Issue #56, Summer 2015

A Genre by Any Other Name?

The Story Behind "Creative Nonfiction"

Dinty W. Moore

A Genre by Any Other Name?

For as long as the term creative nonfiction has existed, people have questioned how well the expression captures what writers actually do in the genre, and more than a few have wondered why in heaven’s name we started using the term in the first place. I’ve probably spent roughly half my waking hours over the past twenty years trying, variously, to justify, replace, or explain the unsatisfying label. That may be a slight exaggeration, but if you’ve ever been to a writers’ conference, you know how often the question comes up.

In response, I’ve decided to track down the culprits who gave us creative nonfiction—and to do it here, in the very magazine that bears the name.

First, though, let’s revisit a few of the complaints:

Essayist Phillip Lopate didn’t hold back in a 2008 Poets & Writers interview, characterizing the term as “slightly bogus,” then adding, “It’s like patting yourself on the back and saying, ‘My nonfiction is creative.’ Let the reader be the judge of that.”

The second word—nonfiction—doesn’t fare much better. “It’s always seemed odd to me that nonfiction is defined, not by what it is, but by what it is not,” Philip Gerard complains in his craft book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life. “It is not fiction. But then again, it is also not poetry, or technical writing or libretto. It’s like defining classical music as nonjazz. Or sculpture as nonpainting.”

Few seem willing to embrace the term, though by this point, almost everyone uses it. Alternatives have been trotted out, but none has taken hold.

For instance, the phrase literary nonfiction has a nice ring to it but risks sounding a bit pretentious. As Lopate might say, let the reader decide.

Narrative nonfiction works for the more journalistic end of the nonfiction spectrum, but it is a poor fit for meditative or lyric essays.

John McPhee has occasionally used the term literature of fact, but that’s a mouthful and also falls short of describing the breadth of the genre.

So creative nonfiction is here to stay, it seems, but how did we get here, and why does no one want to take credit for giving us this awkward term in the first place?

Why does no one want to take credit for giving us this awkward term in the first place?

Another Poets & Writers article, from 2009, exploring the distinctions between creative nonfiction and traditional journalism, calls me out for something stupid I may or may not have said at an AWP panel (yes, it’s personal), then points a finger directly at Creative Nonfiction magazine founder Lee Gutkind:

“Although he’s attained his own reputation as a creative nonfiction apostle, Moore was originally a disciple of the man credited with coining the term creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind, who taught a class with those words in its title at the University of Pittsburgh as early as 1973.”

Some of that is true, but most of it is hogwash. Though Lee is often credited with (or blamed for) coining the term, he didn’t.

The misperception stems, perhaps, from a 1997 Vanity Fair article wherein Lee was dubbed “the godfather behind creative nonfiction” by critic James Wolcott, who did not intend that title to be in any way flattering. You be the judge: the caption to an accompanying illustration reads, “NAVEL GAZERS. For writers Lee Gutkind, Phillip Lopate, Laurie Stone, Daphne Merkin, and Anne Roiphe, no personal detail is too mundane to share.”

Wolcott, of course, went on to publish his own memoir eventually. If you ask me, his nonfiction is fairly creative (and his navel extremely well-gazed).

The point is, Lee didn’t invent the name, though he did, of course, launch the magazine you are reading right now. When I asked him to clarify his understanding of where the term came from, he confessed to being entirely unsure. “In the ’70s, I tried to find a term suitable to my colleagues so they would allow me to teach courses in the genre,” he wrote in response to my query. “For a while it was called new journalism, but the J word was unacceptable in English departments.”

I can attest to that, since I was Lee’s student back in the mid-1970s (I told you it was personal), and new journalism was indeed the term being bandied about.

Lee remembers strategizing with his mentor, Montgomery Culver, searching for a way to define “what was so different about what I was doing and what I could teach writing students that feature writers and journalists couldn’t.

“At the time, both Monty and I agreed that we had somehow, somewhere, heard the term [creative nonfiction] before,” Lee explained, “but [we] hadn’t the slightest idea when or where or from whom.”

Michael Steinberg, editor of the anthology The Fourth Genre (and, later, the literary journal of almost the same name), recalls that Creative Nonfiction’s front cover may have been the first place he saw the term. His best guess, he told me, was that Lee may have adopted the label from the National Endowment for the Arts. But if Lee first heard the term sometime in the 1970s, it wasn’t from the NEA. “‘Creative nonfiction’ was added to the prose guidelines for FY1990 fellowships,” the NEA’s Rebecca Maner wrote me when I started digging. Prior to that year, she added, the nonfiction genre was listed as “belles-lettres.”

(Belles-lettres? You don’t have to like the term creative nonfiction, but, hey, it could be worse.)

Joe Mackall, cofounder of River Teeth, believes he heard the term in the late 1980s but has “no memory of where or from whom.”

Sue William Silverman, winner—in 1995—of the AWP Book Award for Creative Nonfiction, tells me she hadn’t ever heard the term until she submitted her book a year earlier for the contest.

