My Hat, Your Ring
A Note From the Literary Nonfiction Editor
I'm at work on a critical thesis on the genre of creative nonfiction for my MFA, and despite my diligent effort, my staying up until 4am because I frequently lose myself in a strand of research that pulls me in and out of sixteen or seventeen books, I have little clue as to what it's about. It started to be about Jack Kerouac, Beat writer of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and his connection to modern literary nonfiction. But after reading what I've written so far, it could be about the history of what is today called creative nonfiction, starting with the Egyptian funerary texts and ending with today's false sense of a literary revolution. The more I work on it, though, the more I'm reading between the lines of what I've been frantically typing for the last three months and realizing it's about how the whole idea of creative nonfiction is one rampant scam.
The two loudest voices of creative nonfiction are Michael Steinberg, editor of Fourth Genre, a literary magazine devoted to publishing literary nonfiction and perpetuating the discussion of the genre; and Lee Gutkind, editor of Creative Nonfiction, which is, according to Gutkind, "the singular strongest voice of the genre, defining the ethics and the parameters of the field." Everytime I read that quote from their website it makes me laugh harder.
Michael Steinberg acknowledges, in fact he insists, that what we call literary or creative nonfiction today has its roots in the essays of Michel de Montaigne. He, along with co-editor Robert L. Root, Jr., released two volumes on the genre: The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. The books serve, in Steinberg's words to me, "as an ongoing conversation about what today's nonfiction can be." If I don't agree with everything Steinberg and I have talked about, at least I respect his approach toward examining the genre, his attempts at deciphering what modern literary nonfiction is. I cannot say the same for Gutkind.
While Gutkind claims his magazine is defining the ethics and parameters of the field, I wonder if he has examined the ethics of staking claim to a genre that has been written for hundreds if not thousands of years. Sure he's got the domain name, the nice conference in Maryland, the t-shirts on his website, and his mediocre disciples, but he's also got Montaigne, Proust, Whitman, and Kerouac turning over in their graves.
Answer this for me: when Maya Angelou wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1970, how many people were screaming things like "Creative nonfiction has arrived!" or "All arm themselves for the great literary revolution."?
Seriously, I want to know, because I was born the year Random House first released it in 1970.
Do you think anyone made a fuss?
I've tried to get Gutkind to talk to me about it, sent him a few emails, but I haven't heard from him. I have serious questions for him. I want to know how he can possibly pin the origin of the genre on the New Journalists (Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, et al) when Walt Whitman wrote Specimen Days a hundred years earlier. Walt Whitman was the psychopath reporting from atop a hotel in Bhagdad when he'd scribble his thoughts and observations while on the battlefields of the Civil War, talking to fallen soldiers while they bled. Whitman was the one who had to wait a year before he wrote about the death of then President Lincoln because he was too distraught to do it any sooner.
Today? Well, today everyone's got their Nine-Eleven story or poem, right? It was hot off the presses right after the attacks. Too distraught to write? Not us. Those who neglected to answer the call of writing about the attacks on America missed their chance to join the fad, get in on the action, throw their hats into the ring. I swear, if I hear one more person introduce their work by saying, "This is my nine eleven piece.."
It's all a scam--a huge fad, just like this sudden false revolution of literary nonfiction. People like Lee Gutkind know it all too well, but there's way too much at stake to tell the truth now (Creative Nonfiction is currently out of t-shirts if you were wondering.).
So, what's my definition of literary nonfiction, you ask? If I'm so tough why don't I explain it, you say?
I don't know what it is, if it exists at all. In fact, just by my presence as the literary nonfiction editor of Del Sol Review, I am just like the rest of them. I'm participating in the movement, as trendy as I think it is.
Steinberg and Gutkind have given me an opportunity, though, to toss my proverbial hat into the ring and offer my thoughts on this form that now occupies the front table at my local Barnes & Noble. They've given me the chance to say that if you want to know the definition of creative or literary nonfiction, don't listen to them. Don't even listen to me. Stop asking the wrong people these ridiculous questions and read Michel de Montaigne, Marcel Proust, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac, Maya Angelou, Denis Johnson, and Dave Eggers. Read them, write what you feel, and start thinking for yourselves.