Putting the "Creative" in Nonfiction
Putting the "Creative" in Nonfiction
Not too long ago, when we spoke of literary genres, we spoke only of fiction, poetry, and drama, which means that those of us interested in studying memoir, essays, or literary journalism often had to navigate without a map. Lacking any sort of canonical tradition, we tried to invent one as we went along, with anthologies edited by Phillip Lopate and Lee Gutkind as our guides. Students in workshops and graduate programs today get syllabi telling them what they ought to read, but the previous generation, I think, had a bit less structure and thus a bit more freedom—even if we also sometimes had a little more to prove.
Those of us who came to creative nonfiction prior to the last decade or so knew from those older than us that we needed to read Speak, Memory and “The Death of the Moth,” of course, but we were also left to discover works and ideas about this genre on our own a lot of the time. It was expected of us, I think, back in the late ’90s and early part of the twenty-first century. Which is how I came to learn aspects of the genre’s history by reading Michael Stephens’s essay about his relationship with the Beat author and teacher Seymour Krim in “A Different Kind of Two-Fisted, Two-Breasted Terror: Seymour Krim and Creative Nonfiction.”
The Stephens essay may not be quite as well known as other works in the genre, but I’m glad to have read it multiple times as a graduate student. I’m pleased that I had the insight to realize that this is an important text in our genre. The essay itself was originally published in the second issue of Creative Nonfiction, way back in 1994, and later anthologized in The Essayist at Work: Profiles of Creative Nonfiction Writers. I probably read it for the first time about a decade after its initial publication, as I was preparing for my PhD exams.
Back then, I was trying to make sense of conflicting claims about the genre—some insisted that this “fourth genre” was an “emerging genre,” a new form of writing, the likes of which had never really been seen. But when, exactly, this emergence began . . . well, people couldn’t really say. Others pointed out that St. Augustine had written his Confessions over 1,500 years ago, Montaigne his Essais more than four hundred years ago. How could anyone make the claim that a genre with so much history was somehow just beginning to “emerge?”
The Stephens essay helped me get a better handle on the history of this type of writing. Yes, you might find examples from centuries ago, but the name we have given as a sort of umbrella term to cover memoir, personal essay, and literary journalism only went back to the ’70s. Stephens writes that Krim proposed a course on what he called “imaginative nonfiction”—distinct from traditional journalism and expository writing—at Columbia University. His dean, J. R. “Dick” Humphreys, reportedly liked the idea but wasn’t thrilled with the proposed course title; he thought that the class should be called “creative nonfiction.” And thus, an entire genre of literature was named.
I liked this story of our origins an awful lot. I liked the idea of Krim—a writer I admire—realizing that this is a type of writing worthy of study. And I liked the idea of Humphreys—a writer, true, but also a university administrator—needlessly micromanaging. “Imaginative” vs. “creative”? Honestly, who gives a shit? But I ultimately liked that Krim agreed to change the name of the proposed course in order to placate his dean. I liked to imagine he received the suggestion, perhaps bristled a bit, and then shrugged, thinking, “Honestly, who gives a shit?”
The fact that I “knew” how our genre came to be called what it is called was really the only thing I had going for me, in a lot of ways.
I particularly liked to keep this origin story in mind at conferences, where inevitably there would be a discussion of what we call it. “I prefer literary nonfiction,” one writer might proclaim over her $6 glass of chardonnay. “Well, I just call what I do essay writing,” another would respond. I liked to listen, nodding but silently smug, aligned with Krim, the guy who brought us all into the academy, honestly not giving a shit.
You have to understand: I’ve been toiling away on the same book for the past ten years. I no longer have an academic job. The fact that I “knew” how our genre came to be called what it is called was really the only thing I had going for me, in a lot of ways. Other writers might talk about winning book awards, or getting tenure, or the pride they took in being asked to judge a contest, but at least I could feel smart when people asked, “Why do we even call it creative nonfiction anyway?”
