Creative nonfiction

In Cold Blood

Creative nonfiction (also known as verfabula) is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as academic or technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact but is not written to entertain based on prose style.

For a text to be considered creative nonfiction, it must be factually accurate, and written with attention to literary style and technique. ‘Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.’ Forms within this genre include biography, autobiography, memoir, diary, travel writing, food writing, literary journalism, chronicle, personal essays, and other hybridized essays.

According to American critic and memoirist Vivian Gornick, ‘A memoir is a tale taken from life—that is, from actual, not imagined, occurrences—related by a first-person narrator who is undeniably the writer. Beyond these bare requirements it has the same responsibility as the novel or the short story: to shape a piece of experience so that it moves from a tale of private interest to one with meaning for the disinterested reader.’ Critic Chris Anderson really claims that the genre can be understood best by splitting it into two subcategories—the personal essay and the journalistic essay—but the genre is currently defined by its lack of established conventions.

Literary critic Barbara Lounsberry—in her book, ‘The Art of Fact’—suggests four constitutive characteristics of the genre, the first of which is ‘Documentable subject matter chosen from the real world as opposed to ‘invented’ from the writer’s mind.’ By this, she means that the topics and events discussed in the text verifiably exist in the natural world. The second characteristic is ‘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.’ 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. The fourth and final feature she suggests is ‘Fine writing: a literary prose style.’ ‘Verifiable subject matter and exhaustive research guarantee the nonfiction side of literary nonfiction; the narrative form and structure disclose the writer’s artistry; and finally, its polished language reveals that the goal all along has been literature.’

Creative nonfiction may be structured like traditional fiction narratives, as is true of Fenton Johnson’s story of love and loss, ‘Geography of the Heart,’ and Virginia Holman’s ‘Rescuing Patty Hearst.’ When book-length works of creative nonfiction follow a story-like arc, they are sometimes called narrative nonfiction. Other books, such as Daniel Levitin’s ‘This Is Your Brain on Music’ and ‘The World in Six Songs,’ use elements of narrative momentum, rhythm, and poetry to convey a literary quality. Creative nonfiction often escapes traditional boundaries of narrative altogether, as happens in the bittersweet banter of Natalia Ginzburg’s essay, ‘He and I,’ in John McPhee’s hypnotic tour of Atlantic City, ‘In Search of Marvin Gardens,’ and in Ander Monson’s playful, experimental essays in ‘Neck-Deep and Other Predicaments.’

Creative nonfiction writers have embraced new ways of forming their texts—including online technologies—because the genre leads itself to grand experimentation. Dozens of new journals have sprung up—both in print and online—that feature creative nonfiction prominently in their offerings.

Writers of creative or narrative non-fiction often discuss the level, and limits, of creative invention in their works and justify the approaches they have taken to relating true events. Melanie McGrath, whose book ‘Silvertown,’ an account of her grandmother’s life, is ‘written in a novelist’s idiom,’ writes in the follow-up, ‘Hopping,’ that the known facts of her stories are ‘the canvas on to which I have embroidered. Some of the facts have slipped through the holes—we no longer know them nor have any means of verifying them—and in these cases I have reimagined scenes or reconstructed events in a way I believe reflects the essence of the scene or the event in the minds and hearts of the people who lived through it. … To my mind this literary tinkering does not alter the more profound truth of the story.’ This concept of fact vs. fiction is elaborated upon in Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s book ‘Tell It Slant.’ Nuala Calvi, author of ‘The Sugar Girls,’ a novelistic story based on interviews with former sugar-factory workers, makes a similar point: ‘Although we have tried to remain faithful to what our interviewees have told us, at a distance of over half a century many memories are understandably incomplete, and where necessary we have used our own research, and our imaginations, to fill in the gaps. … However, the essence of the stories related here is true, as they were told to us by those who experienced them at first hand.’

In recent years, there have been several well-publicized incidents of memoir writers who exaggerated or fabricated certain facts in their work. For example: In 1998, Swiss writer and journalist Daniel Ganzfried revealed that Binjamin Wilkomirski’s memoir ‘Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood,’ detailing his experiences as a child survivor of the Holocaust, contained factual inaccuracies. The James Frey controversy hit in 2006, when ‘The Smoking Gun’ website revealed that Frey’s memoir, ‘A Million Little Pieces,’ contained experiences that turned out 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.

Although there have been instances of traditional and literary journalists falsifying their stories, the ethics applied to creative nonfiction are the same as those that apply to journalism. The truth is meant to be upheld, just told in a literary fashion. Essayist John D’Agata explores the issue in his 2012 book ‘The Lifespan of a Fact.’ It examines the relationship between truth and accuracy, and whether it is appropriate for a writer to substitute one for the other. He and fact-checker Jim Fingal have an intense debate about the boundaries of creative nonfiction, or ‘literary nonfiction.’

There is very little published literary criticism of creative nonfiction works, despite the fact that the genre is often published in respected publications. A handful of the most widely recognized writers in the genre such as Robert Caro, Gay Talese, Joseph Mitchell, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Joan Didion, John Perkins, Ryszard Kapuściński, Helen Garner, and Norman Mailer have seen some criticism on their more prominent works.

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