Creative Nonfiction: In Defense of the Truth (with a Lower Case T)
Nearly two weeks after the 2010 AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Denver, I've returned to Chicago wondering what I've taken away from the experience. All the panels, all the run-ins with famous writers and editors, all the talks over beer in the Mile High City with graduate students about the merits of this writer or that one. Still shaken and scrambled by the affair, I struggle to pinpoint what, exactly, Denver wanted me to know once I'd left.
The release of Creative Nonfiction's newest issue, number 38, also couldn't have been more timely. With a complete revamp of the periodical (much credit due to editor Lee Gutkind and managing editor Hattie Fletcher), it has become a compendium akin to the newsstand periodical, all the while striving to maintain their capstone motto: “True stories, well told.” The magazine, now “one of the most important journalism magazines in the world,” according to Gutkind, blends experimental and lyric essays with interviews and personal memoirs, all trenchantly embedded in a genre once jokingly called “faction.”
It's been argued for decades what the true identity of creative nonfiction (the genre, not the magazine) even is -- on one end of a spectrum of opinion standing Lee Gutkind, the "Godfather of Creative Nonfiction," and on the other, John D'Agata, a proponent not only of the renewal of the classical essay, but of its modernization into both literary and lyric forms. D'Agata, with releases such as The Next American Essay and Lost Origins of the Essay, is turned off by the addition of “creative” to “nonfiction,” arguing that perhaps “literary” is the best modifier to be added, if one need be added at all.
And perhaps the “creative” bit comes from those who once wished to call the genre “faction,” those who believed that writers such as Truman Capote and Gay Talese were only stealing techniques from “real” writers, writers who never had to resort to using the vocational terms “journalist” or “reporter.” “Those who have been journalists understand reality as something that can be corroborated,” writes Mark Doty in David Lazar's essay anthology Truth in Nonfiction, “facts can and must be checked.” But is it this checking of facts that people become concerned with because it's labeled nonfiction? A panelist at the conference said that labeling something as a memoir creates a trust between the reader and the writer, and that even when approaching agents and publishers with a new essay collection, it's far smarter to call something a memoir than an essay. Are the masses these works are being fed to really that worried?
It seems that the readers who are out there buying what we'd call “creative” nonfiction are after personal stories -- of trial and error, of heartbreak, of overcoming obstacles as if the writers are their own versions of a modern-day Odysseus. Books uncovering guilt and making slight nods to St. Augustine's Confessions sit at the front of new bookstores ready to be purchased at full price, while writers like Gutkind or D'Agata or David Shields or Philip Lopate are never heard of, and the literary community rolls its eyes at the public's resilience toward buying something so pop, so unoriginal, so far from literary or academic that a journal like Creative Nonfiction ups the ante on its design just to feel more attractive. Does anything out there without the labels “creative” or “memoir” even have a selling point?
“A personal narrative is a tale taken from life,” writes Vivian Gornick, “that is, from actual not imagined occurrences -- and is 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 out of the raw materials of one's own life so that it moves from a tale of private interest to one that has meaning for the disinterested reader.” So much nonfiction is self-centered, myopic, grasping for attention and providing a justification of experience, that any nonfiction exploring something outside the self, such as Patrick Madden's Quotidiana, is shunted to the backburner. Just as with the chasm between Twilight and anything written by Milan Kundera, a gap has been formed between the nonfiction that the public is voracious about and the nonfiction that, Brechtian as it may seem, challenges both the reader and the writer simultaneously.
If there's one thing that conferences are good for, it's initiating dialogue, whether progressive or not. This year, in Denver, amongst all the beer and the panels and the journals promoting their writers, it seemed that the dialogue regarding the direction of nonfiction writing was none other than cyclical, and has this writer wondering what will become popular next.
His guess: the autobiographical, postmodern haiku.