The Essay Is A Very New Genre Of Nonfiction

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Frontiers are always changing, advancing. Borders are fixed, man-made, squabbled about and jealously fought over. The frontier is an exciting, demanding – and frequently lawless – place to be. Borders are policed, often tense; if they become too porous then they’re not doing the job for which they were intended. Occasionally, though, the border is the frontier. That’s the situation now with regard to fiction and nonfiction.

For many years this was a peaceful, uncontested and pretty deserted space. On one side sat the Samuel Johnson prize, on the other the Booker. On one side of the fence, to put it metonymically, we had Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad. On the other, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Basically, you went to nonfiction for the content, the subject. You read Beevor’s book because you were interested in the second world war, the eastern front. Interest in India or Kerala, however, was no more a precondition for reading Roy’s novel than a fondness for underage girls was a necessary starting point for enjoying Lolita. In a realm where style was often functional, nonfiction books were – are – praised for being “well written”, as though that were an inessential extra, like some optional finish on a reliable car. Whether the subject matter was alluring or off-putting, fiction was the arena where style was more obviously expected, sometimes conspicuously displayed and occasionally rewarded. And so, for a sizeable chunk of my reading life, novels provided pretty much all the nutrition and flavour I needed. They were fun, they taught me about psychology, behaviour and ethics. And then, gradually, increasing numbers of them failed to deliver – or delivered only decreasing amounts of what I went to them for. Nonfiction began taking up more of the slack and, as it did, so the drift away from fiction accelerated. Great novels still held me in their thrall, but a masterpiece such as Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venusmade the pleasures of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin seem fairly redundant. Meanwhile, my attention was fully employed by shoebox-sized nonfiction classics such as Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Robert Caro’s life of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, or Taylor Branch’s trilogy about “America in the King Years”: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, At Canaan’s Edge. I learned so much from books like these – while I was reading them. The downside was that I retained so little. Which was an incentive to read more.

I look forward to the day I join that gruffly contented portion of the male population that reads only military history

While it’s important not to convert prejudices into manifesto pledges, my experience is in keeping with actuarial norms: middle-aged now, I look forward to the days when I join that gruffly contented portion of the male population that reads only military history. More broadly, my changing tastes were shaped by a general cultural shift occasioned by the internet, the increased number of sports channels and the abundance of made-for-TV drama. Not, as is sometimes claimed, because they’re making us more stupid, rendering us incapable of concentrating on late-period Henry James (which I’d never been capable of concentrating on anyway), but because our hunger for distraction and diversion is now thoroughly sated by all the football, porn and viral videos out there.

As a consequence, the one thing I don’t go to fiction for, these days, is entertainment. Obviously, I still want to have a good time. I share Jonathan Franzen’s reaction to the joyless slog represented (for him) by William Gaddis’s JR but I don’t want the kind of good time that ends up feeling like a waste of time. Chaired by Stella Rimington, the Booker year of 2011 was in some ways the belated last gasp of quality fiction as entertainment – or “readability”, as she called it. It was belated because David Hare had provided the epitaph a year earlier when he wrote that “the two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’” (which sometimes feels like the aspirational, if commercially challenged, cousin of genre fiction).

Within the sprawl of nonfiction there is as much genre- and convention-dependency as in fiction. Nicholson Baker has argued persuasively that a recipe for successful nonfiction is an argument or thesis that can be summed up by reviewers and debated by the public without the tedious obligation of reading the whole book. In exceptional cases the title alone is enough. Malcolm Gladwell is the unquestioned master in this regard. Blink. Ah, got it. Some nonfiction books give the impression of being the dutiful fulfilment of contracts agreed on the basis of skilfully managed proposals. The finished books are like heavily expanded versions of those proposals – which then get boiled back down again with the sale of serial rights. Baker’s study of John Updike, U and I, on the other hand, is irreducible in that there is no thesis or argument and very little story. The only way to experience the book is to read it. Which is exactly what one would say of any worthwhile piece of fiction.

The appeal of Touching the Void is dependent absolutely on Joe Simpson being roped to the rock face of what happened

Don’t let me be misunderstood. The novel is not dead or dying. But at any given time, particular cultural forms come into their own. (No sane person would claim that, in the 1990s, advances were made in the composition of string quartets to rival those being made in electronic music.) Sometimes, advances are made at the expense of already established forms; other times, the established forms are themselves challenged and reinvigorated by the resulting blowback. At this moment, it’s the shifting sands between fiction and nonfiction that compel attention.

The difference between fiction and nonfiction is quite reasonably assumed to depend on whether stuff is invented or factually reliable. Now, in some kinds of writing – history, reportage and some species of memoir or true adventure – there is zero room for manoeuvre. Everything must be rigorously fact-checked. The appeal of a book such as Touching the Void is dependent absolutely on Joe Simpson being roped to the rock face of what happened. In military history, as Beevor commands, no liberties may be taken. As the author of many nonfiction books which are full of invention, I second this wholeheartedly.

