Great (& Not So Great) Moments in Creative Nonfiction

A timeline, 1993-2010

The term “creative nonfiction” may be relatively recent, but what it describes is hardly new: People have been telling true stories in interesting ways since some hunter came back to the cave and tried to describe the light on the grass as he crept up on a bird and how it reminded him of afternoons when his father taught him how to hunt.* And there’s a long list of writers since then whose work blends style and substance, and uses scene, dialogue and other literary tools in the service of true stories: Augustine, Montaigne, Thoreau, Woolf, Hemingway, Orwell… They probably wouldn’t have called themselves creative nonfiction writers, but, hey, they didn’t know any better.

But now we know, and in the years since Issue 1 of CNF rolled off the press, creative nonfiction has come into its own, both as a literary form and as a highly popular (and lucrative) sector of the publishing industry. Have there been some rough patches? Well, yes, but that’s to be expected—perhaps 20 years from now we will look back on the Age of Frey as a sort of rebellious adolescent period.

As for what’s coming next, who knows? Not us, that’s for sure. All we can tell you is where we’ve been.

* Just to be perfectly clear: This is speculation! We weren’t there and can’t confirm this story; nevertheless, we believe it to be a plausible account of events that might have transpired. (We assume you probably assumed that, but people have gotten in trouble for that kind of thing on occasion.)


1993

  • First issue of Creation Nonfiction, a literary journal devoted exclusively to long-form narrative nonfiction, is published.
  • “Is It Fiction? Is It Nonfiction? And Why Doesn’t Anyone Care?” The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani laments, “[W]e are daily assaulted by books, movies and television docudramas that hopscotch back and forth between the realms of history and fiction, reality and virtual reality, with impunity.”
  • Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted: a memoir of the author’s years of hospitalization for mental illness.

1994

  • The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) counts 534 degree-conferring creative writing programs; 64 offer a Master of Fine Arts.
  • John Berendt, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: Edmund White calls this true-crime story “the best nonfiction novel since In Cold Blood and a lot more entertaining”; it remains on the New York Times bestseller list for four years; tour buses descend on Savannah.
  • More memoirs of troubled girlhood: Lucy Grealy, 31, explores “the deep bottomless grief … called ugliness” in Autobiography of a Face; Elizabeth Wurtzel, 26, arrives on the scene with Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America.
  • Sherwin B. Nuland’s How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, a study informed by the author’s family experiences, wins the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
  • Justin Hall, a Swarthmore College sophomore, begins an online diary chronicling events in his life and is later dubbed “the founding father of personal blogging” by the New York Times Magazine.

1995

  • This American Life, now a nationally syndicated program hosted by Ira Glass and featuring mainly first-person narratives by the likes of David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, first airs on Chicago Public Radio.
  • Herman Rosenblat, a 66-year-old TV repairman and Holocaust survivor, wins a New York Post Valentine’s Day contest for a true story about a young girl who threw apples to him over a concentration camp fence and whom he met again later in life and married.
  • David Sedaris, Naked: Sedaris’ books about his family and other topics collectively go on to sell more than seven million copies (and counting) worldwide.
  • Mary Karr, The Liars’ Club: comes to be seen as the beginning of a “memoir craze.” Also published this year, to less fanfare: a memoir by Harvard Law Review president Barack Obama.

1996

  • The “craze” continues: publication of Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s bestselling memoir of Irish childhood, which goes on to win a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
  • “The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now”: Critic James Atlas announces, in the New York Times Magazine, “Fiction isn’t delivering the news. Memoir is. At its best, in the hands of a writer able to command the tools of the novelist, … the memoir can achieve unmatchable depth and resonance.”
  • The first Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers’ Conference, the first such event dedicated to the genre, is held at Goucher College.
  • Oprah Winfrey starts a Book Club.
  • Binjamin Wilkomirski, Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood: This Holocaust-survival memoir, first published in German, is awarded the National Jewish Book Award.
  • Herman Rosenblat appears on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to recount what Oprah calls “the single greatest love story … we’ve ever told on air.”

1997

  • Brent Staples observes, in the New York Times, that “the memoir is seizing ground once held by the novel. The presumption that only a novelist’s gift can transform life into literature has clearly been put to rest.”
  • Reviewing in Vanity Fair “the new, confessional school of writing known as ‘creative nonfiction,’” critic James Wolcott complains, “Never have so many shared so much of so little.” In the same article, Wolcott dubs Creative Nonfiction editor Lee Gutkind “the godfather behind creative nonfiction.”
  • Kathryn Harrison, The Kiss: The author is widely criticized for her decision to write a nonfiction account of her incestuous relationship with her father, a plot she first explored in a 1992 novel, Thicker than Water.
  • Stranger than fiction: Misha Defonseca’s Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years recounts a young Jewish girl’s journey across Europe on foot in search of her deported parents; a pack of wolves protects her.
  • Maya Angelou, The Heart of a Woman: the first nonfiction selection for Oprah’s Book Club.
  • “Disaster nonfiction” comes into vogue: Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster and Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea combine reporting and research with speculation to recount dramatic tragedies.
  • Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World: ushers in an era of what the New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik later calls “little-thing/big-thing” books, narratives about subjects from seasonings (1999: Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History; 2003: Salt: A World History) to the rainbow (2001: Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World; 2002: Color: A Natural History of the Palette).
  • Brevity, an online journal of concise nonfiction edited by Dinty W. Moore, posts its first issue.

