50 Years of Making Nonfiction Creative

How all the different flavors of nonfiction transformed into a literary art

Congratulations to all of us! It was, after all, recently our golden anniversary. Sort of. 

Fifty years ago, on Valentine’s Day of 1972, New York magazine published “The Birth of ‘The New Journalism’; Eyewitness Report by Tom Wolfe,” a proclamation that, it is clear from this vantage point, provided a standard and direction and a way of unifying nonfiction writers—essayists, journalists, memoirists—into one cohesive, albeit loosely determined, category that we now call creative nonfiction. 

To be fair, this is sort of an arbitrary anniversary to celebrate. Much of what Wolfe was saying in 1972 he had said before, as had a few others. But this article was a wake-up call, what I believe was the beginning of the changing of the guard. A symbolic moment when all of the different flavors of nonfiction were transformed into a literary art.

Wolfe had two primary objectives in writing his proclamation. First, he meant to dethrone the novel as the pinnacle of literary success and achievement. Second, he was demonstrating that there was something happening in the literary world—over the previous decade, and maybe even longer—that had become a movement. That had started, or would soon start, the first new direction in the literary world in a half-century. He was calling it, for lack of a better name, the New Journalism.

First, Wolfe took to task the old journalism. Traditional journalists were writing, he said, without color and spark, a “beige tone” that could literally put you to sleep. “The standard non-fiction writer’s voice was like the standard announcer’s voice . . . a drag, a droning,” he complained.

All of the different flavors of nonfiction transformed into a literary art.

And it wasn’t just this uninspired voice that Wolfe was rejecting—it was the repetitive formula, that who-what-when-where-why inverted pyramid style that so many traditional journalists adhered to when reporting news. Even the feature stories were pretty much programmed and formulaic. Yes, you could lead with a clever phrase or an anecdote—something to entice the reader—but then, almost always, the reporter would just revert to the news, the information, and then, perhaps, in the end, tie in the anecdote from the lede in the last paragraph. 

But this New Journalism was vivid and lively and interesting to readers, and Wolfe broke it down and explained why. There was development of character, along with colorful, vivid description of place and what he later called “status details,” and, of course, dialogue and the scenes that put it all together and made it compelling—all the stuff that today puts the creative into creative nonfiction. Wolfe followed his New York magazine proclamation and further cemented his claims with articles in Esquire, Harper’s, and other publications.

Of course, Wolfe wasn’t just a literary critic; as a writer, he had helped set the tone and direction of the New Journalism. He had first begun attracting attention for his style with a long article in Esquire in 1963, about the hot rod and custom car craze in Southern California. It was a great piece, filled with energy and compelling insight. The title itself immediately established the tone and rebellious, sometimes outrageous, attitude for which he soon became known: “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm . . .).” No beige tone here. It was more than just a good read—you could hear it! 

In 1968 he published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his account of the Merry Pranksters, a group that traveled cross-country in a brightly painted school bus, while experimenting with LSD and other psychedelic substances, led by their guru, Ken Kesey, the author of the peyote-inspired novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And then, in “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” Wolfe captured the action and the irony of a 1970 party at the composer Leonard Bernstein’s Upper East Side penthouse, which brought together a seemingly absurd group of guests: New York’s cultural and artistic elite and the leaders of the Black Panther Party. Wolfe crashed the party and wrote a scathing takedown of the event, which Time magazine later described in a review as an “appallingly funny, cool, small, deflative two-scene social drama about America’s biggest, hottest and most perplexing problem, the confrontation between Black Rage and White Guilt.” 

Wolfe was not the only New Journalist, whether or not these writers, breaking the barriers of traditional style, called themselves New Journalists. (Wolfe himself did not come up with the term new journalism. In fact, he said that he didn’t even like the term but felt stuck with it. The term itself has been around for more than a century.) His colleagues at the New York Herald Tribune—the Trib—in the early 1960s and, later, New York magazine, comprised a literal pack of journalistic outliers, including Nora Ephron, Roger Kahn, Dick Schaap, Gail Sheehy, and the very colorful Jimmy Breslin, once described as “a profane, chain-smoking, volcanic blowhard with a beer belly.” 

