POV: What is this thing called nonfiction?

Over at MediaBistro today, Lee Gutkind, editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction, gives his definition of, yes, creative nonfiction.  I quote in full, because it’s a short entry:

I assume readers want the short version. Creative Nonfiction is a drilling down to the essence of storytelling. Storytelling, a primitive art, is as old as the beginning of mankind. People want to receive what’s out there in the form of stories, not just facts, opinion, analysis. You might think of Creative Nonfiction as a blending of narrative and information.

Basically, Creative Nonfiction is the art of bringing to prose all the properties of storytelling: Drama, dialog, characterization, detailed descriptions, point of view, speculation about what’s going on in the minds of the characters or "inner monologues." All this has long been part of poetry and fiction. Now it’s part of nonfiction.

The art of Creative Nonfiction, as we see in the works of Joan Didion, Gay Talese and all those writers for VANITY FAIR, NEW YORKERS and ESQUIRE, injects the story into the information. That makes the whole package more compelling and, yes, emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

And there are two types of stories. One type is one’s own story. The other type is telling the stories of others.

Thanks to this genre, writers of nonfiction can now use the tools of the reporter, the points of view and ear for dialog of a novelist, and the passion and wordplay of the poet.

Here in the Hinterlands, I’ve ventured a distinction between "narrative nonfiction" and "creative nonfiction," but I’d say Gutkind’s is a broader definition that would embrace both. 

"…a drilling down to the essence of storytelling."  That’s a good line.

Speaking of nonfiction, yesterday I visited with Richard McCann and his class at American University in D.C.  The class has read a series of fiction and non-fiction books and had visits from the books’ authors, and if I didn’t suffer from Name Alzheimer’s I’d tell you what the class is called.  But I do, so I can’t.

Skin Game was the book under discussion by author C. Kettlewell, so we gave much consideration (or, as much as you can have in just over an hour when author C. Kettlewell is hopelessly inclined to the long-winded answer) about the work of writing a memoir.  What defines "truth" in a memoir, which is inherently a highly personal account? 

I, of course, stick to my guns that you can’t deliberately invent details because they make the story work better, or extend your metaphor more effectively, or because you just plain can’t remember.  It’s the art and the challenge of narrative nonfiction (I say) to make the story from the materials you’re given.

At the same time, I didn’t interview anyone else about their memories of scenes I wrote about in the book–and for all I know their memories may have differed considerably from mine–and so admittedly it’s a very solipsistic truth (I think "solipsistic" is the mot juste there. Anyone?).

One student, however, ventured that a previous visiting author had said that, while her work was very autobiographical, nevertheless she had to invent, to fictionalize, in order to get at the real truth of the story.  As Richard McCann summarized her position, real life is too chaotic to make a coherent, meaningful narrative from.  (But also that this author considered her work to be "fiction.")

It’s an interesting argument, which I’ve heard/read before from fiction writers.  That fiction more effectively gets at "the truth."  (This argument pops up regularly in the Fiction vs. Nonfiction Smackdown.)  It’s one of those lofty statements that seems to be presented as a presumed given, without, if you ask me,  elaboration to justify it or even explain it.  "How so?" I ask.

But let’s take Richard’s elaboration and consider it.  Perhaps the fiction writer has an idea of what she or he wants to say, and crafts a story to say it.   Whereas perhaps the nonfiction writer spies the story waiting to be brought forth from the undifferentiated mass of details of "real life."  Ultimately, fiction and nonfiction are both consciously constructed
works, in which one chooses details to include and details to exclude.  But maybe these aren’t just different genres, but entirely different ways of seeing. A painter takes a blank canvas and sees how adding layers of color will create something, and the sculptor takes a lump of clay and sees how the cutting away and shaping of layers will create something.

Recently, I was watching the "making of" segement on a DVD from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, in which the actors were talking about the costumes. One was saying that his costume had three completely distinct layers, two of which were never even visible–but that were necessary in order for the visible layer to drape and move and lie correctly, and I was marveling at the costumer’s ability to "see" all this in bolts of fabric, and to understand cloth and cut and construction and know that those two hidden layers will be necessary in order for the visible one to work.

I’m really interested in the ideas of seeing and perceiving, the way each of us sees the world, what we take in and what we don’t, what we recognize and what goes unseen.  If those with Asperger’s, for example, lack the innate ability to read the myriad subtle unspoken interpersonal cues between people, then in how many other ways might we all differ in what and how we can and cannot see and read from the world?

Somethin’ to chew on now that we’ve all done with our Thanksgiving leftovers.


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3 Responses to POV: What is this thing called nonfiction?

  1. Patty says:

    Hi caroline —
    as always, I’m interested in what you’re writing here…(plus, I’m a big fan of Richard McCann’s — he was my very first writing teacher way back when , in P-town, and now, a friend). Anyway — you’ll be interested to know that at the VCU First Novelist Forum on Friday, Feb. 10th, we’re going to tackle these very questions — i.e. how do you decide to tell your story, fiction or non-fiction? (Our award winner is Lorraine Adams, who won for her novel, “Harbor” — but she was first a Pulitizer-prize winning journalist for Washington Post, so I’m curious as to why she chose fiction and not non-fiction…). Maybe you can give some coverage here on your blog…? Hope you’re well.

  2. William says:

    Solipsism allows a writer to believe they are publishing non-fiction, but in truth, everything ever written is fiction with a varying measure of reality. Each story is a shade of gray, from nearly black to nearly white.

  3. have to agree with @william’s comments on this one. is there really ever such a thing as non-fiction?

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