I read zero fiction last month. I am falling out of my chair as I blog.
I’m huge on novels and read way more fiction than I do poetry, which, for a poet, can be a dubious thing. What’s strange about this month is that I replaced my fiction with nonfiction, instead of reading more poetry. This I blame entirely on a stupid creative nonfiction class (the one I’ve mentioned several times to several people, including on this blog, making everyone frustrated with my frustration) that I’m taking.
The term ‘creative nonfiction’ is problematic. For one, it’s a relatively new genre. While people have been writing personal essays, autobiographies and memoirs (I wonder what the difference is; must ask class instructor) for centuries, it seems to me that the genre has only recently emerged as offering a commercially viable range of products on the market place. Alongside the thousands of ghost-written celebrity memoirs are a number of books that take themselves quite seriously as art in that they’re tagged with this adjective ‘creative.’ A number of successful novelists (Michael Chabon, for example) are writing ‘creative nonfiction,’ annotating their livelihoods with the skills they’ve developed writing fiction in voices that are appropriately clever/wry/heartbreaking/comic/self-deprecating — especially self-deprecating. To support the more literary offerings of this genre, MFA programs are offering creative nonfiction as a specialisation alongside the more traditional poetry and fiction. Conferences are being organised — notably and very recently in Iowa City, which I didn’t attend even though the university was offering a generous reimbursement for our expenses.
To go back to this word ‘creative’ — I’m questioning its implication that other forms of nonfiction are not creative. The best journalism, academic criticism, newspaper and magazine reviews seem to require a wealth of creativity, imagination and talent to produce, but as a whole, these aren’t considered ‘creative nonfiction.’ In parts, sure. You can pick out examples of ‘literary’ journalism (the kind you will find in The New Yorker) and of reviews and critical work that are more relaxed and conversational than the academic or journalistic kind and place them in ‘creative nonfiction.’
In thinking about why this division has been imposed, I’ve realised two things:
One, the adjective ‘creative’ is being applied to the writing itself and not the intellectual activities that are behind it. It refers to a particular stylisation of language and to a mode of telling that is often, though not always, narrative. So, a scientific paper, though creative in what it offers as hypothesis and conclusion, is not ‘creative nonfiction’ because the writing is supposedly devoid of stylisation. I’m not saying that’s ‘true,’ but judging from the exclusionary practices of those in the field, that seems to be the unstated reasoning.
Two, the adjective ‘creative’ seems to connote an awareness of self as artist more than actual creativity. I’ll go back to academic/critical essays and newspaper reviews — the good ones demand so much creative energy from the writer and are written with great care. I refuse to accept that writers like Susan Sontag and Walter Benjamin aren’t creative and, to be fair, I doubt any self-confessed writer or teacher of this genre would say so. I think it goes back to the self and how evident it is in the piece. There is a strong presence of the I in pretty much all of the creative nonfiction I’ve read so far. So while academic/critical work, reviews and other forms of journalism may be creative in numerous ways, if the I is absent or heavily implied, it’s probably not creative nonfiction in the eyes of most contemporary practitioners in the genre. In that sense, the term ‘creative nonfiction’ is a bit of a misnomer.
I don’t mean to be disparaging about the genre. My calling it a stupid class has far more to do with my frustration than with the class itself. I’m definitely being challenged as a writer and a reader and expect some good to come out of it.
While I still find the term ‘creative nonfiction’ problematic, I see what it is designed to name as deriving and radiating from two main forms: the personal essay and the memoir. A lot of work in the genre situates itself with either one strain, but most pieces seem to combine the meditativeness of the former with the narrative thrust of the latter in ways that are unique to the writer and her intentions at the moment of writing. There is a lot of experimentation going on as well. I’m not familiar with much of it, but one of my classmates brought this to class the other day, and it kind of woke up me up.
One of the major recurring points of discussion with respect to creative nonfiction is the problem of truth and ethics. More than that, I’m interested in the history of nonfiction and how it informs what we write and read today. Since most creative nonfiction classes are geared towards practice, utilising the workshop model, the emphasis seems to be on contemporary work. What about Montaigne? What about literary correspondences and journals? What about forms like the haibun?
