Issue #27, 2005

What's the Story #27

Writing It Short

Lee Gutkind

What's the Story #27

This is the Brevity issue, so (to paraphrase Tom Wolfe's introduction to "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby") let me take time to write it short.

Wolfe is a major figure in modern literary nonfiction. The essays in his 1965 book reshaped the way readers learned to appreciate nonfiction prose—and the way writers wrote it. The introduction to "The New Journalism," the anthology Wolfe edited nearly a decade later, further defined the path for reporters: The new style meant writing in scenes and invoking a personal voice while maintaining journalistic credibility.

Tom Wolfe sent a message to the journalists of the day: Loosen up, or lose your audience. Most didn't listen, but poets and fiction writers realized that Wolfe was talking to them, too—thus the rise of the creative nonfiction movement, which many journalists joined belatedly.

So now there's Robert S. Boynton, whose mid-May essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education accused Wolfe of inaccuracies in "The New Journalism" and of "impeding an appreciation of modern literary journalism." Wolfe answered back in his own unique style in a letter to the editor, and Boynton countered, casting doubts about the authenticity of Wolfe's letter and lambasting Wolfe's characteristic style for its "hysterical narration, outlandish hyperbole, deliberate misreading [and] baseless hypotheticals."

Well, okay, I see what's happening. Boynton's got a book to sell—"The New New Journalism: Conversations with America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft"—so he's whipping up controversy to hustle a few more copies. But why go after an icon like Tom Wolfe for something he might have said 35 years ago? Presenting the information—a new perspective on nonfiction writing—in a compelling narrative would have been equally effective and more in the spirit of the genre Wolfe helped establish.

I haven't read Boynton's book, but skimming the table of contents, I see that his book spotlights 19 writers: in his words, "the best nonfiction writers in America." Not 19 of the best—but the 19 best. He's included some New Journalists, like Gay Talese, who has often referred to himself as a creative nonfiction writer. But I won't quibble with Boynton's choices—we can all formulate our own "best of" lists.

But Boynton's selections reflect the parameters of his vision. Of his 19 best only three are women. All but one are white. And with the exception of Alex Kotlowitz from Chicago, the rest of the best live in the East—in New York, where Boynton teaches, or in Boston or Washington.

In the spirit of creative nonfiction and New Journalism, Boynton needs to get out and see the world. Perhaps he ought to hang out with a bunch of drug-crazed hippies or live with astronauts at Cape Kennedy. He should also read some publications other than the New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly, where most of the writers he has selected are regular contributors. He might try literary journals and books published by small presses for a change.

He could begin his journey by going online and reading from Brevity. He wouldn't even have to leave his office to appreciate Brevity. And, to paraphrase Tom Wolfe again, he needn't take the time to read it long, because so many terrific non Eastern-establishment men, women, and minority writers have worked so hard to make it short.

The Best of Brevity issue of Creative Nonfiction is anchored on both sides by some terrific new writing by prestigious and highly respected writers, beginning with "New Century," by Natalie Goldberg—poet, novelist, essayist and author of the impressive and popular "Writing Down the Bones." Goldberg's newest book, "The Great Failure," is also reviewed in this issue.

"Money for Nothing," by Kevin Holdsworth, is a meditation on risk-taking. "The Slashpile Inventory," by David Oates, tells the story of a summer splitting rails out West and trying to make money. In "Rock Hounds," David Rompf traces a lifelong obsession with rock collecting. "Going, Going, Gone," by Floyd Skloot, combines the themes of the Dodgers, Brooklyn, moving, playing baseball, writing, and growing up.

In the last issue, #26, we were pleased to publish a new essay by Lauren Slater, whose work has appeared before in Creative Nonfiction. "Who Holds the Clicker?" told the story of Mario Della Grotta and the surgery he underwent to have electrodes implanted in his brain to control obsessive-compulsive disorder. Unfortunately, due to our editorial mistake, that story contained small inaccuracies that should not have made it into print. We regret the error.

Finally, I am happy to announce that, beginning with this issue, Dinty W. Moore, founder and editor of Brevity, will join the Creative Nonfiction Editorial Board. Dinty is the author of "The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Meditation, and Sitting Still"; "Toothpick Men"; "The Emperor's Virtual Clothes"; and a forthcoming textbook, "The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction." As the "Best of Brevity" selections make clear, Dinty has a sharp eye for excellent writing, and we're looking forward to working more closely with him.

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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