Issue #32, 2007

What's the Story #32

Fame and Obscurity (with Appreciation to Gay Talese) and our Search for the Best Creative Nonfiction

Lee Gutkind

What's the Story #32

In a volume entitled The Best Creative Nonfiction, you are probably expecting work by the literary giants—Annie Dillard, John McPhee, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion—but instead you get Sunshine O’Donnell, J.D. Schraffenberger, Eula Biss, Olivia Chia-lin Lee. Household names, they’re not. Perhaps even more obscure are the publications from which the work has been reprinted. Ninth Letter, Isotope, Gastronomica, Hanging Loose. Not to mention (are you ready for this?) PMS.

These are literary journals. Actually, more than 600 literary journals are published annually in the United States. (PMS, by the way, stands for poem, memoir, story.) Circulation for the most well-known such as the Paris Review, is barely 6,000—a pinprick compared to the scope of popular magazines such as Vanity Fair, which circulates 1.2 million issues and reaches more than 6 million readers monthly.

Literary journals may not attract the same audience as the “slick” mags, but they have long provided a place for writers—famous and not so famous—to showcase interesting and often controversial work. Transition, launched in 1923 (and now out of print), featured early segments of Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, and essays, poems, and stories by Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Hart Crane, Samuel Beckett, Dylan Thomas, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Some of these writers were just finding their voice back then—as writers Bonnie J. Rough and Heather Sellers, in Ninth Letter and the Alaska Quarterly Review, respectively, are today. Literary journals publish not just new and emerging writers; many well-known literary figures choose to be published in journals, because, in contrast to the slicks, literary journals are read religiously by serious readers, writers, editors, and agents—publishing insiders.

A primary reason to write—a challenge and joy—is to be daring with form and content. Writers want to try out new ideas and break structural barriers. You can’t do that very often in popular publications. But in literary journals generally, and in creative nonfiction specifically, writers can experiment.

Now, here is where things may get a little messy and even more confusing, because many people don’t know exactly what creative nonfiction is all about. Creative nonfiction, you may have heard it said, is non sequitur, an oxymoron—a contradiction in terms. Monica Hsiung Wojcik, a young writer whose work, from a writing course in the genre at Princeton University, appears in this collection, says, “My mother, a non-native English speaker, refers to the course as ‘Non-creative Fiction.’ ‘What’s the difference?’ she says.”

Fiction means, basically, that the writer has made up some stuff. Some parts of a short story or a novel may be true, or based on truth or fact, but the writer has also taken liberties to make the work more dramatic. So, it is fiction. Nonfiction, obviously, means the opposite—that nothing has been fabricated. The story is true and accurate and can be confirmed by anyone who wants to investigate.

Until recently, most nonfiction has been written in a rather formulaic manner. In newspapers and many magazines, the dry facts have been paramount. Reporters took their job description seriously and reported “the facts, ma’am, just the facts,” as Detective Joe Friday (portrayed by actor Jack Webb) said on the old Dragnet TV series. Friday dissuaded witnesses, victims, and suspects from going off on tangents, from imagining, speculating, editorializing, and fantasizing. Friday’s world was cut and dried, two dimensional, just like that of traditional journalism, in which the reporter—the person conducting the investigation and gathering the information—is generally prohibited from enlightening a reader with personal observation.

Creative nonfiction gives the writer more artistic freedom—not in regard to the truth but in constructing the story. Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in such a way that it reads like fiction.

Creative nonfiction writers tell stories, utilizing dialogue, description, characterization, point of view, while at the same time remaining true to the facts. This is a daunting challenge—and for a long while only the best writers experimented with the form. In the 1930s and 1940s, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, and Ernie Pyle proved that it’s possible to be a good reporter and storyteller, simultaneously informing and enlightening readers. In the 1950s and 1960s, Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe sparked the “New Journalism” movement, still a viable term in some quarters today. Truman Capote coined the idea of the “nonfiction novel” with his masterful In Cold Blood.

Which is not to say that traditional journalists do not write creative nonfiction. To the contrary, they are hungry to do so, although newspapers and magazine sometimes make it difficult for them to satisfy their creative energies and urges. This is why they publish freelance work in other venues, as do Karl Taro Greenfeld, and reporter and editor at Sports Illustrated, whose essay is taken from the Paris Review, and Michael Rosenwald, a reporter for the Washington Post, who invites the reader along as he undergoes a complete physical exam for Popular Science magazine. Both pieces are successful because, as Greenfield describes the mission of creative nonfiction, they “allow the writer to entertain, while still informing and educating.” Rosenwald and Greenfeld both write in scenes, in a cinematic and carefully plotted progression.