For myself, I’m most interested in the critical essay rendered more personal (i.e. with a prominent I), but I don’t want to sound like Nick Hornby, you know? I’m also interested in blogging as a medium for these essays. Writing specifically for an internet audience on a personal blog radically changes my way of writing. I posted one of the pieces I wrote for class here and felt so strange about it. It’s not that I’m shy about sharing my work, but I feel that what I write here must relate to the history of the blog: the arguments I’ve made, the likes and dislikes I’ve exposed, the people I know who read (whether I’ve met them or not) and how they generally respond to me, the particular way I writespeak, which sounds a lot like how I actually speak or how I want to, anyway. We had to write four shorter (two-page) exercise pieces during the semester before we got to writing two much larger and more serious projects for the end of the term. The first three (one of which I posted here) read so differently from my general blog voice, I think. It’s more formal and . . . I don’t know, I don’t have a critical sense when it comes to my prose like I have for my poetry, so it’s a bit hard to judge what I’m doing exactly.
The fourth one is more story-like and is written in my blog voice. My friend L loved it and he wants more. So I thought I should post it here, except it’s reveals things about people I know and I don’t think I’m comfortable with that. This goes back to the issue of truth and ethics. How much are you allowed to reveal, because you are necessarily connected to other people, and the things you say will affect them? And if you change certain facts or gloss certain matters over, how honest are you being? Should the reader trust the writer wholly and accept her truth? How important is truth anyway?
I’ve simplified the matter somewhat in asking those questions. It’s interesting to me that the people writing creative nonfiction based on their own lives are not necessarily people who have led interesting lives or that think in extraordinary ways. It’s that old thing about how everyone has a novel in them, they just have to write it, except people aren’t inventing things anymore, their lives are novels, and they’re writing them out for us. Sometimes I think, your cat died, so what?
That’s a gross generalisation, of course. There is some good work out there, but the best I’ve read so far is Michel Leiris‘s Manhood (L’Age d’homme). It’s a memoir, shorn entirely of any sentimentality, but it also reads like a notebook on life and like a very serious consideration of the author’s sense of being a man. It was first published in 1939, when the category of creative nonfiction didn’t exist as such (I wonder if this term is used in non-English language publishing industries), and so part of Leiris’ project was to chart out what can be done with the nonfictional aspect of his work. He writes about this in his prologue and afterword in quite interesting terms and brings up the issue of personal risk, which goes beyond truth and ethics. Truth is a given in his project; the reader must accept that; what one has to come to terms with is the brutal nature of this truth, how utterly naked the writer allows himself to be, and trust me, Leiris gets pretty naked in this book.
I found it hard to resign myself to being nothing more than a littérateur. The narrator who transforms danger into an occasion to be more brilliant than ever and reveals the whole quality of his style just when he is most threatened: that is what enthralled me, that is what I wanted to be. By means of an autobiography dealing with a realm in which discretion is de rigueur – a confession whose publication would be dangerous to the degree that it would be compromising and likely to make more difficult, by making more explicit, my life — I intended to rid myself for good of certain agonizing images, at the same time that I revealed my features with the maximum of clarity and as much for my own use as to dissipate any erroneous sense of myself which others might have. . . . [For] the torero there is a real danger of death, which never exists for the artist except outside his art (for instance, during the German occupation, there was a clandestine literature which involved genuine dangers, but insofar as it was part of a much more general struggle and, after all, independent of the writing itself). Am I therefore justified in maintaining the comparison and in regarding as valid my attempt to introduce “even the shadow of a bull’s horn into a literary work”? Can the fact of writing ever involve, for the man who makes it his profession, a danger which if not mortal is at least positive? . . . This was less a matter of what is known as littérature engagée than of a literature in which I was trying to engage myself completely. Within as without: expecting it to change me, to enlarge my consciousness, and to introduce, too, a new element into my relations with other people, beginning with my relations with those close to me, who could no longer be quite the same once I had exposed what may have been already suspected, but only in a vague and uncertain way. This was no desire for a brutal cynicism, but actually a longing to confess everything in order to be able to start afresh, maintaining with those whose affection or respect I valued relations henceforth without dissimulation.
from the afterword; translated from the French by Richard Howard