No one, it seems, could recall where they heard it first, so I launched my own investigation. The earliest use Google turns up is from 1984. The earliest hit from LexisNexis harks back to 1981, when Phyllis Grosskurth’s biography, Havelock Ellis, won the Arts Council of Great Britain’s “creative non-fiction” book prize.

No one, it seems, could recall where they heard it first, so I launched my own investigation.

Michael Stephens, writing in Creative Nonfiction #2, takes it back a bit further, recalling his teacher, the late Seymour Krim, saying that J. R. “Dick” Humphreys, founder of the writers’ program at Columbia University, coined the expression in the late 1970s to describe a new course Krim was planning to teach. The idea was to signal that this was a “creative” writing course, not journalism or expository writing.

But it goes back even further. I dove into various online academic databases and discovered the term might have originated on the very campus where I currently direct one of the few PhD programs that include the creative nonfiction genre. (Yes: still personal.)

The earliest use of the term seems to be in a review of Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, written by David Madden—a scholar, writer, and professor here in Ohio from 1966 to 1968. In the review, which can be found in the 1969 Survey of Contemporary Literature, Madden calls for a “redefinition” of nonfiction writing in the wake of Truman Capote, Jean Stafford, and Norman Mailer, then turns to a brief discussion of Norman Podhoretz. “In Making It, Norman Podhoretz, youthful editor of Commentary, who declares that creative nonfiction is pre-empting the functions of fiction, offers his own life as evidence,” Madden writes.

What Podhoretz actually said in his memoir, or intellectual autobiography, was that he “did not believe . . . that fiction was the only kind of writing which deserved to be called ‘creative.’ . . . But the truth was that the American books of the postwar period which had mattered to me personally, and not to me alone either, . . . were not novels . . . but works the trade quaintly called ‘nonfiction,’ as though they had only a negative existence.”

Podhoretz, it seems, anticipated the term we now use to include memoir, literary journalism, the essay, and more, without actually using it. Madden is responsible for the shorthand “creative nonfiction.”

In an e-mail exchange with me, Madden remembers using that term and the phrase imaginative non-fiction interchangeably while at Ohio University, and says that he “continued to use those two terms when I moved to Louisiana State University and created the undergraduate [creative writing] program.” (LSU is my MFA alma mater, it turns out, so the personal connections, for whatever they are worth, continue to stack up oddly.)

Madden is sure that he invented the term, rather than appropriating it, and the trail ends there.

So now we have our answer—and our champion. Or scapegoat. Let the complaining resume.


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Author Bio

Dinty W. Moore

Dinty W. Moore has been a member of Creative Nonfiction's Editorial Board since Issue 27. He is the author of Dear Mister Essay... read more

Comments

Ross

July 15, 2015

This particular question took up about 5 pages of my PhD dissertation to be resolved with the reasonably bullet-proofed (and cop-out) statement that Lee Gutkind was one of the primary factors for its insertion into contemporary literary jargon. Resolution at last!!

wray cummings

July 15, 2015

I get my culture retail and I'd put the beginning of the thing we're now calling "creative nonfiction" at the publication of In Cold Blood. Your research confirms my experience, anecdotal evidence perhaps, but then anecdotal evidence is really "creative nonscience".

William Bradley

July 15, 2015

This is terrific, Dinty. Thanks so much for doing this research. Very useful.

Dinty W. Moore

July 17, 2015

Thanks Wray Cummings, but just so you understand, I'm not trying to track down the beginning of 'creative nonfiction' here, just the beginning of the term. Capote never used the term (he used 'nonfiction novel' to describe In Cold Blood)

Dinty W. Moore

July 20, 2015

I am adding a series of longer comments here in case any future researchers want to track this down or document it further. These comments were posted on Facebook, where they will disappear down the wall soon enough, so I thought it wise to repost them here:

MICHAEL GREGORY STEPHENS wrote: I did not say that the term "creative nonfiction" was coined by J. R. Humphreys for Seymour Krim at Columbia Univerisity in the late 1970s; it was either the early 1970s or around 1969 or so. I still believe that Dick Humphreys originated the term, not the person who you claim did. If you look at my essay in CNF from many years ago, you will see that I placed the date in the early 1970s or slightly earlier.

DINTY W MOORE WROTE: Actually Michael, You do say late 70s. Here is an excerpt from your essay in CNF. (A screenshot of the first page of his essay was also posted. The sentence in question explains that Krim taught a course under the title creative nonfiction "at Columbia University in the late 1970s.")

continued below.

Dinty W. Moore

July 20, 2015

Continued from previous comment:

MICHAEL GREGORY STEPHENS wrote: You are right. Apologies. Thank goodness I was not on a high horse when I wrote to you or else I'd have a bigger climb-down. I have since learned that the class, Creative Nonfiction, at Columbia was offered in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and I need to note that now, i.e., I still believe it was Humphreys who coined the word, and for the reasons I gave in the essay. I have a much longer version of all of this in the last two issues of The Hollins Critic, all about Seymour Krim. Since those pieces were published, I have since been told, on pretty good authority, that Krim was teaching the class at Columbia from around 1969 onwards.

