Issue #1, 1994

What's the Story #1

What's In This Name -- And What's Not?

Lee Gutkind

What's the Story #1

Ever since I began to write and to teach writing 20 years ago, people have been asking me to explain the genre in which I work—this form that hasn't had a name. It was called "the new journalism" by early practitioners like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, and more recently Norman Sims of the University of Massachusetts edited a popular collection entitled The Literary Journalists. Though the word "journalism" has been eschewed by academics, poets and novelists, Talese, along with New Yorker writer John McPhee, who says he's an "old" (meaning traditional) journalist, frequently refer to themselves as "reporters."

In the 1960s and 1970s, Talese, Wolfe and many others, including novelists Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, shattered the sacrosant bonds of feature writing by adapting fictional techniques. They captured subjects in scenes, used dialogue, embellished with intimate and substantial description, and included an inner point of view (life through the eyes of the character about whom you are writing), thus adding the "creative" element to what was once an impersonal process. McPhee, Talese and other writers are also referred to as "immersion journalists," intimately involving themselves in the lives of the characters about whom they are writing for extended periods (months or even years, if needed).

"Creative nonfiction" was first popularly used as an umbrella to describe this genre in the application form for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Creative Writing Fellowship, a phrase which seemed to have been employed defensively to distinguish between traditional journalism, and the personal essay. (For a while, the NEA foolishly replaced creative nonfiction with something called "belles lettres.") Ironically, under the NEA's guidelines (five essays published over the previous five years in respected journals), writing by Talese, Wolfe, McPhee, et.al., would probably not qualify in any category.

The problem occurs in the inflexible way in which the NEA (and many writers, editors and academics) define creative nonfiction—not necessarily in its notion or understanding of what the creative nonfiction genre really is. I believe, for example, that all of the pieces collected in the first issue of Creative Nonfiction would upon careful reading fall within the parameters of the NEA guidelines. They are obviously essays, but also contain strong elements of reportage, which is the anchor and foundation of the highest quality of journalism and of creative nonfiction. The word "creative" refers to the unique and subjective focus, concept, context and point of view in which the information is presented and defined, which may be partially obtained through the writers own voice, as in a personal essay.

It is this rich combination of reportage and style which allows the very different ideas of Mimi Schwartz, Phillip Garrison, Christopher Buckley, Richard Goodman, Peter Chilson, Jill Carpenter, Mary Paumier Jones, Natalia Rachel Singer and Carolyn Kremers to be collected in the first issue, while maintaining a strong and special individuality, a blend of singularly distinctive voices. John McPhee expresses this notion in Michael Pearson's profile, describing the emerging genre of creative nonfiction as "an attempt to recognize...that a piece of writing can be creative while using factual materials, that creative work can respect fact."

Author Bio

Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the founder and editor of Creative... read more

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