ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
In the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate writes, “What is the stylistic function of quotation in the personal essay? One obvious answer would seem to be to lend authority to the author’s argument” and the other, to allow readers the “pleasure of knowing that we are in cultivated hands, attending to a well-stocked, liberally educated mind” (xli). Simply put, according to Lopate, quotation supports what the writer is saying and lets us know they are educated enough to “graciously inform” us (xlii). From the arguable father of the personal essay form, Michel de Montaigne, to current authors Maggie Nelson and David Shields, as well as innumerable others, quotation has become one of the most common craft choices for writers of creative nonfiction. But I posit that Lopate’s assessment is much too simple of a rendering: the inclusion of quotation and other intertextual figures within a nonfiction text can do more than simply demonstrate a certain type of authorial voice or add external credibility. Using intertextuality, specifically within creative nonfiction, can invite readers into an investigation of the unstable nature of language and meaning.
All texts, by definition, are intertextual. However, some texts actively participate in making their audience aware of their status as intertextual. Many nonfiction authors, especially those who write self-as-subject creative nonfiction, make the craft decision to use “intertextual transactions” or “intertextual figures,” specific literary moves that raise audience awareness of the presence of intertextuality. According to Robert S. Miola, these features include, but are not limited to: revision, translation, quotation, allusion, source text, conventions and configurations, genres, and cultural discourses (14-23). While each of these craft choices varies in the unique way it presents itself within a text, they are all signs an author can use that reminds readers of the way a text is actively speaking to and interacting with another.
Viewed through a critical lens, the choice to include any of these intertextual figures illustrates how all texts are threaded with other texts, that the meaning of a piece of writing, rather than being singular and determined by the author, is wrapped up in a chain of signification that accomplishes “the very plural of meaning” (Barthes 159). While this perpetually deferred and plural meaning is true of all genres, intertextuality has particular significance in creative nonfiction. As the self, the authorial I, is the primary subject being interrogated in much of personal creative nonfiction, specifically within the forms of essay and memoir, the nature of the text focuses a reader’s attention squarely on this self as represented in the text: simply put, if a nonfiction text’s inherent intertextuality asks readers to think about the plurality of meanings that the text and its subject can have, drawing attention to how intertexuality can be used to demonstrate the plurality of the self from which readers are trying to glean this meaning. Rather than painting the self as a single cohesive figure, the text as intertextual questions our readerly assumptions about the stable and singular nature of the self, a project that helps to serve the overall aims of self-as-subject creative nonfiction.
Lauren Slater’s Lying is one self-as-subject creative nonfiction project that makes frequent use of these intertextual figures. A self-identified “metaphorical memoir,” Lying chronicles the narrator’s growth from childhood to adulthood looking at her experience as an individual who may or may not have epilepsy. The book has been controversial for the way Slater “exaggerates” the events of her life, including the fact that she may or may not have even been diagnosed with epilepsy, while disclosing this possible (and even probable) untruth to her readers along the way. This question of veracity is so central to the memoir that the entire first chapter of Lying consists only of the sentence “I exaggerate,” a claim that Slater investigates in detail throughout, perpetually reminding the reader that events as they are recounted may or may not have happened (5). While the question of whether or not Slater actually was diagnosed with epilepsy and the ethical implications of possibly falsifying that information in a memoir have been widely discussed, on page 5, Slater writes
I have epilepsy. Or I feel I have epilepsy. Or I wish I had epilepsy, so I could find a way of explaining the dirty, spastic glittering place I had in my mother’s heart. Epilepsy is a fascinating disease because some epileptics are liars, exaggerators, makers of myths and high-flying stories… I don’t know where this is my mother or where this is my illness, or whether, like her, I am just confusing fact with fiction, and there is no epilepsy, just a clenched metaphor, a way of telling you what I have to tell you: my tale,
a statement that, along with her title: Lying, clues readers into the possibility that her illness may be falsified (5-6).
One of the most integral craft choices Slater makes is the use of intertextual figures such as references to scholarly journal articles, allusions to other literary works, and even large excerpts from other academic texts that appear to be copied and pasted into her memoir. Slater frequently references and alludes to other texts and writers such as Jayne Anne Phillips’ Black Tickets, Leonard Kriegel, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and a Paul Tillich text that her AA group discusses once a week, all texts and writers that make up her larger experience in the world (112; 58; 163; 213; 196). Much like the way intertextual figures function elsewhere, these figures can remind readers that all texts are formed from an author’s encounter with other outside texts, that the meaning of any work is always ever plural and created through the complex interactions between readers and the work. But unlike other literary works, many of Slater’s intertextual features do not refer to works that exist outside of Slater’s pages, a move that does not diminish the effects, but highlights them instead.