Editors at the Seattle Post-Intelligence permitted reporter Carol Smith to use creative nonfiction techniques to piece together a story of a mysterious woman calling herself Mary Anderson who in 1996 checked into a luxury boutique hotel and never checked out. “In many ways, the story of Mary Anderson is the antithetical newspaper story,” Smith says. “There was no news peg. There was no resolution. We had already written the ‘news account’ when it happened. There was, in fact, no reason to write another story. And yet, it received a huge reader response. Readers connected with the questions it raised about who we are, and how we live in the world. To me, there is no higher calling for creative nonfiction.”

The intersection between journalism and creative nonfiction has led some people to call this kind of writing “literary journalism” or, as previously mentioned, “New Journalism.” “New” or “literary” journalism focuses on other people, mostly. Writers (the first person) may be included, observing and commenting, but they are generally not the protagonists, the primary subjects of their stories. But in recent years a shift to personal narrative has changed the shape of—and infused energy and electricity into—the entire publishing and writing world.

Highly praised memoirs have been written over the years, such as Thoreau’s Walden, James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, but the “memoir craze” as people refer to it today, began with perhaps a half-dozen books published in the early and mid-1990s in which writers recounted their lives in as dramatic a way as possible, writing as close to fiction as they dared. Books such as This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff, The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr, and Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt were immensely popular and whetted the public’s appetite (to an alarming degree, some might say) for personal narratives.

Many of these writers first started working in other genres: Wolff was (and continues to be) a well-respected fiction writer. Karr first established her credentials as a poet. One of the main reasons why creative nonfiction has become so popular so quickly is because writers who have achieved and practiced the dramatic literary techniques that creative nonfiction allows have crossed genres.

The “memoir craze” arguably has also led to an explosion of first-person narrative; everyone, it seems, wants to tell his or her story. And in our increasingly connected world, it has become easier for would-be writers to find audiences. Online publications—especially blogs—have reshaped and enlarged the publishing world in a heretofore unimaginable revolution of style and freedom. 

Blog is short for weblog—an online journal, frequently updated and intended for public consumption. Some blogs have a particular focus or mission—politics, says, or celebrity gossip—but even more blogs, numbering perhaps in the missions, are published online by anyone with access to a computer and a rudimentary knowledge of software who thinks he or she has something to say. The downside of this phenomenon is that, as it turns out, most people don’t have much to say and don’t want to work too hard to say it well. Because there are no controls or guidelines, including that of good taste, blogs can be vulgar, inflammatory, vindictive, accusative, and hurtful. One the other hand, blogs can be remarkably intercultural and interdisciplinary, connecting ordinary people from throughout the world in a very direct and intimate way. Blogs can also be a launching pad and proving ground for new and undiscovered writers, which is why we have included excerpts and entries from blogs in Best Creative Nonfiction.

Our editors have devoted considerable time and effort to surfing the web, looking for sparks of nonfiction prose that bristle with wisdom, humor, pathos, and promise. We can’t know what we’ve missed in our disorganized and sporadic search, but we think we have found some representative voices—such as Mimi, a transplanted Londoner establishing herself in New York City by any means possible, and Oliver, a Londoner whose blog is devoted to applying for myriad ludicrous employment opportunities for which he is not qualified.

The blogs are presented just as readers might discover them online—with no order or introduction. As you look through Best Creative Nonfiction, you will come upon them intermixed with the magazine and journal essays. Suddenly you will meet hotcoffeegirl recounting her experiences as a narcoleptic, or a ranting waiter confronting the swift passage of time.

The blogs excerpted here are rough and raw, but also piercing and provocative—which is how we hope you feel about the creative nonfiction genre after you discover this collection at the library or bookstore. Leaf through it and read the work we have selected by writers who names may not immediately impress you, but how ideas and voice will make an impact and make you feel angry, irritated, charmed, motivated, or enraptured. For that is what the best literature of any genre—poetry, fiction, or nonfiction—is all about: triggering emotions, inspiring ideas, breaking stylistic boundaries, and questioning societal norms. That is what creative nonfiction can do best. In this anthology, we have attempted to provide you with some of the best examples of what we think is the best genre.

*

The work anthologized here has been culled by our editors from hundreds of print and online publications. We reached out through advertisement and e-mails to editors form around the world, inviting them to nominate pieces for inclusion in Best Creative Nonfiction. We also convened a prestigious nominating board of editors, teachers, and writers to select for consideration their favorite pieces of nonfiction prose published within the last year or so. This volume is the result of efforts and insight from many of the most knowledgeable professionals in the literary community. 

This is the first Best Creative Nonfiction. The journal Creative Nonfiction, of which this will serve as Issue #32, and our publishing partner, W.W. Norton, intend to publish The Best Creative Nonfiction annually, each summer. Look for the striking pastel-striped cover. Behind it is an unusual and unforgettable literary experience for readers, writers, and bookstore browsers seeking a porthole into literature that makes a personal connection with the writer and captures real life with the power of cinema and the integrity of fact.

 

Author Bio

Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the founder and editor of Creative... read more

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