And then Dinty W. Moore—flash nonfiction pioneer, Google Maps essayist, “accidental Buddhist”—took it all away from me.
I know it’s traditional to refer to writers by their last names when writing about their work. But Dinty W. Moore and I go back a bit—he used to comment occasionally on my blog, he has published my work, he sent my wife a very nice e-mail, once, complimenting her on her photography. So I’m going to call him Dinty here, because that’s what I tend to call him, and this isn’t just an essay about creative nonfiction—it is itself a work of creative nonfiction, after a fashion.
Anyway, Dinty recently published a history of the term creative nonfiction. Groovy, I thought, certain that I already knew what was to be revealed. Sure enough, there was the claim, put forth in an article from Poets and Writers, that Lee Gutkind coined the term. Wrong, dummies, I thought. There was Fourth Genre editor Michael Steinberg theorizing that Gutkind took the term from the National Endowment for the Arts. Not quite, Steinberg, I smirked. Sue William Silverman admits that she was unfamiliar with the term when she submitted her manuscript for the 1995 AWP Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. Truly, I thought, I may not be as accomplished, famous, or talented as these people, but I know about Krim and Humphreys and how they named this genre. As Bill Murray says in Caddyshack, “So I got that goin’ for me.”
Then, finally, Dinty got to Krim and Humphreys. And then he kept going.
You see, he’d found an example of the term in a review of Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time written by David Madden in 1969. When reached by e-mail, Madden acknowledged that he had used the words “creative” and “imaginative”—that is, both the Humphreys and the Krim language—pretty interchangeably (so I guess we can still ask “Who gives a shit?” when it comes to labels), and said that he was pretty sure he’d invented the terms himself.
I was shocked, and somewhat disappointed. I really, really wanted Krim and Humphreys to have come up with the term. So I was heartened, a few days later, when Michael Stephens commented on Facebook that he was pretty sure that, in fact, he had been mistaken in the older article—that he now had information suggesting that Krim started teaching the class in the ’60s, and not the ’70s as he had originally claimed. He and Dinty went back and forth, I weighed in occasionally—mostly just to express my enthusiasm to hear more on the subject—and then my friend and occasional writing partner Christian Exoo jumped into the fray. I’ve known Christian, a librarian by training, since he was in high school; he is one of the smartest and most knowledgeable people I know. On those rare occasions when he doesn’t know something off the top of his head, he almost always knows how to find the information quickly and reliably.
Christian had been following the Facebook discussions, and noted that it seemed like something I cared about a great deal. So he did a little digging and pointed out that, in fact, the generic label seems to be much older than Madden’s 1969 Conroy review. Without devoting too much time and attention to the issue, he was able to locate an article from a 1947 Publishers Weekly that identified Frederick Philip Grove as the 1946 winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for creative nonfiction.
Our genre, it appeared, might not have been born in New York or Ohio, or even in the United States at all.
This sent us down a research rabbit hole from which we emerged only last week, after spending two weeks looking for information online and e-mailing some people with more expertise in Canadian literary history than ourselves—Heather Home, archivist at Queen’s University, put us in touch with Christopher Doody, a book historian whose dissertation is a literary history of the Canadian Authors Association (CAA) and who, it turns out, had relatively easy access to the information we were looking for.
The first winner for creative non-fiction, specifically, was John D. Robins for The Incomplete Anglers, in 1944. We found information to suggest that the works considered “creative” were largely works of autobiography or journalism; there was also an “academic” category, which concerned itself with scholarship. Indeed, the chairman of the board for the 1944 CAA Awards wrote a letter instructing the judges that nonfiction works written to be “entertaining” should be considered for the creative nonfiction prize. In a 1947 report from the board, that description was modified to explain that “lighter, more fanciful books” ought to be considered for the creative award. Almost from the beginning, then, people had trouble understanding and explaining this literary genre.
