painting of Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory, 1938
Georgia O’Keeffe. Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory, 1938. Oil on canvas, 20 x 30 inches. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. [2007.1.24]

“Once upon a time, a long time from now, there are monkeys who feed at ancient landfills.” So begins Amy Benson’s powerful essay “Lamarckian Evolution,” an essay in which “we” wander into an art exhibit where robotic monkeys become the landfill they ingest: “those familiar items—tube, cord, drinking straw—seem[] to be holding them up and making them terminally ill.” Into this future, several of our babies crawl, to watch a film of the landfill-made-monkey nursing its young. Our babies look at their babies; their babies drink the milk amid the ruin. And we gaze from a slit in the curtains, wondering “if we had swallowed the things they needed and passed them along,” wondering “what would happen if we left,” wondering, too, the essay implies, if we already had.

In three pages, Benson lays bare the consequences that our current choices foist on a future not yet arrived. She does not provide facts, data, charts or graphs. The experts who wield the evidence in her essay are all under the age of three and do not utter a word. The “I” never enters the gallery. And yet, the collective “we” understands that we are becoming, in our bodies, what we build. We are nursing our children on spray insulation, sequined upholstery fabric and rebar. Turns out, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck may not have been so wrong after all.

What gives Benson’s essay so much power in such a compressed space are the speculative moves that she makes: an opening that reads like a scene from a science fiction novel as well as the choice of “we” for her narrative point of view. From the start, we, the reader, recognize that in this nonfiction essay facts are the least of our concerns in seeking truth. Those autobiographical details that delude us into thinking that we know a character or a narrator or the person just entering the scene will be withheld. Meaning, the author insists, cannot be so easily determined. It is, after all, the surety of ego that has delivered us to the landfill. Benson herself writes, in an essay on speculative nonfiction, that “the verifiable is a woefully incomplete account of existence.” If we are going to find new ways of writing and being and creating, we must widen our understanding of genre, as well as the spaces where truth resides. In Benson’s essay, the present, past and future collapse into a room in a gallery where the narrator once stood and looked around. And in that “forged future,” Benson writes, “no one can simply sit around heartbroken.”


In 2007, Jason Sanford, a science fiction writer best known for his experimental short stories, argues in the New York Review of Science Fiction that the reason speculative fiction is grudgingly being accepted by the literary establishment while enjoying bestseller success with an American readership is that “it is almost impossible to understand today’s world without the themes and tropes commonly found in speculative fiction.” For him, the speculative provides a navigation device for contemporary living—the imaginary helps us translate or understand our own lived experience. Sanford looks to Nancy Lebovitz’s definition of genre fiction to further underscore just what the speculative offers readers. Lebovitz defines the following terms: “Science fiction: the unknown is to be understood and thereby changed. Fantasy: the unknown is to be loved for its strangeness. Horror: the unknown is to be feared.” In all of these definitions, Sanford writes, “the common strand…is dealing with the unknown.” And given the speed with which our world is changing, the technologies, the globalization, the connectedness, he concludes that “a literary fiction which ignores the unknown is unable to hold much sway over readers.” To stay relevant, Sanford implies, literary fiction must not just borrow from speculative fiction but embrace it as art.

While these generalizations are maybe too sweeping and the application to literary nonfiction perhaps not entirely tight, Lebovitz and Sanford provide us a way to think about what the speculative does—that the speculative is less a genre and more a tool—not unlike, say a metaphor—a tool that writers in any genre can use to explore the unknown. For Sanford, the unknown arises from technologies and trends that “have both revolutionized and unsettled human civilizations, bringing societal gains along with new fears and uncertainty.” Of course, the best in speculative work does not only address imminent fear but moves deeper into more existential spaces to suggest possible ways to hold the world we have created. A book much noted in the history of merging speculative fiction and literary fiction is Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, a book narrated from heaven by a fourteen-year-old girl who was raped and murdered. What is so fascinating to consider here is that, three years prior to The Lovely Bones, Sebold first published her memoir Lucky: the story of her own rape. In trying to address the trauma of rape, it appears that the move to realistic fiction wasn’t enough. She had to reach even further toward the imaginary in order to fully explore the real. Sebold suggests that some experiences, some truths, cannot be corralled by fences built by the known, even in the world of fiction—a genre, Janet Burroway reminds us, bound by what the reader is willing to believe.

But what does the speculative look like in literary nonfiction where the genre itself is marked by its claim to fact? If we define the speculative simply as a tool—a tool not unlike metaphor, alliteration, or significant detail—for exploring the unknown, rather than a move away from the verifiable, then can we free ourselves from the tired debate over the place of truth in nonfiction and move toward questions of craft and art? For example, how can the speculative be used to write something that is made more real because it incorporates the imagined?  I would agree with Sanford that any kind of art, whether literary or visual, that fails to include the unknown as part of the territory being explored will fail readers eventually. We are embodied beings who experience on a daily basis how little we actually know.

