The REAL New Kings — And Queens — of Nonfiction

Kelly Nuxoll has written an informative and thoughtful article for Poets and Writers magazine about citizen journalism, making the case that what she and her fellow citizen journalists do is more akin to creative nonfiction than it is to traditional political commentary. The immediacy of it gives it power — one of Kelly’s colleagues, writing for the Huffington Post, was the woman who broke the “Obama thinks that voters are bitter” furor. I advise you to read the whole of Kelly’s article to see her argument in full.

The online version of the magazine includes Kelly’s “Postcard from the Campaign Trail” that expands on her thoughts, and includes this paragraph:

I have an MFA in creative nonfiction: Reported, first-person pieces are what I do. I disclose information and use language to reveal my bias, and I expect the reader to take my work for what it is—the perspective of a single individual. I also take my task very seriously. I’m the eyes and ears for all the people who aren’t in the room, and I try to convey both the substance of what happens and also the mood, the setting, my own reaction and those of the people around me. These, the devices of fiction, are important in making a scene come alive. But they are especially critical in describing a presidential campaign, which can be sanitized by sound bites or spun into unrecognizable fluff by a press office. As citizens in a democracy, we need all the information we can get about the candidates and the apparatus that surrounds them. Creative nonfiction offers a lens that is colored by voice, tone, and critical intelligence.

Kelly’s thoughts remind me that, after all this time, creative nonfiction is still a term that a lot of people have problems understanding. I’ve had to define it innumerable times, sometimes even to people who work in publishing.

Literary nonfiction is perhaps a friendlier and more palatable term, or narrative nonfiction even, as these are handles of quality or function. But the idea that nonfiction could be both factually accurate and also creative — this seems to fry people’s brains. I like Kelly’s definition, above, but for the record, here’s my simple, one sentence version.

Creative nonfiction uses the techniques of fiction to tell a true story.

There. Said it. Simple, right?

For those looking for a fuller explication, check out Lee Gutkind’s response to the question “What is Creative Nonfiction” over at the magazine he founded and edits — Creative Nonfiction, of course. Here’s his summary, which dovetails nicely with what Kelly says too:

In creative nonfiction, writers can be poetic and journalistic simultaneously. Creative nonfiction writers are encouraged to utilize literary and even cinematic techniques, from scene to dialogue to description to point of view, to write about themselves and others, capturing real people and real life in ways that can and have changed the world.

In other words, it’s a somewhat fluid genre, which draws from and combines different literary traditions — which is why it’s also so vibrant and powerful. By this definition, citizen journalists are looking like the new kings and queens of creative nonfiction — much more so than Ira Glass’s picks for his somewhat tired, traditional and borderline gender discriminatory book of the same title.

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3 Responses to The REAL New Kings — And Queens — of Nonfiction

  1. deanjbaker says:

    good to see this, thank you

  2. sarahemc2 says:

    Oh, now I’m sad. I love Ira Glass, I love This American Life. I do not love the obviously discriminatory title of his book nor, having now looked at the table of contents, do I agree with his heavily-skewed take on who deserves to wear a crown. While each of the annointed has certainly earned his–or more token-esquely her–right to be there, it’s a wholey list at best. Where is Nick Flynn? Dinty Moore? Abigail Thomas?
    It looks more like the invitation list to an exclusive cocktail party somewhere in SOHO, and less like a list of CNF royalty, to me.

  3. nancyrawlinson says:

    I hear you, Sarah. I’m a fan of This American Life and the story-telling style there too, and I was really disappointed by the selection that Ira Glass made in that collection, and I hate the title. Biased, and not even true.

    I like the other writers that you name check though. Dinty Moore is going to be the first guest nonfiction editor over at Guernica magazine and Abigail Thomas is on my list of people to solicit from…hopefully more good stuff to come.

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