Autobiographical (re-)mediations: the challenge of hyper-nonfiction writing in Joan Didion’s The White Album, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days

Mauro Carassai



The last decades have been characterized by a process of digitalization and hypertextualization of knowledge from various disciplines mainly connected to the spreading of the World Wide Web. Nevertheless, the concrete application of hypertextual writing technologies to the main creative fields in the humanities has hitherto been very limited. Although authors such as Michael Joyce and Jane Yellowlees Douglas have gained considerable attention [1], ‘the expected explosion of hyperfiction’, as George Landow remarks, ‘does yet not seem to have taken place’ [2]. What makes fiction so resistant to a writing technology that conversely seems so suitable to informative Wikis and forms of creative nonfiction such as Blogs is something that cannot, of course, be examined and exhaustively analyzed in the space of a coursework essay. This paper offers anyway additional support to the viewpoint of hypertext as befitting mainly nonfiction writing by drawing relevant connections between issues discussed during the Anglo-American Nonfiction course and specific features of hypertextual writing and reading practices in digital environments.

To establish such connections I primarily focused on how both the course sessions and specific texts in the syllabus have characterized essay writers as practitioners of acts of social and cultural readings. From Michel de Montaigne’s admonition ‘that we are to judge by the eye of reason’ [3], to Thomas Carlyle’s rhetorical stance as a reader and decoder of the ‘Signs of [his] Times’ to Annie Dillard’s metaphysical urge of waking up to an innocent seeing, authors of nonfiction have often seemed to deal with writing as an activity precisely consisting in mentally taking in heterogeneous cultural inputs. By considering selected nonfiction writers as the ‘twentieth-century heirs of the Victorian sages’ [4], the course has carried on a thematization of the contemporary sage as a skillful reader. Just like ancient prophets, the contemporary ones do not improvise either. They know what the minor details worth of reading are. Thomas Wolfe and Joan Didion, just like John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle in their times, are writers performing through their texts unusual and ex-centric readings of the vast amount of data of their present. [It has been also emphasized during the course how] such singular readings often focus on grotesque marginal details as the clearest symptoms of allegedly pathological societies.
Scanning and deciphering seem anyway to stay as characteristic features of nonfiction writing even when the authors themselves are involved in the scenario in the guise of readable subjects. Commenting on contemporary samples of autobiographical production in North American essay writing, Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues that ‘these writings represent response, responsibility, responsiveness even under pall. The adjective “autobiographical” flails and gasps, an inadequate descriptor of what is going on, even though some writers may indeed use the word I. These are works of “reading”, for essays are acts of writing-as-reading’ [5].

Focusing on works of contemporary nonfiction singled out from the course list, I try to stress how this activity of writing-as-reading affects issues of style and textual structure when the particular/marginal object of the reading involves the author’s own self. In their dealing at various levels with the personal, works like Joan Didion’s The White Album, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days can be said to anticipate writing practices that have become familiar only in recent technological times. All these books can be considered as self-studies carried on by positioning the self in relation to a community: mythical for Didion (the sixties), historical for Suleri (post-colonial Pakistan) and spiritual for Dillard (nature/ecosystem/cosmos). As authors engaged in writing-as-reading their own self, these writers develop techniques and rhetorical strategies that can be legitimately defined as proto-hypertextual. In other words, if the essay as a genre can be conceived of as an activity of ‘writing-as-reading’, this activity often takes the form of a fragmented and rhyzomatic writing when the process of reading involves the author’s own self. This feature, in its own turn, requires the reader to perform the opposite activity of ‘reading-as-writing’ which is typical of hypertextual environments. Though constrained in the firmness of print technology, narratives of the self in these works do not flow in a traditional linear fashion. They become, instead, an assemblage of branches of texts often taken from different sources, often fragmented and truncated in length, and frequently recognizable as distinct (but inter-dependent) units. This fragmentary writing style asks the reader to perform an unusually active process of cognitive connection-making which brings the activity of ‘reading’ incredibly near to a virtual form of writing. In all the three books the authors’ selves are represented as decentered or, better, ‘multicentered’ entities. They are therefore open to multiple readings depending on which connections appear to be most relevant between their textual units and they accordingly encourage – if not multilinear – multi-focal forms of fruition.

It is important to make clear from the very outset, however, that these three works do not form a homogeneous set as far as their genre is concerned. They actually range from a collection of personal essays (Didion) to, contradictions notwithstanding, a proper autobiography in the case of Suleri. I treat Dillard’s book as standing somehow in between these two poles. On the one hand, Dillard’s focus on a different theme in each chapter provides good reasons for ‘somebody [to call] the book a collection of essays’ [6]. On the other hand, the mere presence of an Afterword external to the main text implicitly confirms that ‘among the various kinds of writers, only autobiographers appear to feel the need to explain why they are writing’ [7].

By treating these works as examples of proto-hypertextual prose styles, it is not my intention to claim that they are representatives of a larger tendency common to all nonfiction writings featuring authors as readers of their own selves. Works like these, however, undoubtedly draw attention on how literary modes become – in Jay Bolter terms – ‘re-mediated’ by technological innovations in the field of writing and how, vice versa, new writing technologies allow to examine printed works from previously unavailable critical perspectives. The mere existence of the dynamics highlighted here asks therefore literary criticism for further interrogation on the field of autobiographical writing in the information age and they seem to be sufficiently grounded to consider hypertext as a privileged ground to test crucial issues of literary self-representation in the contemporary digital era.




[1] Their names and their electronic works have recently been included in the “Technoculture” section of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction.

[2] George Landow, Hypertext 3.0 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), p. 264.

[3] Michel de Montaigne, ‘Of Cannibals’, in Essays Of Michel De Montaigne, trans. by Charles Cotton, ed. by William Carew Hazlitt, 1877 (Project Gutenberg

[4] Landow, p. 21.

[5] Rachel Blau DuPlessis,“f-Words: An Essay on the Essay”, pp. 17-18.

[6] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper Collins, 1998), p. 280.

[7] Richard G. Lillard, American Life in Autobiography (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1956), p. 3.

Back to Top