Issue #29, 2006

What's the Story #29

A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF

Lee Gutkind

What's the Story #29

This issue of Creative Nonfiction was inspired by the controversy generated by the revelation that James Frey had exaggerated or made up a good deal of the content of his best-selling memoir, “A Million Little Pieces.”

For the record, “A Million Little Pieces” chronicles Frey’s downfall as an addict and a ne’er-do-well, and dramatically recounts how he rehabilitated himself. Random House published the book, and it became an overnight best seller. Oprah Winfrey then added to its luster and profitability by making “A Million Little Pieces” an Oprah Book Club selection. Frey appeared on Oprah’s daytime television show, and instantly, “A Million  Little Pieces” generated several million dollars in revenue for Frey. (He has since published another book that, tailgating on his 15 minutes of Oprah fame, also became a best seller and also contains multiple fabrications.) Then, The Smoking Gun, a Web site owned by Court TV, published a detailed expose outing Frey. What happened after that was, to put it bluntly, ridiculous.

Frey defended himself from The Smoking Gun’s allegations on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” Late in the show, Oprah called in to support her author and suggested that in literature and life, the truth is sometimes not of paramount importance. Days later, Oprah—correctly intuiting that her viewers disapproved of her cavalier attitude toward truth and accuracy—convened a summit on her show, featuring Frey and his publisher, Nan Talese, as well as a panel of journalists that included Frank Rich from The New York Times, Richard Cohen from The Washington Post and Roy Peter Clark from the Poynter Institute. Oprah apologized to her audience and reversed the stand she had taken with Larry King, lambasting Frey for making stuff up and Talese for not fact-checking Frey’s book. It is appropriate that Oprah’s show airs in most markets in the afternoon: The event and the entire scandal surrounding it were as valid and relevant as the soap operas that preceded it.

The controversy continued for quite a while. Now, thankfully, it has faded to a certain extent, though the name James Frey has become synonymous with dishonest literature and overall bad character. Of course, now Frey has another opportunity to rehabilitate himself—by writing another book. Conceivably, Oprah could stage a “forgiveness” show, bringing Frey back for a tearful reconciliation—an event that could spawn a miniseries on truth-telling, hosted by Frey and Dr. Phil and produced by Oprah. This is what television is all about.

But this kind of noise and hype is not what this journal or the genre to which it is dedicated are all about. It has been our ongoing mission, over more than a decade and 29 issues, to attempt to define the form, to establish reasonable guidelines and to make it clear that what we are about in the literature of reality is truth and accuracy—artfully stated, and ethically and morally motivated. That is the reason this issue—in which we define the major principles anchoring the genre from artistic and ethical points of view—exists.

But first, a few very essential points to ponder in order to get the record straight in relation to James Frey and Creative Nonfiction—both the genre and the journal. “A Million Little Pieces” is not creative nonfiction, as we define it. There are basically two types of creative nonfiction. The more personal version of the genre is memoir—what Frey said he was writing. Other writers, like John McPhee or Annie Dillard, write more factual and subject-oriented creative nonfiction. What the two forms have in common is that they are written in narrative and include personal opinion and, therefore, go far beyond the narrow formulaic approach of the journalist. But by virtue of the fact that some of the stuff in Frey’s book never happened, it should be catalogued as fiction—not creative nonfiction.

This is also of interest and important to point out: The Frey controversy was not precipitated by memoirists or creative nonfiction writers, or poets or fiction writers for that matter—the people who should be most offended and care more about what is happening in the literary world. It was the product of journalists and critics, who—even after it should have been clear Frey’s work ought to be considered fiction—leapt at the opportunity to criticize the creative nonfiction genre.

Why did it happen this way? For one thing, most creative writers understand the flexibility of the form and how difficult it is to pinpoint truth in literature; there are higher truths—important points to be made and revelations to contend with that may not be easily fact-checked. There is a measure of trust involved. Also, we know that this is an old story. Every year, memoirists are outed for venturing too far beyond the boundaries of memory, though most of them (not having been lauded and anointed by Oprah) don’t make such big news.

