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Creative nonfiction (also known as literary nonfiction 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.
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.” Forms within this genre include biography, food writing, literary journalism, memoirs, personal essays, travel writing, 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.
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.” 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,” 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.” 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. 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.”
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.
Writers of creative or narrative non-fiction often discuss the level, and limits, of creative invention in their works, and justify the approaches they have taken to relating true events. Melanie McGrath, whose book Silvertown, an account of her grandmother’s life, is "written in a novelist’s idiom", writes in the follow-up, Hopping, that the known facts of her stories are "the canvas on to which I have embroidered. Some of the facts have slipped through the holes – we no longer know them nor have any means of verifying them – and in these cases I have reimagined scenes or reconstructed events in a way I believe reflects the essence of the scene or the event in the minds and hearts of the people who lived through it. [...] To my mind this literary tinkering does not alter the more profound truth of the story." Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi, authors of The Sugar Girls, a novelistic story based on interviews with former sugar-factory workers, make a similar point: "Although we have tried to remain faithful to what our interviewees have told us, at a distance of over half a century many memories are understandably incomplete, and where necessary we have used our own research, and our imaginations, to fill in the gaps. [...] However, the essence of the stories related here is true, as they were told to us by those who experienced them at first hand."
In recent years, there have been several well-publicized incidents of memoir writers who exaggerated or fabricated certain facts in their work. For example:
Although there have been instances of traditional and literary journalists falsifying their stories, the ethics applied to creative nonfiction are the same as those that apply to journalism. The truth is meant to be upheld, just told in a literary fashion. Essayist John D'Agata explores the issue in his 2012 book Lifespan of a Fact.
To date, there is very little published literary criticism of creative nonfiction works, despite the fact that the genre is often published in respected publications such as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Harper's, Shock Totem and Esquire. A handful of the most widely recognized writers in the genre such as Gay Talese, Joseph Mitchell, 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.” 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).”
“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.”
Chronological order of publication (oldest first)