Creative Nonfiction: Oxymoron?

On April 6, 2008, The Boston Globe ran an article called “House of Cards” by Dale Bennett. Bennett interviewed the people whose lives and experiences counting cards in Las Vegas were the story behind the book Bringing Down the House, a work of alleged creative nonfiction. Unfortunately, much of it just wasn’t true at all. The lack of truth in that book is apparently a problem with many books in the creative nonfiction genre.

Bennett writes, “Editors and industry analysts say that with sales of fiction flagging, book publishers are pressured toward the genre of dramatic nonfiction. Much like reality television shows, the shift is fed by the sense that what audiences want is reality, but packaged with an excitement and drama that the original facts lack.” Hmm, if facts are lacking, then the work is not true, hence it is fiction.

Creative nonfiction is not without its standards, one of which is “never invent or change facts or events.” The genre has its own dot org with a definition:

Although it sounds a bit affected and presumptuous, “creative nonfiction” precisely describes what the form is all about. The word “creative” refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. To put it another way, creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and, often, more accessible.

Can facts be made accessible in honest prose? Professional writers should be able to accomplish that without ruining an innocent genre at the expense of a useful word: non, as in nonfiction.

Perhaps the writers are not the only ones with a misunderstanding of creative nonfiction. According to Will Fitzhugh, founder and president of The Concord Review, an organization that “recognize[s] and …publish[es] exemplary history essays by high school students in the English-speaking world,” creative nonfiction is a poor substitute for academic writing that he believes students should be doing in school. Does he also misinterpret rambling teen angst as creative nonfiction? Or maybe it is something else.  Because he recognizes that colleges are willing to accept creative non fiction as writing samples and because schools supposedly use the genre to teach writing, the quality of writing is apparently suffering, Fitzhugh seems to believe.

My thoughts are these:

  • much of what is passing as creative non fiction is just fiction
  • students do write best when they are writing about themselves but should also be trained to write the kinds of academic writing Fitzhugh promotes
  • what is at stake is respect for truth

The hard fact is that students need rigorous exercise in academic and creative writing. They need training in effective word choice, in sentence structure, thesis writing and content development. They need to write often and discuss often. The National Assessment of Educational Progress had discouraging reports again this year. According to the New York Times, “James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, drew laughs when he expressed concern about what he called ‘the slow destruction of the basic unit of human thought, the sentence,’ because young Americans are doing most of
their writing in disjointed prose composed in Internet chat rooms or in cellphone text messages.”

My call is to demand that students practice and that they tell the truth. Setting those two simple standards for their writing will raise the bar in remarkable ways that will make their nonfiction, whether personal or academic, worth reading.

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