Narrative Persona in Nonfiction

In the narratology literature, there is a debate about the utility of Wayne Booth’s idea of the “implied author.” The implied author is supposed to be a sort of construction of the author created by the inferences readers make about the choices manifest in the text. The implied author is neither the flesh-and-blood author of the text, nor the narrator of the story or essay, but a kind of spectral intermediate figure.

Now, some critics of the idea of the implied author admit that it does sort of makes sense if we’re talking about a text that is produced collaboratively. If several writers successfully coordinate on an authorial sensibility in order to write a stylistically unified text together, readers will sense a single intelligence behind it. That unified intelligence might be understood as the implied author. But if the implied author makes sense when thinking about teams of authors, then it makes sense when thinking about solo authors as well. The unity of the self is a product of cooperation between distinct stages of a person over time, and novels typically take good long while to write. If readers sense a single intelligence behind a novel, that’s a matter of successful intra-personal coordination not really so different from the inter-personal coordination of successful collaborators. One does tend to feel simpatico with one’s own past selves–there is a certain natural chemistry that makes helps maintain unity of voice. But that’s by no means guaranteed. Desk drawers and hard drives are littered the world over with novels aborted due to irreconcilable artistic differences between separate phases of a putatively single self.

As it has developed “nonfiction,” as a genre is a cue to readers about how to construct the author’s relationship to the narrator. In nonfiction, the distinction between the narrator and implied author typically collapses. In fiction we don’t as a matter of convention infer that the sensibility of the narrator is the sensibility of the author, only that the author is the sort of person interested in this sort of narrator. In nonfiction, however, we read straight from the narrator to the implied author–the narrator is the implied author–but this is naive, and the naivete of conflating the nonfiction narrator with the implied author has little to do with most extant controversies over TRUTH in nonfiction. I think it has more to do with naivete over the very idea of persona/personality and its relationship to authorship as a form of performance.

Focusing on performance, I think, helps us keep from getting unduly metaphysical about the nature of personal identity. Think about live-action “nonfiction” performers–people who perform as themselves, under their own in-real-life names. Comedians are great examples.

Comedians spend a lot of time and effort perfecting their “shtick”–their stage persona, the “character” they do in their set. But there’s often a large space between this performed public persona and the private person. Louis CK, the TV show, is a show about this, among other things. It is a show about what it would be be like were Louis CK’s stage persona an actual person in the world. But a fun part of the show is that while the “offstage” Louis of the show is actually the fictionalized onstage persona of the actual Louis CK–we never do get to see IRL Louis, a guy who stars in a show about his sadsack stage persona. Yet we are shown Sarah Silverman and Chris Rock playing themselves in a way that points to the complicated gaps and continuities between their private personalities and stage personas.

Same for rappers. Eminem is a great example. People are fascinated with Kanye West because he refuses to mark a discontinuity between his private and performative persona. When rock stars make up names–Ziggy Stardust, Sasha Fierce–they signal a discontinuity in persona. But what about those, like Kanye, who won’t? Do we believe we’re in touch with the “real” guy beneath the performance because the real guy and the persona share a name? We don’t.

Okay. Well, writing is a form of performance. And writers do this, too, just like comedians and rappers–they create personae, and these personae write, which is to say, perform books. The sensibility of a book is the sensibility of the IRL writer’s authorial persona. That’s what an “implied author” is–a performed persona of the author. Young writers spend a lot of time talking about discovering their “voice.” In the semi-therapeutic lore of the academic creative-writing community, this is a matter of self-discovery. Maybe it is. But it’s actually more interesting than that. I’d say it’s more a matter of self-invention–of creating an authorial persona that enables effective performance. It’s just like a stand-up experimenting with and finally arriving at a version of herself that connects with, that “clicks” with, audiences. Odds are, this isn’t going to be who you really are. It’s going to be a character you made up out of pieces of yourself and people you know and characters in movies and writers you like. You may come to think this persona is who you really are–especially if you have some success with it. But it’s not. You aren’t really anyone, exactly.

That’s why settling on an authorial persons is so hard. Actual people rarely have the kind of coherence of personality that is necessary for an effectively forceful individual performance. As Irving Goffman taught us, in everyday life, self-presentation varies according the sorts of situations and roles we find ourselves inhabiting. Our strategies of self-presentation–our various everyday personae–don’t naturally add up to anything with stability or integrity. “Finding a voice” as a writer is a matter of settling on a strategy of self-presentation that works as performance. This is as true for the memoirist or newspaper columnist as it is for the novelist.

Indeed, because of the naive convention of collapsing the space between the nonfiction narrator and the implied author, authorial persona is in some ways more important for the nonfiction writer than for the fiction writer. A writer working within the conventional genre expectations of contemporary nonfiction is faced with the unfortunate fact that characterization of the first-person nonfiction narrator is understood as the characterization of the authorial persona. So the nonfiction author must be prepared to integrate into her authorial persona her characterization of her narrator, and vice versa. A nonfiction author who wishes to take some creative liberties in constructing the sensibility of her narrator is, in effect, constructing a stage persona shading toward the Sasha Fierce/Ziggy Stardust end of the spectrum. But the naive conventions of contemporary nonfiction don’t allow for this sort of separation between the IRL writerly person and her authorial persona–or for any sophistication at all, really, about strategies of authorial self-presentation. And that’s why Tom Wolfe actually wears ridiculous white suits.

To give a nonfiction narrator a name distinct from the author–to announce that this true story will be narrated by Sasha Fierce or Slim Shady–would be to acknowledge the inherently performative aspect of authorship, to acknowledge the ever-present gap between authorial persona and the author of that persona. It would tell the reader what the reader already knows when reading fiction: that the authors create narrators; that narrative is art and not confessional free-association. But this is not to be done. Nonfiction in our moment is marked not by a demand for truth or facts–the terms of the D’Agata wars notwithstanding–but by a neo-Romantic obsession with sincerity, with the elimination of irony, with emotional truth unfiltered by the calculating guile of performance. Our reality hunger is sated in no small part by a strange insistence that the nonfiction narrator be the implied and actual author. And this amounts to an insistence that nonfiction authors pretend not to have a refined and practiced authorial persona by performing one consistent with the prevailing but necessarily temporary conventions of naturalism in literary self-presentation.