Reality Check: Two Genre-Busting Books from UI Authors

Lucas Mann
Lucas Mann writes about reality TV in Captive Audience.

Two graduates of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program have thought-provoking, genre-bending new books. The Nonfiction Writing Program, under the direction of John D’Agata, has earned a reputation as a place in which the boundaries of nonfiction are always under consideration and subject to revision. These two books are animated by their creative approaches to their subject matter. Both are recommended.

Captive Audience by Lucas Mann

It’s tempting to dismiss reality TV as the empty-calorie choice on television’s seemingly inexhaustible buffet of options. But Lucas Mann thinks that shows purporting to show us something real are worthy of consideration, and he offers just that in Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV.

The love in question is his own, as the book delves into his marriage as well as an array of reality shows. The book is an amalgam of interview, scholarship, cultural criticism, and memoir—all underpinned by Mann’s own viewing habits and the shared experience of watching with his wife. Throughout the book, he addresses his wife directly:

“You don’t seem to feel that pressure to show that you are at least a bit disturbed by the lie of American bourgeois normalcy, even as you participate in it. When this schism leads to a fit, I get all worked up and righteous, thinking I’m just a more self-aware person, but I suspect I’m confusing self-awareness with self-loathing, trying to attach value, or at least a sense of action to the self-loathing. The unspoken question is whether you can still desire something as you sneer at it, or whether it’s a cop-out to try to straddle that line.”

This talk of self-awareness and self-loathing might seem self-indulgent—and indeed, it is. But this self-indulgence, whether it takes the form of watching the lives of others or of wishing others might watch his life with interest, is essential to the overarching structure of Captive Audience. Mann is interested in what is revealed and what is concealed in a reality program; he is equally interested in those questions when it comes to a life lived without the intrusion of cameras.

Captive Audience asks us to consider what might be holding us captive—both on-screen and off.

A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise by Sandra Allen

Sandra Allen had a fondness for her Uncle Bob, but she wasn’t sure that it extended to making sense of his autobiography. Bob sent Allen his text while she was a grad student in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program.

The manuscript offered plenty of barriers to entry: “I flipped through the pages,” Allen writes in A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story of Schizophrenia, “which were still curled with the memory of his typewriter and stank like cigarettes. He’d used almost exclusively capital letters, with no paragraph breaks; each page was a wall of text. There were colons everywhere, sometimes big rows of them, and the spelling indeed looked pretty bad. There were places where he’d typed letters on top of one another, or crossed things out and written other things in.”

It was a gradual process, but eventually Allen found a way to share Bob’s story. The resulting book—which presents Allen’s “cover” version of Bob’s story and her own investigations into her extended family and the psychiatric interventions experienced by her uncle—is an extraordinarily empathic journey into the mind and lived experience of a man who struggled to understand and explain his life.

Allen masterfully navigates the challenges presented by Bob’s text, occasionally—and powerfully—letting Bob’s words appear in their original format. She finds and amplifies Bob’s voice without judgment, asking the reader to engage with her uncle’s life on his terms. The result is thought-provoking and moving—and a bit miraculous in its own right. I urge you to let Allen introduce you to her Uncle Bob.