The manipulations and inventions manufactured by Werner Herzog in the higher service of what he calls “ecstatic truth” leave the defences of documentary at large dangerously lowered. In my defence I would argue that the contrivances in my nonfiction are so factually trivial that their inclusion takes no skin off even the most inquisitorial nose. The Missing of the Somme begins with mention of a visit to the Natural History Museum with my grandfather – who never set foot in a museum in his life. Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do Itwas categorised as nonfiction because that’s what the publishers deemed most likely to succeed – ie, least likely to sink without trace. One of these “travel essays” – as the book was packaged in America – involved a psychedelic misadventure in Amsterdam, climaxing with a peculiar occurrence in a cafe toilet. Most of the story – which had originally appeared in an anthology of fiction – is a faithful transcript of stuff that really happened, but that incident was pinched from an anecdote someone told me about a portable toilet at Glastonbury. All that matters is that the reader can’t see the joins, that there is no textural change between reliable fabric and fabrication. In other words, the issue is one not of accuracy but aesthetics. That is why the photographer Walker Evans turned noun into adjective by insisting on the designation “documentary style” for his work. Exporting this across to literature, style itself can become a form of invention. As the did-it-really-happen? issue gives way to questions of style and form, so we are brought back to the expectations engendered by certain forms: how we expect to read certain books, how we expect them to behave. The dizziness occasioned by WG Sebald lay in the way that we really didn’t know quite what we were reading. To adapt a line of Clint Eastwood’s from Coogan’s Bluff, we didn’t know what was happening – even as it was happening to us. That mesmeric uncertainty has diminished slightly since the Sebald software has, as it were, been made available for free download by numerous acolytes, but a similar categorical refusal informs Ben Lerner’s 10.04, “a work,” as his narrator puts it, “that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them”. The flicker is sustained on an epic scale – in a thoroughly domestic sort of way – by Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle series. A side-effect or aftershock of Knausgaard’s seismic shakeup was to make us realise how thoroughly bored we had become by plot. Rachel Cusk addressed and exploited this in her wonderfully plotless novel Outline, which was shortlisted for last year’s Goldsmiths prize.

Seeking to reward innovation and experimentation, this prize is a good and timely thing – but it’s unfortunate that it’s limited to fiction. While last year’s Samuel Johnson prize went to Helen Macdonald for her beautifully novel H Is for Hawk, much so-called experimental fiction comes in the tried-and-tested form of the sub-species of historical novel known as modernist. Had they been LPs rather than books, several contenders for last year’s Goldsmiths prize could have joined Will Self’s Sharkin that oxymoronic section of Ray’s Jazz Shop: “secondhand avant garde”.

Twenty-four years ago, I was surprised to see But Beautiful– a neither-one-thing-nor-the-other book about jazz – in the bestsellers section of Books Etc on London’s Charing Cross Road. “Is that true?” I asked the manager. “No, no,” he replied consolingly. “We just didn’t know where else to put it.” Nowadays, there’s an increasing need for a section devoted to books that previously lacked a suitable home, or that could have been scattered between four or five different ones, none of which quite fit.

It needs stressing that, as is often the case, a “new” situation turns out to have a long and distinguished prehistory

The danger, as genre-defying or creative nonfiction becomes a genre in its own right – with mix-and-match poised to become a matter of rote – is that no man’s land could become predictably congested. It also needs stressing that, as is often the case, a “new” situation turns out to have a long and distinguished prehistory. Where to stock Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941)? History? Travel (within the subsection of the Balkans or Yugoslavia)? Or perhaps, as she suggested, in a category devoted to works “in a form insane from any ordinary artistic or commercial point of view”. Maggie Nelson must have been very happy when proof copies of her latest book, The Argonauts, advertised it as a work of “autotheory” – happy because Roland Barthes had been saving a place for her in this hip new category. And so, as our proposed new section expands to make room for the diverse likes of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties, Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony or Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait With Keys, the most viable label might well turn out to be an old one: “literature”.

The nonfiction novels of Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song) or Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) changed the literary landscape, but the scope for further innovation was quickly noticed by the young Annie Dillard. “We’ve had the nonfiction novel,” she confided to her journal; “it’s time for the novelised book of nonfiction.” The book she was working on, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is a classic instance of the nonfiction work of art. Having won a Pulitzer prize for nonfiction in 1975, it went on to become the source of some controversy when it was revealed that the famous opening paragraph – in which the author awakens in bed to find herself covered in paw prints of blood, after her cat, a fighting tom, has returned from his nocturnal adventures – was a fiction. It’s not that she’d made this story up; she’d adapted it, with permission, from something written by a postgrad student. This was a shower in a teacup compared with the various storms that have swirled around Ryszard Kapuscinski

What is Creative Nonfiction?

