Q&A with New NWP Director Brooks Landon
Professor Brooks Landon joins the NWP this year as Program Director. NWP students Andy Tan-Delli Cicchi and Jessie Kraemer talked with him about essaying, prose style, and the purpose of a sentence.
Read their Q&A below!
1) What excites you about the essay as a form? What are the essay’s unique qualities within literature, and where do you situate its boundaries and/or continuities with other forms, such as fiction or poetry?
Landon: Trick question: there’s no such thing as “the essay.” Remember The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas? The Autobiography of Henry Adams? Probably not, but both are fascinating approaches to nonfiction and both, depending on how you slice and dice them, contain numerous essays. One of the best from Adams is “The Dynamo and the Virgin” and, if you want to go straight to Gertrude Stein’s essays, check out Portraits and Prayers. Of course, Stein’s How to Write, her Geographical History of America, her Everybody’s Autobiography, and her Lectures in America all cast nonfiction in general and the essay in particular in new light and at new lengths. You probably do remember Virginia Woolf’s exquisite essays and so many other Modernists celebrated the many forms essays can take and purposes they can pursue, including fiction (I’m thinking of Borges). Which is to say that my excitement about the essay as a form may be wildly idiosyncratic, rising for me fleetingly from the usual textbook suspects—Montaigne, Johnson, Bacon, Emerson, Thoreau, et al (so many), but exploding into flavors and figurations beyond count and media, including poetry, new narrative, comics, video art, spoken word, slam, rap (so many, again). In grad school I didn’t think of “the essay,” but I was blown away by Tom Wolfe’s ground-shattering The New Journalism, which collected incredibly diverse writers doing incredibly diverse things. The other collection that most excited me then was Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and it still excites me now. Annie Dillard, John McPhee, Susan Sontag, Ed Hoagland, Ursula le Guin, Joanna Russ, William Gass—especially Gass (if you don’t know On Being Blue, quickly find and read it!)—challenged me to imagine what language could do, particularly at the level of the sentence, and, frankly, I loved writing, not anything as specific as “the essay.” I’m not much for boundaries of any kind and what I love about postmodernism is its mashup blurring of forms, reminding us that most—if not all—of our metanarratives about distinctions have always been bogus. I could no more teach our History of the Essay course than I could teach Astronomy or Ballet, and that’s undoubtedly for the best!
2) The Nonfiction Writing Program has a unique position couched within the English department, and your own scholarship has looked at science fiction and postmodernism through the lens of literary analysis. As someone between these fields, how do you make sense of the relationship between literary analysis and creative writing?
Landon: I write for readers, not necessarily scholars. For me, literary analysis rests on identifying and thinking about conflicts, changes, repetitions, and determining narrative reliability. For me, that heuristic applies equally to literary analysis and creative writing (whatever that is). A lot of traditional literary analysis ignores affective impact; creative writing (whatever that is) champions affective impact, both in primary and secondary texts. For a good while literary analysis was driven by a hermeneutics of suspicion, which basically constructed texts as ugly, while creative writing (whatever that is) seems to me to be driven by a hermeneutics of the joy of discovery, which basically constructs texts as beautiful (even if painful).
3) After your years of studying and paying close attention to good sentences, what insight might you give that against what is perhaps commonly or canonically received as "best practice"?
Landon: Long sentences are generally better (if logical, specific, and easy to track) than short sentences. Too many of either without variation is deadly. “Omit needless words” assumes such a narrow definition of “needless” as to be ridiculous. Sentences exist to do things, so it’s better to ask “When is a sentence?” than “What is a sentence?” (Who can tell me whether a period is needed after that closing quotation mark?) (Who can tell me what a semi-colon really does to a reader’s thinking?) Much “best practice” is not.
4) How do you conceive of prose style in the context of nonfiction? What is the relationship between content and style in this form?
Landon: Form and content are exactly the same thing. That’s true for nonfiction and fiction alike. Prose style is what the writer writes and/or what the reader reads.
5) Last year, NWP alum Felicia Rose Chavez published The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, in which she diagnoses the white-centric practices, canons, and biases of the traditional workshopping model, while also providing frameworks to decolonize these creative spaces. How do you see the program supporting this aim this coming year, in building on its commitment to progressive, inclusive, anti-racist pedagogies?
Landon: Tough book, painfully on the money in many places. I read it as a teacher of writing and of literature in general, not as a ringmaster of workshops. Years ago, when Paul Diehl got sick, I took over his Nonfiction Workshop. Among the fine writers in that class were Yiyun Li and Amy Leach. Amy not-so-gently told me, “Brooks, you’re doing it wrong” and Yiyun was wise enough to disregard almost everything I said. Felicia’s book helped me better understand both of those responses. While I do not teach writing workshops, I can’t imagine that any of us who do will not have in mind many of Felicia’s observations.