims to develop an understanding of the issues involved with the transition from fiction to nonfiction and to gain insight into where the transitions are leading writers.

    Slouka will kick off the conference with an introduction, followed by a screening of the award-winning film Nine Lives, directed by Rodrigo Garcia. Doc Films will screen the film at 3 p.m., Thursday, April 26, in Max Palevsky Cinema.

    On Friday, the conference shifts to the Film Studies Center in Cobb Hall, Room 306, where four hour-long presentations will begin at 11 a.m. Mendelsohn, author of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, and a frequent contributor to New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review, will begin the presentations.

    Carla Harryman, a poet, performance artist and author, who has written more than 10 books, including Baby and the experimental novel Gardener of Stars, will speak from noon to 1 p.m., followed by Mion, a narrative-based painter, who will be featured at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery this year. Memoirist Birkerts, the Briggs-Copeland lecturer at Harvard University and the author of six books including The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, will give the last presentation from 3 to 4 p.m.

    The conference will conclude with a round-table conversation. For more information on the conference, which is free and open to the public, please visit http://creativewriting.uchicago.edu/events/index.shtml.