And over at the New Yorker, Lillian Ross had been writing exciting, incisive cinematic profiles of celebrities like Ira Gershwin, Adlai Stevenson, Charlie Chaplin, John Huston, and many others. Ross published numerous books throughout her life, but her first and most admired was Picture, after she went to Hollywood and stayed for a year and a half to observe the creation of John Huston’s movie The Red Badge of Courage. The piece first appeared as a five-part series in the New Yorker. Ross, and many other writers at the time, had been inspired by John Hersey’s narrative Hiroshima, which was published in full in the New Yorker in 1946. She had presented her idea to her editor, William Shawn, in a very memorable and telling way: “I don’t see why I shouldn’t try to do a fact piece in novel form, or maybe a novel in fact form.” Speaking of “nonfiction novels,” Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was also first published in its entirety in four issues of the New Yorker in 1965. And let’s not forget Norman Mailer, another novelist who turned to nonfiction with the publication of The Armies of the Night, about the Washington, DC, peace demonstrations in October 1967, for which he won the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes.

But in his Valentine’s Day proclamation, Wolfe singled out the game-changing work of Gay Talese, who had been a feature writer and reporter for the New York Times. Today we know and honor Talese for his amazing portrait “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” published in Esquire in 1966. But here, Wolfe focused on Talese’s 1962 profile of the former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, which starts with this scene:

“Hi, sweetheart!” Joe Louis called to his wife, spotting her waiting for him at the Los Angeles airport.

She smiled, walked toward him, and was about to stretch up on her toes and kiss him—but suddenly stopped.

“Joe,” she said, “where’s your tie?” 

“Aw, sweetie,” he said, shrugging, “I stayed out all night in New York and didn’t have time—”

“All night!” she cut in. “When you’re out here all you do is sleep, sleep, sleep.”

“Sweetie,” Joe Louis said, with a tired grin, “I’m an ole man.”

Wolfe was amazed—or so he said: “What the hell is going on? With a little reworking the whole article could have read like a short story.” Basically, he meant that if you moved some of the scenic material around—as well as other parts of the story that Talese had captured, synchronized with the reporting—it would read more smoothly, more like a story and less like a block of interesting information bracketed with anecdotes. 

Add some pizzazz. Make some noise!

Wolfe’s comment, his amazement, shows how uncertain journalists were at the time about writing in this way—manipulating structure, emphasizing narrative, and using other tools traditionally thought of as belonging to fiction. 

And, as time went on, there were so many other prominent writers who began to write in this cinematic way, using the techniques of the fiction writer to make nonfiction more powerful and compelling, and to turn nonfiction into literary art. But the reason to look back for a moment and, if not pay homage to, at the very least appreciate Tom Wolfe, is that he took the vital step of explaining to all of us nonwriters (and fledging writers, as well) what these nonfiction writers were actually doing, and how they were doing it. He did this even more clearly and concisely in 1973 in his New Journalism anthology, edited with E. W. Johnson, which many of us used as a text and teaching tool for at the very least the next decade. 

Tom Wolfe died in 2018 at age eighty-eight. Much of his work will be remembered and appreciated, but the impact of his ideas will, I believe, outlast that of any of his books. I have no idea whether some of the great nonfiction writers working today—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Eula Biss, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, to name only a very few—were influenced by Tom Wolfe, or even Mailer, Capote, or Ross. And I don’t doubt that they would have achieved greatness without Wolfe. But it is amazing, in fact, quite wonderful to me, to look back and appreciate what has happened in the world of nonfiction over the past fifty years. Or even the past twenty-eight years, since I founded this magazine. Maybe it doesn’t matter when the transition from nonfiction to creative nonfiction occurred, but for me Wolfe’s 1972 proclamation marks the spot.

Wolfe was making a statement, and maybe even issuing a challenge. Loosen up. Try something different. You don’t have to do what other writers and journalists are doing. Break some rules. Take some chances. Nonfiction writing needn’t be boring. Add some pizzazz. Make some noise! Wake up the world. And that is what we creative nonfiction writers have been doing ever since.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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