Creating Nonfiction

Advice for academics about writing and getting published

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle for Higher Education, Chronicle Careers, December 3, 2007

Authors know the importance of titles. They help to orient the reader or sometimes, with intent, to disorient. They can add dimension and weight; they can exemplify or elucidate. It is, therefore, unfortunate for those of us who write about the world as it is to have been saddled with a title that is not a good indicator of what we do.

“Creative nonfiction” is gaining ground as the descriptor for what has also been called “the fourth genre.” (I’m not sure what the third is. Playwriting? Advertising jingles?) The first word gives some people fits. They get all caught up in “creative” and assume it only means “invented.”

James Frey and his ilk have not helped us out here. But the mixing of the real and the invented has been going on for as long as this ancient genre has been around. I remember reading Rousseau’s Confessions my second year in college and having one of those sophomoric epiphanies: The guy was a big, fat liar.

Annie Dillard starts her Pulitzer Prize-winning book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with the sentence, “I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest.” Nice sentence. The problem is, Annie Dillard never had a cat. Travel writer Bruce Chatwin was accused of never meeting in Patagonia some of the people he described. And recently David Sedaris was outed in The New Republic as a maker-up of things. Fact-checking has become a blood sport.

Instead of using “creative” as the qualifier, some call the genre “literary” or “narrative” nonfiction. Those are both problematic, for different reasons. The first because it raises a question of who gets to decide what is literary (some would eliminate journalism) and the second because some nonfiction that is beautiful is not necessarily narrative — meditative essays, reflections, pensées.

Whether we use the word “creative,” “literary,” or “narrative” as the descriptor, that term is so vexed that it masks the difficulties with the word “nonfiction” — i.e., that we are defined by what we are not. In the introduction to The John McPhee Reader, William L. Howarth writes of seeing the collection of McPhee’s books and recognizing that, while they have the look of the product of a single author, if you try to find them in the library, you have to run up and down the stacks, and even across the campus to a different library. You can find McPhee in sections for recreation, historical science, military science, education, English Literature, and urban and environmental studies. Howarth notes that if McPhee were a novelist, poet, or playwright, his books would all be on the same shelf.

Barbara Tuchman, in an essay called “The Historian as Artist,” is more blunt. She recaps historian George Macauley Trevelyan’s argument that history should be “the exposition of facts about the past, ‘in their full emotional and intellectual value to a wide public by the difficult art of literature.” She notes that Trevelayan stressed writing for the general reader, not just academic peers, by arguing that if you want a wider audience, you have to be clear and you have to be interesting — two hallmarks of good writing.

About the difficult “art” of literature, she says:

“I see no reason why the word should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry while the rest of us are lumped together under that despicable term ‘nonfiction” — as if we were some sort of remainder. I do not feel like a Non-something; I feel quite specific. I wish I could think of a name in place of ‘Nonfiction.’ In the hope of finding an antonym I looked up ‘Fiction’ in Webster and found it defined as opposed to ‘Fact, Truth and Reality.’ I thought for a while of adopting FTR, standing for Fact, Truth, and Reality, as my new term, but it is awkward to use. ‘Writers of Reality’ is the nearest I can come to what I want, but I cannot very well call us ‘Realtors’ because that has been pre-empted — although as a matter of fact I would like to. ‘Real Estate,’ when you come to think of it, is a very fine phrase and it is exactly the sphere that writers of nonfiction deal in: the real estate of man, of human conduct. I wish I could get it back from the dealers in land. Then the categories could be poets, novelists, and realtors.”

Tuchman published that article in 1966. Unfortunately, “realtors” didn’t catch on. We need it now more than ever.

Marjorie Perloff, in the newsletter of the Modern Language Association, wrote in the spring of 2006 about the growth industry that is creative writing and mentioned the “new field” of creative nonfiction:

“I confess to never having heard this term until two or three years ago,” she says, and asks, “What is creative nonfiction as opposed to ‘normal’ nonfiction? Is it the opposite of expository writing? A code term for journalism? Does it reflect a new interest in belles lettres, biography, memoir, diary, travel writing, nature writing? Is creative nonfiction perhaps merely criticism that is written stylishly? All of us would agree, I think, that Walter Benjamin and Hélène Cixous write ‘creative nonfiction,’ as did Emerson and Thoreau in the 19th century. Indeed, come to think of it, all of us practice creative nonfiction in our capacity as authors of prefaces for books and journal volumes, as editorialists for The Chronicle of Higher Education, composers of book blurbs, Web site designers, and so on.”

I wonder: How many teachers of “creative nonfiction” would agree with Perloff’s come-to-think-of-it epiphany? How many writers of creative nonfiction would agree?

In a discussion recently with one of my colleagues, John Keeble, a writer of both fiction and reality (who is called Yoda by graduate students and not because he looks like an artichoke), said that he thought the problem with pinning down nonfiction is that it is so wide-ranging and encompassing and, unlike the other genres, it has not yet atrophied. (See? Yoda.)

When I’m feeling flip and glib and am asked to account for my genre, I borrow from Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

That, I know, is insufficient. Beyond saying the obvious — that we are not afraid of the personal but know that we must go beyond our own experiences to write essays and books that are about something other than what they are explicitly about; that we borrow from the toolboxes of our fictive and poetic brethren; that we seek as much to get at truth as at reality — it’s hard to do much more.

I don’t like the ghettoization of nonfiction from literature, and I don’t like the distinction between “creative nonfiction” and regular nonfiction. There is no reason that books by academics shouldn’t count in the creative-nonfiction category if that is where they belong, and no reason that English departments shouldn’t find a way to teach creative nonfiction.

But it seems that the only time most students encounter “literary” nonfiction is in their freshman-comp courses, when wet-behind-the-ear graduate students introduce them to essays like George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” or Scott Russell Sanders’s “Under the Influence.”

Perhaps if more upper-level undergraduate English courses include nonfiction, when students apply to graduate school — in any field — they will have seen excellent models of what kind of work they can do: models of nonfiction as literature, as creative work, as art. Perhaps that would do well toward training new generations of McPhees, Didions, Benjamins, Cixouses, and New Yorker staff writers.

And maybe, if we all think a little harder, we can come up with something better to call ourselves. Though, to be honest, I would be perfectly happy to be lumped in with Barbara Tuchman as a “realtor.”