Art is where John D’Agata finally lands in his polarizing but fascinating book The Lifespan of a Fact. In Lifespan, D’Agata and co-author Jim Fingal play out this drama in the margins and the gutters of their book, not, insignificantly, in blood-red font. For some 120 pages, the two of them argue about the very existence of fact itself and what an essayist’s responsibility is to those facts that may or may not exist. In the fiery conclusion, D’Agata argues that at the center of literary nonfiction, and art more broadly, is “the search for meaning.” The artist is working to “take control of something before it is lost entirely to chaos.” Art must move toward what is yet to be understood, named, tested, known—or, in D’Agata’s words, art must “destabilize our understanding of ourselves and our world so that we can experience both anew, with fresh eyes, and with therefore the possibility of recognizing something we have not recognized before.” In these words I see Sanford’s argument for the artistic merit of the speculative—a tool for inhabiting the unknown. I also see hope.

Contemporary literary nonfiction has been moving toward the speculative for a decade. You can measure that movement by reading the craft essays on Brevity. In 2009 Lisa Knopp writes about the use of “perhaps” in creative nonfiction. She describes how writers can cue the reader to designate the moments where she has moved from “truth” to “speculation.” Knopp writes that we can do this “without crossing the line into fiction,” and notes that creative nonfiction writers will be seen as more reliable for their efforts to mark the moments where truth ends and speculation begins. Writing a decade ago, Knopp says, “If only it was ethical to just make something up, or to elaborate a bit on what we know. But of course, then we wouldn’t be writing creative nonfiction.” In Knopp’s essay—written in the years just following the James Frey and Greg Mortensen scandals where authors sold millions of copies of their less-than-true books—the writer must clearly draw a line between fact and fantasy.

By 2017, that line is less clear. Judith Padow writes about the use of fiction within nonfiction as a way for writers to address difficult material. For example, in complicating the character of her mother—a challenging woman by all accounts—Padow creates conversations that never happened. Or Sue Silverman who becomes Girl Reporter and teams up with Clark Kent and Lois Lane to interview Pat Boone. In these examples, nonfiction writers use the speculative to express the unexpressed. “Imagining,” Padow says, “is different from perhapsing where the writer whose memory is hazy or who is writing about events she or he did not witness, speculates as to what might have occurred. With imagining, the nonfiction writer explores that which never happened.” For Padow, the speculative is a tool to excavate the unknown, the never-happened. The reader is not deceived because in every example it is clear that the events could not have occurred: a forty-five-year-old narrator talking with her twenty-five-year-old mother. The reader is not duped; the reader is pushed.

Finally, in 2018, Gwendolyn Edward writes in Brevity about moving beyond (actually she uses the word against) perhapsing into what she calls invented or imagined spaces.  She is largely concerned with lyric works that rely on structural metaphors—a psychologist’s diagnosis, for example—where the technical language of medicine merges with the personal language of abuse or trauma. Again, Edwards points out, the reader is fully aware that they have entered a metaphor—Eula Biss’s essay, “The Pain Scale,” is not, after all, an actual pain scale nor is Jenny Boully’s “The Body” a set of footnotes. These forms allow the writers to explore a reality that linear form will not allow. The entire essay is speculative. None of it happened. All of it is true.

In my own nonfiction, I embrace the speculative. I am not sure why an artist would deny themselves any tool in their search for meaning. Because of my long interest in the ways that language fails us, I find the speculative to be especially fruitful ground for creating spaces in, around, and between the words that we have at our disposal. My collection of essays, Letters Like the Day, is an attempt to move language in the way that the modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe brushed pigment in order to render the space between representation and abstraction, a pliable, bendable space that we find both familiar and strange simultaneously. When describing what the speculative means in my own work, I often point to O’Keeffe’s 1938 painting “Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory.” As a viewer, we know what it is we are looking at: the skull of an animal and a flower. That is, though, about the extent of the verifiable. Why do the skull and flower hover? Or are they on a wall? Or is one hovering and the other on a wall? And what holds them up? Or pins them down? What is the relationship between the skull and the flower? Is it, indeed, a ram’s skull? Is the flower real or artificial? O’Keeffe gives us no narrative, but she does provide recognizable forms. Even in the title of her piece, she joins the two objects only by a comma, which, grammatically, separates and binds. The viewer must complete the gaps and there is no narrative that begins with “I” that will ever feel satisfying here. We are meant to feel the work, not turn it into a story that we can hold. As O’Keeffe so famously quips, nothing is less real than realism.

Meaning becomes multiplied when we move to the speculative. Readings are generated over and over. Nothing can be pinned down because the known is no longer the anchor, and, yet, in nonfiction the narrator is claiming a truth. While Eula Biss is not accurately completing a pain scale, she is saying everything there is to say about how it is impossible to fully enter another’s pain and yet pain is an experience that we all share. She writes out of her pained body but not directly of her pained body. The two hover.

Readers are savvy. And sometimes what is true never actually happened; sometimes what is true is not what is real. D’Agata writes, “the moment we start judging a form of art by its moral value is the moment we stop talking about art.” We cannot keep telling the same stories in the same ways because we will arrive in the same places. Art must disrupt. It must shake us up. O’Keeffe magnified flowers on her canvases to make us really see. Her irises and cannas are real. They grow in our gardens. The way that she painted them—cropping, magnifying, abstracting– startled her viewers into a new space, ultimately asking them to reconsider how it is that they look. That is the power of speculation. We enter a new space—a gallery populated by landfill monkeys, the void at the center of a peony—and are changed. The speculative is a forceful tool in nonfiction not simply because it unsettles readers or rounds out characters or reveals meaning but rather because it gets us closer to naming the ineffable experience of being human.