We eventually learned—thanks to Chris Doody’s research—that, in fact, the term creative non-fiction was introduced and adopted as a prize category at the January 16, 1943, meeting of the CAA. Later, Bruce Hutchison won the inaugural Governor General’s Award for Creative Non-fiction for his autobiography The Unknown Country. If the term creative non-fiction (or creative nonfiction) was used prior to these 1943 awards, we have not been able to find any reference to it. Nevertheless, it is clear the term came into being long before most of us thought it did.
I can’t say what motivated Dinty W. Moore or Michael Stephens to explore the origins of this genre and its name. I think that when I first started thinking about the subject, I wanted to find something definitive, something I could point to and say, “That was the pivotal moment.” I don’t know. Maybe I thought it would lend the enterprise some type of legitimacy. If we could say, “No, this is a real thing—and it starts here,” then maybe we could stop having to defend the very existence of our genre.
It’s entirely possible that Christian Exoo and I have found the very first usage of the adjective creative being used to modify nonfiction or non-fiction. It is also possible that someone will eventually find an even earlier usage. The question then becomes, again, “Honestly, who gives a shit?” What did we prove? Why does it matter?
If we could say, “No, this is a real thing—and it starts here,” then maybe we could stop having to defend the very existence of our genre.
To answer that question, I should start by saying that I don’t think anybody involved in this discussion has lied. In our haste to discover new information and to unveil previously obscured facts, I think we sometimes forget the hard work and the good intentions of researchers who came before, and anybody whose takeaway from this essay is “the Canadians invented the term in 1943—to hell with Seymour Krim, Dick Humphreys, Dave Madden, Michael Stephens, and Dinty Moore” has sorely missed the point. Yes, the Canadian Authors Association may have used the term first, but does that mean they named the magazine that Lee Gutkind founded in 1994? I don’t think so. Dave Madden reports that he coined the term without any input from anyone else. Is he lying? Again, I don’t think so. And Michael Stephens recounts the way these two educators came up with a name for a class. There is no reason to believe that anyone got any details wrong as they recalled how Krim and Humphries arrived at their course title.
No, I think maybe some of us have gone about this enterprise in the wrong way. We—or at least I—have been so focused on trying to locate that transformative moment when Everything Changed Forever. That moment when Dick Humphreys or Dave Madden handed down creative nonfiction like Prometheus with the flame or Moses with the tablets. But for heaven’s sake, I work in creative nonfiction—I know better than to believe in such larger-than-life epiphanies. Don’t I?
Rather than saying some unknown member of the CAA invented the term, which then made its way to Dave Madden in Ohio, then found its way to Krim and Humphreys in New York, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that, over the course of three decades or so, something was happening in North American literary culture. Something largely unprecedented and, at the time, unnamed. Surviving the global wars of the 20th century brought us all together, but the individuals among and within us wouldn’t be completely silenced or assimilated. We’d praise famous men, read the notes of our native sons, travel once more to the lake. And eventually, we’d honor and study these personal writings the way we had always honored and studied other, less inherently personal forms of literature. The old labels—journalism, memoir, essay—seemed too small to apply to this entire movement. We’d need a new label—something that said, “This is the real world as its author perceives it, but the execution is artful, not merely informative.” Narrative nonfiction? Well, it doesn’t always tell a story. Literature of fact? Hmm. Well, perhaps, but that barely seems to hint at the artistry on display. Imaginative nonfiction? Oh, maybe. That’s definitely close.
The old labels—journalism, memoir, essay—seemed too small to apply to this entire movement. We’d need a new label
We will continue to discuss and debate genre classifications. Of this I have no doubt. But if my research into the term’s origins has taught me anything, it’s that there was a phrase that people all over North America independently recognized as an umbrella term that best described a type of writing. There was something in the air in the middle of the twentieth century—something in our consciousness that woke up and demanded to express itself. Honestly, I guess I don’t give a shit what you choose to call it—that’s not really any of my business. But I’m going to follow the lead of the people who first recognized and sought to name this form of literature. I’m sticking with creative nonfiction.
Special thanks to Heather Home, Christopher Doody, and Christian Exoo, for sharing their research and their knowledge with me.
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