The banner of the magazine I’m proud to have founded and I continue to edit, Creative Nonfiction, defines the genre simply, succinctly, and accurately as “true stories well told.” And that, in essence, is what creative nonfiction is all about.

In some ways, creative nonfiction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself. Creative nonfiction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these.

The words “creative” and “nonfiction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.

The word “creative” has been criticized in this context because some people have maintained that being creative means that you pretend or exaggerate or make up facts and embellish details. This is completely incorrect. It is possible to be honest and straightforward and brilliant and creative at the same time.

"Creative” doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonfiction: “You can’t make this stuff up!” 

The Fastest-Growing Genre

Creative nonfiction has become the most popular genre in the literary and publishing communities. These days the biggest publishers—HarperCollins, Random House, Norton, and others—are seeking creative nonfiction titles more vigorously than literary fiction and poetry. Recent creative nonfiction titles from major publishers on the best-seller lists include Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle.

Even small and academic (university) presses that previously would have published only books of regional interest, along with criticism and poetry, are actively seeking creative nonfiction titles these days. In the academic community generally, creative nonfiction has become the popular way to write.

Through creative writing programs, students can earn undergraduate degrees, MFA degrees, and PhDs in creative nonfiction—not only in the United States but in Australia, New Zealand, and throughout the world. Creative nonfiction is the dominant form in publications like The New Yorker, Esquire, and Vanity Fair. You will even find creative nonfiction stories featured on the front page of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

The Memoir Craze

In the 1990s, the controversy over the publication of a half dozen intimate memoirs triggered what the publishing industry and the book critics referred to as the “memoir craze.” Angela’s Ashes (1996) by Frank McCourt and This Boy’s Life (1989) by Tobias Wolff were both made into major motion pictures; the British actress Emily Watson starred as McCourt’s mother, Angela, and Academy Award winner Robert De Niro played Wolff’s stepfather, Dwight Hansen. The Liars Club (1995) by Mary Karr, another of these best-selling tell-all memoirs, rode the new interest in the genre, as did Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss.

Memoirs are not new to the literary world. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is a classic of the form as is Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, first published in this country in 1938. Today the memoir craze continues in full force. Celebrities, politicians, athletes—victims and heroes alike—are making their private lives public. And readers can’t get enough of these books. The literature of reality, with all of the pain and the secrets that authors confess, is helping to connect the nation and the world in a meaningful and intimate way.

Literary Journalism

Memoir is the personal side of creative nonfiction but there’s a public side as well, often referred to as narrative or literary journalism—or “big idea” stories. Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire) captures big ideas, for example, as does Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat) through creative nonfiction.

One distinction between the personal and the public creative nonfiction is that the memoir is the writer’s particular story, nobody else’s. The writer owns it. In contrast, the public side of creative nonfiction is mostly somebody else’s story; anybody, potentially, owns it, anybody who wants to go to the time and trouble to write about it. These pieces, although narrative, focus on fact, leading to a bigger and more universal concept.

In every issue, Creative Nonfiction publishes “big idea/fact pieces”—creative nonfiction about virtually any subject—from baseball gloves to brain surgery to dog walking to immortality or pig roasting. There are no limits to the subject matter as long as it is expressed in a story-oriented narrative way. These are stories almost anyone could research and write.

Because they’re so personal, memoirs have a limited audience, while the public kind of creative nonfiction—when authors write about something other than themselves—has a larger audience. These “big idea/factual essays” are more sought after by editors and agents and will more likely lead to publication.

The Building Blocks of Creative Nonfiction 

Scenes and stories are the building blocks of creative nonfiction, the foundation and anchoring elements of what we do. This is what I tell people who want to write but have no experience writing. And I tell the same thing to the graduate students in my writing classes—and PhD students. Writing in scenes is one of the most important lessons for you to take from this book—and to learn.

The idea of scenes as building blocks is an easy concept to understand, but it’s not easy to put into practice. The stories or scenes not only have to be factual and true (You can’t make them up!), they have to make a point or communicate information, as I have said, and they have to fit into the overall structure of the essay or chapter or book. It is often a daunting task. But it’s essential.

Writing in scenes represents the difference between showing and telling. The lazy, uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place, or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place, or personality, vividly, memorably—and in action. In scenes.

Lee Gutkind 

Excerpted from: 

YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction—from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between

You Can't Make This Stuff Up is "the essential and definitive guide to creative nonfiction," according to New Yorker writer and author of The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin, Susan Orlean. "It's as engaging to read as it is useful. Any writer or reader will find it indispensable and, frankly, inspiring."



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