Creative vs. narrative vs. literary

In a comment following yesterday’s post, Thank You Susan Orlean, Erin asks:

I’m just curious. What is your take on the term creative nonfiction? I
notice you prefer literary or narrative nonfiction instead.

Good question, Erin (and thanks for stopping by the Hinterlands!).  The terms "narrative nonfiction," "narrative journalism," "literary nonfiction" and "creative nonfiction" have been used somewhat interchangeably (you’ll also hear "new journalism," though since that term dates back at least to the 1960s and works like Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, that "new" is kind of old now–heck, that "new" has grandkids by now). 

Arguably, there are some subtle distinctions between those terms, and I’m going to go out on the proverbial limb and define what I think those distinctions are, admitting that sometimes the lines between them aren’t altogether absolute.

Narrative journalism best describes the kind of literate feature stories you will see in places like the New York Times magazine or, say, Outside or GQ.  They meld descriptive storytelling with journalism’s generally unembellished reporting of the facts. The author may be present in the story (hence the now ubiquitous first-person present-progressive narrative journalism lede, "I’m riding in the back of a suffocatingly overpacked truck teetering along narrow mountain roads…."  or "I’m wading up to my neck in opaque water filled with ravenous leeches…."  or "I’m dancing the tango with a six-foot transvestite named Opal, trying to remember that I’m supposed to be the one who leads…"  etc.), but there is not a distinctive narrative "voice"  (Bill Bryson  writes with a distinctive narrative voice;  Jon Krakauer writes like a journalist).  However, there is sometimes a noticeable institutional "voice" aimed at the piece’s presumed audience (the New York Times would be unlikely to use the term "candy-assed," even in quotes, as Outside did in a March 2005 piece on Finland’s Sauna World Championships).  The best narrative journalism can be powerful, compelling and elegantly crafted writing, but the writing is meant to be the vehicle for the story, in a sense to slip by unnoticed the way  an invisible current can carry you down a river.

In book form, narrative journalism is more likely to have an index at the end.  Narrative biography and narrative history (Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter, David McCollough’s 1776) are close cousins of narrative journalism. 

Narrative nonfiction remains faithful to the truth of a story (at least I believe it should–no inventing scenes or characters or situations for the convenience of the author!) while also taking more license than narrative journalism with things like narrative structure and voice and language choices.  If the author is present in the story, then we are more likely to be privy to authorial flights of fancy or segues or musings or thoughts or opinions.  Mary Roach’s Stiff, Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, and Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief are all examples of narrative nonfiction–they have distinctive narrative voice and the author is much more than objective observer on the scene.  Narrative nonfiction is the home of quirky travel stories and oddball quests like Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic and Tony Hawk’s Round Ireland with a Fridge.   It’s the home of writers like John McPhee (Coming into the Country; The Control of Nature) and Gretel Ehrlich (A Match to the Heart).  The best narrative nonfiction is as much about the writing as the story–that is, you read it for the pleasure of the writing itself as much as you read it for the story it tells.

Creative nonfiction is a term that makes me want to ask, "So what’s non-creative nonfiction?" (answer: the average freshman comp essay.)  But seriously, like "creative writing" it’s a term that sounds vaguely arty but doesn’t tell you much.  However, if we must define creative nonfiction, I’d call it the realm first of all of writing that openly blurs the line between nonfiction and fiction.  You might put Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, both dubbed "nonfiction novels" here.  (Though in this 1966 George Plimpton interview with Truman Capote from the New York Times, Capote claimed "One doesn’t spend almost six years on a book, the point of which is factual accuracy, and then give way to minor distortions," others have subsequently begged to differ–for example, this piece in the Nevada State Archives claims "we know Capote invented the book’s final dramatic scene," and in this article in the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World the prosecutor in the murder case chronicled in the book says Capote misquoted, described things incorrectly, and made up scenes.) Memoirists who tell you not to trust the truth of what they’ve just told you (Mary McCarthy springs to mind) go here, as do works (such as the lyrically inscrutable Judy Ruiz essay "Oranges and Sweet Sister-Boy" and large portions of Dave Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) in which the writing supercedes the narrative altogether.

Literary nonfiction is a catchall, like "literary fiction," that is meant to signal "this is highbrow stuff," and use of the term must immediately be followed by lamentations on the dearth of literary nonfiction readers and muttered imprecations about the cultural wasteland being wrought by reality television, video games, and the Harry Potter series.

Finally–do I have a preference because I use the term "narrative nonfiction" the most?  Well, we try to be friendly here at the Nonfiction Lounge, and if I’m a touch partial to narrative nonfiction, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of room for the whole creative/narrative/literary/journalism crowd to pull up a seat and join the conversation.

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4 Responses to Creative vs. narrative vs. literary

  1. Erin says:

    Wow, thank you, Caroline! What a delightful and thorough response. 🙂 Your definitions make sense to me and I agree with them. I had just been getting curious because VCU uses the term “creative nonfiction” and so does the Lee Gutkind journal, but I think they both mean “narrative” in the way you’ve defined it here. Thanks again!

  2. tina says:

    oh, so does it feel good to clobber Truman Capote? Isn’t it enough that he’s dead and had no eyebrows?
    Did he have lips? I can’t remember.
    Really, thanks for adding to my comPLETEly out of control reading list and for giving me some things to think about that somehow remind me of who I am.

  3. Lenore Gay says:

    Hi Caroline,
    Thanks for your thoughts on the nonfiction world. The terms have always felt murky and you’ve cleared away most of the mud.
    Would you say a bit more about essays – such as the differences among personal essays and various types of memoir (if there are various types.)? Annie Dillard’s work and Ehrlich’s “Match to the Heart” seem like memoir, as well as fitting into the narrative nonfiction category.

  4. Adrian says:

    Could you please enlighten me about what’s the big differences betwenn narrative journalism and literary journalism? And also narrative writing and literary writing?

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