Then, on an entirely different Facebook thread, in response to someone calling Stephen's earlier article "inaccurate, MICHAEL GREGORY STEPHENS wrote: The facts are that Seymour Krim did teach a class at Columbia University's then School of General Studies writing program, certainly in the 1970s, and possibly earlier. The people I interviewed at the time seemed to think it was in the 1970s that Creative Nonfiction was offered. Nothing I said could be deemed "inaccurate." What has happened, as well it should, is that other evidence has suggested an earlier origin for the term "creative nonfiction." But I am not wholly convinced that Dick Humphreys' and Seymour Krim's early usage isn't the earliest. If you think the comments about the origin are definitive, you've never worked with or been a fact checker. I would say that the jury is still out on the origins of the term. Also, I have written more recently about Seymour Krim in the last two issues of the Hollins Critic, and there is a lot more information about creative nonfiction in those two extended essays.

DINTY W MOORE responded: Well the jury is of course always out in a case like this. My article states "The earliest use of the term seems to be..." because it is the earliest I can find in print, and one source, David Madden, believes that he in fact originated it. But I added "seems to be" on purpose. Two other scenarios are certainly possible: 1) Someone used it earlier, and no one has tracked that usage down yet, or 2) J.R "Dick" Humphrey's did indeed "coin the term" in the late 1970s, as you state in your article, without being aware of Madden's previous usage. Who knows. Again, Michael Gregory Stephens, if you can find any documentation of Krim's class by that name, and the correct date, I would be eager to see it.

Rodger Kamenetz

July 26, 2015

The main advantage of the term "non-fiction" is that it's wonderfully indefinite. (I do wonder why we don't call it non-poetry.) However, I am sure people are working night and day to ruin that feature. In 1981 I was asked to create a graduate course at LSU in what is now known as creative nonfiction. The course was called humbly, Essays and Reviews. We read Montaigne, Emerson, Orwell, Dillard and Didion among others. We wrote book reviews, opinion-editorials, and full length personal essays. The word essay has a wonderful lineage going back to Montaigne who clearly invents the form. The term creative nonfiction is barbarous, as Orwell would say, has no lineage, no sense of literary history behind it. Belle lettres also has a history though I can see why some would find it too fussy. Perhaps however we could translate it and just call the genre "beautiful writing." At its best, that's what it is. Otherwise it's called journalism.

Cameron Castle

August 14, 2015

Fine article, but I bristle at the declaration that this horrible misnomer is here to stay. Rather than find the person to blame we need to work to change it. I say that because in my experience, if one goes to a writers conference, let's say, and one asks a number of people to define "Creative Nonfiction," 8 out of 10 will say, "true stories that are embellished to make them more interesting. That's why it is called creative. Duh." I see nothing wrong with literary nonfiction. At the very least some might ask, "What is that?" As opposed to thinking it means the opposite of what is intended. Adding to the insult of the term is the following definition from Merriam Webster creative
: having or showing an ability to make new things or think of new ideas
: using the ability to make or think of new things : involving the process by which new ideas, stories, etc., are created
: done in an unusual and often dishonest way

Z.R.Murray

August 14, 2015

I'm starting an MFA program in Creative Non-Fiction in a few weeks and just the other day I was asking my dad what he thought. His response:

"Well, you have always been pretty creative when it comes to telling the truth."

Sonja Livingston

August 26, 2015

Wonderful article, Dinty. I'll use in classes. Thanks!

p.s.: I didn't know 'literary nonfiction' sounded pretentious, but I don't wear good eyeglasses or name drop, so I think I'll keep this one pretension just the same.

Wendy Beckman

March 3, 2016

Perhaps someone else has addressed this already, but I feel that Truman Capote was one of the godfathers of creative nonfiction. He described his 1965 book "In Cold Blood" as a "factual novel." When I studied creative nonfiction in grad school, Capote was always named as one of the first to publish in the genre -- and one of the first to blur the line between fact and fiction. Here's a great interview between Capote and George Plimpton: https://www.nytimes.com/books/97/12/28/home/capote-interview.html.

Roberta McDonnell

February 7, 2017

Hi I found your article stimulating and helpful. A lot of this is new to me though I wonder if perhaps Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood' should be considered here? He called it 'Faction' I believe, which sounds like creative non-fiction to me. Thanks, Roberta, Northern Ireland.

Patrick Madden

May 12, 2017

This article is not trying to trace the origins of the genre, just the origins of the term "creative nonfiction." In any case, writers were doing creative nonfiction work for centuries before Capote, perhaps millennia (if we like Seneca). I would suggest, though, that this article link to its successor, which it inspired, "Putting the 'creative' in creative nonfiction," here: https://www.creativenonfiction.org/online-only/putting-creative-nonfiction

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