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Creative nonfiction (also known as literary or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service to its craft. As a genre, creative nonfiction is still relatively young, and is only beginning to be scrutinized with the same critical analysis given to fiction and poetry.

Contents

Characteristics and definition

For a text to be considered creative nonfiction, it must be factually accurate, and written with attention to literary style and technique. “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.” [1] Forms within this genre include personal essays, memoir, travel writing, food writing, biography, literary journalism, and other hybridized essays. Critic Chris Anderson claims that the genre can be understood best by splitting it into two subcategories—the personal essay and the journalistic essay—but the genre is currently defined by its lack of established conventions. [2]

Literary critic Barbara Lounsberry in her book The Art of Fact suggests four constitutive characteristics of the genre, the first of which is “Documentable subject matter chosen from the real world as opposed to ‘invented’ from the writer’s mind.” [3] By this, she means that the topics and events discussed in the text verifiably exist in the natural world. The second characteristic is “Exhaustive research,” [3] which she claims allows writers “novel perspectives on their subjects” and “also permits them to establish the credibility of their narratives through verifiable references in their texts.” [4] The third characteristic that Lounsberry claims is crucial in defining the genre is “The scene”. She stresses the importance of describing and revivifying the context of events in contrast to the typical journalistic style of objective reportage. [5] The fourth and final feature she suggests is “Fine writing: a literary prose style”. “Verifiable subject matter and exhaustive research guarantee the nonfiction side of literary nonfiction; the narrative form and structure disclose the writer’s artistry; and finally, its polished language reveals that the goal all along has been literature.” [6]

Creative nonfiction may be structured like traditional fiction narratives, as is true of Fenton Johnson's story of love and loss, "Geography of the Heart," and Virginia Holman's "Rescuing Patty Hearst." When book-length works of creative nonfiction follow a story-like arc, they are sometimes called narrative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction often escapes traditional boundaries of narrative altogether, as happens in the bittersweet banter of Natalia Ginzburg's essay, "He and I," in John McPhee's hypnotic tour of Atlantic City, "In Search of Marvin Gardens," and in Ander Monson's playful, experimental essays in "Neck-Deep and Other Predicaments."

Ethics

In recent years, several well-publicized incidents within the United States have suggested that some memoir writers have exaggerated or largely fabricated their works. One example of these incidents is the James Frey controversy. In Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces, published in 2003, Frey claimed to have had certain experiences which were revealed in 2006 to be fabrications.[7]

In 2008, the New York Times featured an article about the memoirist Margaret Seltzer, whose pen name is Margaret B. Jones. Her publisher Riverhead Books canceled the publication of Seltzer's book, "Love and Consequences," when it was revealed that Seltzer's story of her alleged experiences growing up as a half white, half Native American foster child and Bloods gang member in South Central Los Angeles were fictitious.

Literary criticism

To date, there is very little published literary criticism of nonfiction works, despite the fact that the genre is often published in respected publications such as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and others. A handful of the most widely recognized writers in the genre such as Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Joan Didion and Norman Mailer, have seen some criticism on their more prominent works. “Critics to date, however, have tended to focus on only one or two of each writer’s works, to illustrate particular critical points.” [8] These analyses of a few key pieces are hardly in-depth or as comprehensive as the criticism and analyses of their fictional contemporaries. As the popularity of the genre continues to expand, many nonfiction authors and a handful of literary critics are calling for more extensive literary analysis of the genre.

“If, these four features delimit an important art form of our time, a discourse grounded in fact but artful in execution that might be called literary nonfiction, what is needed is serious critical attention of all kinds to this work: formal criticism (both Russian Formalism and New Criticism), historical, biographical, cultural, structuralist and deconstructionist, reader-response criticism and feminist (criticism).” [8]
“Nonfiction is no longer the bastard child, the second class citizen; literature is no longer reified, mystified, unavailable. This is the contribution that poststructuralist theory has to make to an understanding of literary nonfiction, since poststructuralist theorists are primarily concerned with how we make meaning and secure authority for claims in meaning of language.” [9]

References

  1. ^ Gutkind, Lee (2007). The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton. pp. xi. ISBN 0393330036.  
  2. ^ Anderson, page ix.
  3. ^ a b Lounsberry, Barbara (1990). The art of fact: contemporary artists of nonfiction. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. xiii. ISBN 0313268932.  
  4. ^ Lounsberry, page xiii-xiv
  5. ^ Lounsberry, page xiv-xv
  6. ^ Lounsberry, page xv
  7. ^ Wyatt, Edward (2006-01-10). "Best-Selling Memoir Draws Scrutiny". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/10/books/10frey.html. Retrieved 2008-01-24.  
  8. ^ a b Lounsberry, page xvi
  9. ^ Anderson, Chris (1989). Literary nonfiction: theory, criticism, pedagogy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. xix-x. ISBN 0809314053.  

Further reading

Chronological order of publication (oldest first)

  • Johnson, E. L.; Wolfe, Tom (1975). The New Journalism. London: Pan Books. ISBN 0330243152.  
  • Gutkind, Lee (1997). The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0471113565.  
  • Associated Writing Programs; Forche, Carolyn; Gerard, Philip (2001). Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books. ISBN 1884910505.  
  • Dillard, Annie; Gutkind, Lee (2005). In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0393326659.  
  • Gutkind, Lee, ed. (2008). Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 9780393065619.  

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