1998

  • The year’s top-selling nonfiction book: Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, an inspirational account of the author’s weekly visits to a former professor dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
  • Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family, the author’s exploration of his family’s slaveholding past, wins the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
  • Scandal! A Swiss journalist questions the veracity of Wilkomirski’s Fragments; a detailed investigation funded by the author’s literary agency proves the “memoir” was mostly fiction.
  • “Too Good to be True”: Stephen Glass, associate editor at the New Republic, is fired after editors discover that at least 27 of 41 stories he wrote for the magazine contained fabrications.

1999

  • Personal blogging spreads widely with the introduction of LiveJournal, Pitas.com and blogger.com.
  • Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan: the acclaimed biographer himself appears as a fictionalized character in the story. Defending his controversial technique on PBS NEWSHOUR, Morris explains, “I am the projector of a documentary movie about Ronald Reagan, which is absolutely authentic and thoroughly documented.”
  • John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, a four-part epic of North American geography centered on the 40th parallel, wins the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction.

2000

  • First season of Survivor: America’s obsession with reality television begins.
  • Staggering ambivalence? Dave Eggers’ bestselling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius begins with extensive caveats, apologies, and disclaimers; later editions contain an appendix, “Mistakes We Knew We Were Making.”
  • Nasdijj, The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams: the first of three memoirs by a Navajo writer who claims he “became a writer to piss on all the many white teachers and white editors out there (everywhere) who said it could not be done. Not by the stupid mongrel likes of me.”

2001

  • Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: the Harper’s writer goes undercover as a house cleaner, waitress, and Walmart employee to see how the working poor make ends meet.
  • Ken Kesey, acclaimed novelist whose psychedelic parties featured prominently in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, dies at age 66.
  • Hollywood falls in love with nonfiction: A Beautiful Mind, adapted from Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Nobel Laureate John Nash, wins four Academy Awards, including best picture.
  • Also this year: big-screen adaptations of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation.

2002 

  • Stranger than fiction: Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, the author’s memoir of an adolescence spent living with his mother’s psychiatrist’s unconventional family, starts a two-year stay on the New York Times bestseller list.
  • Otherwise (just between us), a curiously slow year for nonfiction.

2003

  • Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy wins the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Erik Larson’s historical real-life thriller The Devil in the White City is a runner-up.
  • Memoir on steroids: James Frey swaggers onto the literary scene. In a New York Observer interview, he promises, “I’m going to try to write the best book of my generation, and I’m going to try to be the best writer. And maybe I’ll fall flat on my fucking face…” His memoir, A Million Little Pieces, is generally well-received; blurber Pat Conroy calls the book “the War and Peace of addiction.” (Janet Maslin of the New York Times—she’s a sharp one—points out that the book was originally shopped around as a novel: “Little problem: This story is supposed to be all true.”)
  • George Plimpton, founder of the Paris Review and writer who would try anything once for the sake of a story, dies at 76.
  • Pictures worth thousands of words: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a graphic memoir of an Iranian girlhood, is translated into English.
  • Scandal! Jayson Blair, a 27-year-old national reporter for the New York Times, resigns in disgrace after revelations that many of his stories were plagiarized or fabricated.
  • First-day sales of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s memoir, Living History, top 200,000 copies, helping the book’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, recoup the record $8 million advance it paid Clinton.

2004

  • Bill Clinton’s My Life (advance: $15 million) sells nearly 935,000 copies in the first week, setting a new nonfiction sales record.
  • Creative Nonfiction celebrates its tenth-(ish) anniversary with In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction (W.W. Norton).
  • Documentary fever: Michael Moore’s Farhrenheit 9/11 wins the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, only the second documentary to be so honored. The film goes on to become the highest-grossing documentary of all time. Also in theaters this year: Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, for which the filmmaker ate only food from McDonald’s for a month, gaining 24.5 pounds in the process.

2005

  • Oprah’s Book Club selects A Million Little Pieces; James Frey appears on an episode entitled “The Man Who Kept Oprah Awake at Night.” The Oprah edition of the paperback sells more than two million copies.
  • The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s exploration of grief and the year following her husband’s unexpected death, wins the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
  • Scandal? The family of Dr. Rodolph H. Turcotte files suit against Augusten Burroughs and his publisher, St. Martin’s, for invasion of privacy and defamation of character based on Burroughs’ depiction of the family in Running with Scissors. The case settles for an undisclosed amount; Burroughs describes the settlement as “a victory for all memoirists” but agrees to changes in the author’s note in future printings.
  • Hunter S. Thompson, father of Gonzo journalism, commits suicide at the age of 67.
  • The Atlantic announces that it will stop including a short story in each month’s issue and begins publishing a yearly Fiction Issue. The editors explain that lack of space in the magazine is a factor “at a time when in-depth narrative reporting … has become more important than ever.”
  • Satirist Stephen Colbert introduces the word “truthiness” in the first episode of his new show, The Colbert Report.
  • Scandal! Reclusive, transgendered, formerly homeless and drug-addicted male prostitute—and autobiographical novelist—J.T. LeRoy, whose work appeared in Zoetrope, McSweeney’s, Vogue and the New York Times (among other publications), is discovered by New York magazine to be a fictional front for writer (and former sex-call operator) Laura Albert. The San Francisco Chronicle calls the ruse “the greatest literary hoax in a generation.”

