I don’t know when I first heard the terms narrative nonfiction and creative nonfiction, but it wasn’t too long ago. Five years at most. I do, however, remember what my reaction was.
The joke was on me, however, because it turns out that people really aren’t kidding about these — what to call them? — terms? Genres? Amazing new art forms?
Call me old fashioned, but I don’t really see why these newfangled words are necessary from a functional point of view. (If this is really just about marketing the same old books to a new crop of easily-led readers, that’s something entirely different. It’s still not okay, but it’s entirely different.)
As hard as I try, I can’t really see the difference between what used to be called nonfiction and what is now being dressed up as narrative nonfiction or creative nonfiction. Unless of course these new terms (that’s what I’m going to call them) are really an excuse for allowing nonfiction writers to cross the line into fiction writing.
In my outdated view, nonfiction seems to me to be the kind of stuff you don’t make up. You may dramatize events in some way by aggregating facts and historical and local context, but you don’t just decide you can write a word-for-word conversation between a twenty-two-year-old Stalin and the guy tending bar who’s getting ready to throw him out on his ass for being such a know-it-all.
Because if you want to make stuff up, you write fiction. That’s the whole point of it. We live in a world with gravity and pollution (nonfiction), but one day you imagine living in a world with almost no gravity and no pollution (fiction). Then you put in a love story or a car chase or an angst-ridden artist who commits suicide while dreaming of a far-away planet with more gravity and the kind of out-of-control pollution that a poet could feast on. Presto: fiction.
Because I am primarily a fiction writer, however, I decided to check myself for anti-creative-nonfiction bias on this subject, and recently looked up the term on Wikipedia. Here is a sampling of what I found.
Creative nonfiction (also known as literary or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives.
So far so good. Not only is this okay by me, but it’s also the way nonfiction has always been written. So I’m still not sure why we need augmented terminology.
Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service to its craft.
Uh…okay. But does anybody ever really think ‘technical writing’ when someone says to them, “Wow! I’m reading some awesome nonfiction!” I mean, I don’t usually think toaster manual at that point, but maybe that’s just me. And as for journalism, I was always under the impression that we called that…journalism. (Did I miss a memo?)
As a genre, creative nonfiction is still relatively young, and is only beginning to be scrutinized with the same critical analysis given to fiction and poetry.
Whereupon I’m completely and utterly lost. Because in these three introductory sentences creative nonfiction has been defined as something very recent and not at all like technical writing and journalism — leaving the very strong impression that until creative nonfiction came along those were the only two kinds of nonfiction in existence. You had your boring journalism nonfiction, and your how-to geek nonfiction, and that was it. No nonfiction works about, say, flying. Or violent human acts. Or anything. (Apparently Random House disagrees, but they’re a publisher so we know what that’s all about.)
Pressing ahead with Wikipedia again, we find, under the heading of ‘Characteristics and definition’, four definitive traits proposed by Barbara Lounsberry in her book The Art of Fact:
1. “ ‘Documentable subject matter chosen from the real world as opposed to ‘invented’ from the writer’s mind.’ ”
Agreed. That’s the unambiguous division between fiction and nonfiction.
2. “ ‘Exhaustive research,’ which she claims allows writers ‘novel perspectives on their subjects’ and ‘also permits them to establish the credibility of their narratives through verifiable references in their texts.’ ”
3. “The third characteristic that Lounsberry claims is crucial in defining the genre is ‘The scene’. She stresses the importance of describing and revivifying the context of events in contrast to the typical journalistic style of objective reportage.”
Uh…wait a minute. I’m not really sure you can do #1 and #3 at the same time if #1 is really a rule. But even if you could, the phrase “revivifying the context of events” seems like a high-falutin’ euphemism for “making stuff up,” particularly when contrasted with the relatively unambiguous phrase: “objective reportage.”
But hold that thought, because here’s criterion #4:
4. The fourth and final feature she suggests is “Fine writing: a literary prose style”.
Well…what do we mean by ‘style’ here? Because you can excuse an awful lot with that one word. “I’m not making things up — that’s just my literary style.” Or, “Teenagers who walk around with their pants hanging down and their underwear showing insist they’re not being rude or ridiculous — that’s just their style.”
I’d also like to point out here that Truman Capote would be more than a little miffed at the idea that he missed out on something really cool called creative nonfiction, even though by every measure he was apparently writing it long before it was discovered or invented or coined or whatever it was that gave it credibility in some circles. And I’d even include #3 here, too, because I don’t think anyone believes Truman Capote didn’t make stuff up while he was writing In Cold Blood. Not big stuff, obviously, but the kind of revivifying details that help draw a powerful scene….
But I digress. The next subsection of the Wikipedia article is called ‘Ethics’, which notes:
In [James] Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, published in 2003, Frey claimed to have had certain experiences which were revealed in 2006 to be fabrications.
In 2008, the New York Times featured an article about the memoirist Margaret Seltzer, whose pen name is Margaret B. Jones. Her publisher Riverhead Books canceled the publication of Seltzer’s book, “Love and Consequences,” when it was revealed that Seltzer’s story of her alleged experiences growing up as a half white, half Native American foster child and Bloods gang member in South Central Los Angeles were fictitious.
So is the problem here that they made stuff up, or that they got caught? And no, that’s not meant to be a sarcastic question. Because if I understand the whole point of creative (or narrative) nonfiction, it’s really that you 1) document your subject 2) exhaustively, so you can 3) make stuff up that nobody can contradict you on if they momentarily break free from your 4) spellbinding prose style.
I mean, aren’t those four criteria essentially a roadmap showing how to get from boring fact-based nonfiction to fun revivified nonfiction without getting caught making stuff up? Not that that’s the point, but doesn’t the definition actually do just that?
The whole point of nonfiction — apparent in the very word — is that it’s not fiction. Yes, the line is often blurred, as many supposedly fact-based Hollywood movies attest (yes, I’m talking to you, Oliver Stone), but embracing the term creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction seems to do away with the blurring and encourage aspects of fiction writing as basics of the nonfiction craft. And I’m not down with that.
If you want to make stuff up, write fiction. It’s pretty much that simple. If you say you’re writing nonfiction, but what you’re really doing is making stuff up, then what you’re really, really doing is lying.
Again: I’m not even sure I’m against doing any or all of the above under the old title of nonfiction if that’s what you’re into. I’m sure there are some amazingly well-written, gripping, revealing, illuminating things being written this way. I think nonfiction should be factual, but I also recognize the need to avoid writing the literary equivalent of the Sahara Desert, which is where the line will get blurry from time to time. Like a mirage….
But what I still don’t get, is how this is really different from nonfiction as we’ve known it before, except in so far as it gussies up a corner of that side of the library and makes it seems a bit more….
— Mark Barrett
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