The Truth of the Matter, which I’ve used twice now in a 300-level undergraduate introduction to narrative nonfiction, is a complete textbook that can stand alone or be paired with supplemental anthologies such as The Art of Fact, Short Takes, Intimate Journalism, or The Best American Essays of the Century, depending on the instructor’s focus.
The first third of The Truth of the Matter discusses the genre and explains its building blocks. Beginning and intermediate writers find these concise chapters valuable for giving them just what they need to craft personal essays, memoirs, and literary journalism. Moore shows the difference between standard “just the facts” reportage and the deeper narrative nonfiction that graces literary journals and magazines such as The New Yorker. Obviously in essay and memoir, and in varying degrees but unmistakably in narrative journalism, the writer uses the self strategically to delve into larger subjects. Moore’s perspective makes the book suitable for teaching nonfiction writing in both English creative writing sequences and in journalism programs attentive to narrative’s power.
The book’s anthology includes four brief essays, an artful form Moore has encouraged through his editing of the online journal Brevity. The classic conventional-length essays “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin; “The Courage of Turtles” by Edward Hoagland; and “The Search for Marvin Gardens” by John McPhee are valuable historically and in terms of craft. Great contemporary essays that give students access to their own material include Tony Early’s “Somehow Form a Family”; Philip Gerard’s “What They Don’t Tell You About Hurricanes”; Lucy Grealy’s “Mirrorings”; and Terry Tempest Williams’s “The Clan of One-Breasted Women.”
Four essays by successful writers on aspects of craft complete the anthology. I love Tracy Kidder’s trenchant “Making the Truth Believable,” in which Kidder explains his fidelity to external reality and shows how choosing the wrong point of view can lead a writer into dishonesty. As a strict constructionist myself—the creativity is in the discovery of truth and in its presentation; you don’t make things up—I appreciate this as well as Moore’s own emphasis throughout on honesty.
Students need to be told explicitly the reasons to be truthful in nonfiction: moral—you made a promise; and practical—don’t make Oprah mad. Increasingly I’m convinced there’s a big third reason: aesthetic.
Truth and beauty in nonfiction often emerge when a writer explores a rough edge that can’t be smoothed with the convenient trowel of fiction. On the day you caught the huge bass, was grandpa wearing the red London Fog jacket he usually took fishing? Instead of plugging in that detail as a probable, you call your mother, who tells you he was colorblind and too proud to admit it. His signature jacket was, to him, a shade of gray. And, writing about this, you remember grandpa’s pride in knowing how everything was done correctly—it marred your experience with him that day on the boat. Yet now you see how his stubborn need to control was inseparable from his love for you and carried echoes of his battles with his Greek father; you understand the regret that always seemed to shadow his self-made pride. So a story that began as a sentimental snapshot becomes an affecting exploration of a family trait and the intertwined light and dark and gray aspects of male ego.
I don’t mean to saddle Moore with my aesthetic theory, but teaching his book helped provoke it, especially his chapter on discovery. As he says, the meaning that underlies a story is often discovered during the writing (rather than being understood at the outset). I’ve learned in my work and in students’ to pay attention to a ragged hole instead of trying fearfully to write around it, because through that portal nonfiction’s art may enter.
As a writer and teacher I’m grateful to The Truth of the Matter, a clear and subtle discussion of an exciting, untidy genre.