Saturday, August 11, 2007

Nonfiction


As a nonfiction writer, I feel criticism of the genre somewhat acutely. The most recent genre jab I’ve come across is an article in this month’s Bookslut about how MFA programs constrict by forcing students to define themselves as, say, a “fiction writer” versus a “poetry writer.” The author, Weston Cutter, then goes on to discuss nonfiction writing, which he describes as “the cult of I-feel-your-pain’s.” At which point I pretty much wrote him off as a bad writer. (Sorry Cutter.)

I don’t really understand how or why memoir came to be seen as representative of the entire genre of nonfiction. Nor do I understand why nonfiction is often typecast as the ugly stepchild of fiction and poetry, this mooning around kid whose favorite activity is navel-gazing. Luckily, I think there’s a Cinderella moment a-coming. More and more magazines and newspapers are publishing long-form nonfiction. The Washington Post had an extensive front page piece on Dick Cheney a few weeks ago that they printed over the course of three days. It wasn’t particularly timely; it was an in-depth profile of the man, and it was great nonfiction. Granta’s book Reportage is filled with amazing essays by stunning authors, such as Ryszard Kapuscinski, that really showcase the genre, and prove nonfiction is not synonymous with ‘it’s all about me-ness.’ Nonfiction, like poetry and fiction, runs the gamut, and I’d love to have my place on this blog be as the one reminding people of that. What do others think? Is nonfiction still viewed as a somewhat secondary art form? And why do you think people now equate nonfiction solely with memoir?

7 comments:

L. said...

Alexa, do you hate the word nonfiction? Because I think it's like saying mmm, well, like saying "nonfootball" to refer to certain sports. Maybe? But what do we call it otherwise? Are we stuck with "nonfiction"?

I mean, there's a long tradition of the personal essay and sundry other forms that fit in under "creative nonfiction." And I've heard that it sells much better than fiction. So I don't think nonfictionists have to feel like second or third violins.

Jen said...

I think that memoir and first person narratives have recently become incredibly popular in mass market book culture. And, now, that's what people think of, when they think of nonfiction.

Conor said...

wait, but nonfiction is the world of success and innovation! I recently had an entire class devoted to writing non-fiction in a fictive form or prosaic form. the fascinating part was non-fiction poetry: historical poetry. Anyway, you're a good contributer to bring it up. Maybe if this site weren't infested with hall monitors we could have a little more from you and yours

writer/literary lover said...

I understand your resentment for being discluded in the genre of "Non-fiction." However, the memoir genre is not all bad news. I write fiction, and I am finishing my own memoir, and while I know many memoirs are very "woe is me," I feel we learn from other people's lives, not just famous, historic individuals. I empathize that you feel memoir has taken up the title "non-ficiton" for itself, and that does stink, however, there are tons of good memoirs that say a lot about the world around us. Maybe you can start a revolution to revive the genre of biography! Lots of people read biography. And how snobby, elitst, and shallow is it for one group of writers to "ghetto-ise" or demean another genre. To me, if you're trying to live off of your writing, I can respect that. Give me a good biography any day! People love learning or seeing into the world of other people.

Mary Spiro said...

Oh, I know this post is more than 2 years old but I will comment anyway. I like to think of creative nonfiction more as literary journalism. You are writing about factual events or people but just using literary styles, instead of the inverted pyramid or some such. I really enjoy even more technical forms like science writing, there the writer explores not merely what the result are but the discovery process. I enjoy a good memoir now and then--my last favorite was Russell Brand's My Booky Wook. But to define nonfiction as memoir or personal essay hardly scratches the surface of what the genre encompasses.

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