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Great Writers, Great Readings: Anne Fadiman

By Ehlayna Napolitano News Editor

 

The use of subjectivity, while maintaining accuracy, might be said to be a feature focus of Anne Fadiman’s fairly prolific writing career. As she was introduced at a reading and discussion event on Wednesday night, “she takes in everything and spares the reader nothing.”

Although she was a reporter and an editor at separate times in her life, Fadiman noted that outside of newspaper reporting, subjectivity is not something that should be shied away from. In fact, one might say that she revels in it. Still, though, nonfiction is her forte.

“I write nonfiction—[which is] about all I can do [since] I’m not that creative,” Fadiman said.

In “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” the focus of Wednesday’s event in the Cultural Center Theater, for instance, Fadiman reported on a medical case in which communication difficulties between a refugee family and doctors ended tragically for a young woman with epilepsy. Although the book is what Fadiman refers to as reporting, the book is biased and Fadiman herself is inserted into the book.

“It was not my job to be impartial,” she said. “… My own opinions are in the book.”

Still, she tries to maintain a focus in her reporting that allows characters to come forward at the stories’ center as she herself withdraws to the background. She is not the focus of “Spirit,” of course, and does not try to frame it that way.

“I put myself in a couple of times to establish that I was not objective,” Fadiman said.

Fadiman does not feel, however, that this makes the reporting any less accurate. Although she maintains that impartiality is imperative in newspaper and magazine reporting, in the case of “Spirit” and books like it, subjectivity plays an important role in conveying the author’s voice.

“Spirit,” a book that took nearly nine years of research, reading, reporting and writing to complete, is Fadiman’s salute to cross cultural communication. She stresses that there are no villains in the story. She remains friends with sources from both sides of the issue even today, years after the book’s publication.

In a similar way, Fadiman said that she feels even more strongly that subjectivity can be especially important in personal essays, of which she has written several.

“When one writes personal essays, the issue of ‘objectivity’ or ‘impartiality’ flies even more out the window than it does in the sort of literary journalism I was doing in “Spirit.”

“No one could or should be objective about a family member,” she wrote in an email. “However, the priorities of accuracy and fairness still apply.”

Although different, each style of writing holds interest for Fadiman.

“My love [for each] is equal,” Fadiman said.

She began personal essay writing when she turned 40, after being confined mostly to bed during a pregnancy complication that followed two miscarriages. She felt she had to choose between book reviews, something she had experience with, and personal essays, which were new waters she had not yet ventured into.

“It tries to squeeze something [important] into a small space,” she said.

Fadiman has written three books and has work that has appeared in New York Times and the New Yorker. She is currently the Francis Writer in Residence at Yale University, as well as an adjunct professor.

 

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