2006

  • Scandal! The Smoking Gun Web site posts “A Million Little Lies: Exposing James Frey’s Fiction Addiction,” detailing inaccuracies in the bestseller. Frey responds on his Web site: “…let the haters hate, let the doubters doubt, I stand by my book, and my life, and I won’t dignify this bullshit with any sort of further response.” A few days later, Frey appears on Larry King Live to discuss the veracity of his book; Oprah calls in to support him. Two weeks later, on her own show, Oprah berates Frey and his editor, Nan Talese, and apologizes to her audience. “I gave the impression that the truth does not matter,” she says. “I made a mistake.”
  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary names “truthiness” its Word of the Year (the runner-up, trailing 5 to 1: “google”).
  • SMITH Magazine, an online magazine, begins soliciting six-word memoirs.
  • Scandal! LA Weekly reveals that Navajo memoirist Nasdijj is actually Timothy Patrick Barrus, a white guy from Lansing, Michigan, otherwise best known as a writer of gay and sadomasochistic erotica.
  • US News & World Report notes that “the convergence of all three scandals [LeRoy, Frey and Nasdijj] at once [has] the feel of a Triple Crown of hoaxery, with the grand losers being accuracy, truth and literature itself.”
  • Creative Nonfiction responds to the James Frey controversy with a special issue, “A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF,” later expanded and republished by W.W. Norton as Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know about Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction.
  • Creative Nonfiction launches PodLit, a literary podcast focusing on nonfiction and literary trends.
  • Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: Millions of readers buy, read, envy. (And take up yoga.)

2007

  • Norman Mailer—novelist, New Journalist, co-founder of The Village Voice, Pulitzer Prize winner—dies at age 84.
  • Scandal! Sort of. Maybe. Alex Heard fact-checks four David Sedaris books and concludes in the New Republic that the bestselling humorist often goes too far for his work to count as nonfiction, “even if you allow for an extra-wiggly definition of ‘exaggerate.’” Readers are apparently too busy laughing to feel outraged.
  • According to Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch, which tracks publishing trends, publishers this year acquire 295 memoirs and only 227 debut novels. Further, reports USA Today, 12.5 percent of nonfiction book deals in 2007 were for memoirs, compared with 10 percent in 2006 and 9 percent in 2005.
  • W.W. Norton publishes Volume 1 of a new annual collection, The Best Creative Nonfiction, edited by Lee Gutkind.

2008

  • Margaret B. Jones, Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival: A half-white, half-Native American foster child and Bloods gang member makes good. In a February review in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani calls the story “remarkable” and says Jones writes with “a novelist’s eye for the psychological detail and an anthropologist’s eye for social rituals and routines”; Entertainment Weekly gives the book an A-rating, warns that readers “may wonder if Jones embellished the dialogue.”
  • Scandal! Misha Defonseca admits her Holocaust memoir “is not actual reality, but was my reality.” In actual reality, the author, Monique de Wael, is the orphaned daughter of two Catholic members of the Belgian resistance.
  • Scandal! In March, Margaret B. Jones turns out to be Margaret Seltzer, a white girl raised (and sent to private school in North Hollywood) by her biological parents. Her publisher, Riverhead Books, recalls all copies and offers refunds to readers.
  • SMITH magazine, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure: a New York Times bestseller.
  • Scandal! Weeks before publication, Herman Rosenblat’s memoir, Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love that Survived, is canceled after Rosenblat admits to having fabricated significant details. The author insists, “I wanted to bring happiness to people.”

2009

  • Fed up with the poor quality of fraudulent survivor memoirs, Heeb magazine announces a (self-described) “self-aggrandizing and somewhat offensive publicity stunt”: a Fake Holocaust Memoir Competition.
  • Frank McCourt dies at age 78.
  • AWP counts 822 degree-conferring creative writing programs, 153 of those offering the MFA.
  • Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin turns in her 413-page memoir, Going Rogue (reported advance: $5 million), four months after the book deal is announced.
  • Creative Nonfiction invites submissions of 130-character true stories to a daily Twitter contest.

2010

  • Creative Nonfiction: now a magazine.
Good news for subscribers to Creative Nonfiction magazine!

All current print magazine subscribers (Creative Nonfiction and/or True Story) also have access to our entire digital archive. That’s nearly 30 years’ worth of true stories, well told! 

* Not yet a subscriber? Creative Nonfiction magazine is a home for thought-provoking, remarkable, engaging narrative nonfictin. Sign up today!