I do wonder, however, why the journalistic community continually wants to kick around—and make fun of— creative nonfiction. Why do some people think that there are no rules or that the ethical guidelines in creative nonfiction are lower than in traditional nonfiction or journalism? Why does the word creative make journalists so anxious and hostile? Perhaps because we are doing what they, deep in their hearts, would like to have the time and the talent to do, as well. There’s not a lot of creativity in journalism, unfortunately. On the conservative end, journalism is stultifying and formulaic, while the sensationalism on the opposite end of the spectrum (for example, local television news coverage) makes William Randolph Hearst seem respectable.

As I have indicated, we don’t admire James Frey. But we do understand some of the challenges he faced, and this issue is dedicated to trying to set the record straight. It begins with an essay defining the genre of creative nonfiction and then explores the freedoms and liberties we take as writers and readers as well as the boundaries we draw to make certain we are as truthful, as factual and as artful as possible. (Note: Parts of this essay have been published in previous issues of the journal.) The special section that follows, “The ABC’s of CNF,” is a rich compendium of ideas, terms and techniques that readers and writers ought to know. The items in it were written by writers of all different orientations and backgrounds who share with us an overall belief that what we do in creative nonfiction as writers and reporters and memoirists not only breaks ground in literature but touches our readers and changes their lives.

Finally, Daniel Nester’s powerful and compelling profile of Frey and dissection of the controversy provides some insight into the decisions Frey made while writing “A Million Little Pieces.”

***

A note about the contributors of “The ABCs of CNF”: Many people contributed to this section. You will see their names listed on a special contributor’s page at the end of the glossary. They have done a magnificent job isolating and explaining some of the many perplexing choices and challenges presented by this demanding and complicated genre.

You will also see an advertisement in the back of this issue, announcing that Creative Nonfiction is partnering with W.W. Norton to launch an annual anthology, “The Best Creative Nonfiction.” Norton published “In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction,” our very successful collection of stories from the first 10 years of Creative Nonfiction, and we’re looking forward to working with them again.

This new anthology will be different from the traditional “Best of” collections, for it will feature new voices, ideas, forms, and approaches in creative nonfiction from literary journals, print and online zines, alternative newspapers, blogs, podcasts and other media in which nonfiction stories and personalities can be dramatized and captured. We will also look back in time for Creative Nonfiction classics. Many readers and writers don’t realize that creative nonfiction has been an artful and influential genre for more than a century, practiced by writers like A.J. Liebling, Ernie Pyle, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and Mary McCarthy. We won’t ignore The New Yorker, Esquire and other mainstream magazines, but new voices and non-mainstream publications will be our priority.

We’re accepting nominations from magazine and book editors, and we especially encourage editors of Web-based publications and alternative newspapers and magazines to nominate work from their publications. Complete guidelines for making nominations can be found on our Web site (http://www.creativenonfiction.org). Nominations will also be accepted from a board of consulting writers and editors that will include those gracious and talented writers, editors and teachers who helped put this issue together.

Our subscribers will receive this anthology automatically, as part of their subscription. The first edition of “The Best Creative Nonfiction” is tentatively scheduled for July 2007 and will be released simultaneously as issue #32 of the journal. This is an exciting new project for us, one that, we believe, will allow us to continue our mission of discovering and showcasing new talent, making an impact in the literary world and beyond. For me, as founder and editor of this journal, this is the bottom line: to make a difference. Through the work we publish, we hope to foster understanding and to demonstrate that writers with something important to say—and the willingness to work hard to communicate their ideas with elegance and clarity—can precipitate an awakening of ideas and a lasting change in the world at large.

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

Comments

Previous Posts

Keep your writing resolution this year!

With the New Year quickly approaching, you may be reminded of those abandoned writing resolutions from last year, and wonder whether it... read more

People are Strangest

An interview with Michelle Leveille

Michelle Leveille is a freelance artist specializing in biological illustration and scientific graphics. Her work is featured at the Los... read more

Related Content

Issue 29

A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF contains a glossary of concise entries that define and explain the anchoring elements of the...A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF contains a glossary of concise entries that define and explain the anchoring elements of the... read more

Keep It Real (Paperback Edition)

This handy guide begins by defining creative nonfiction. Then it explores the flexibility of the form—the liberties and the...A succinct but rich compendium of ideas, terms, and techniques, Keep It Real will clarify the ins and outs of writing creative nonfiction... read more