The Evolution of Creative Nonfiction

We have several ways to tell this story. A popular place to begin is in the 1960s when a group of hard-working reporters and magazine writers began to chafe under the normal restrictions of journalistic writing. They started to break the rules. Writers like Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Lillian Ross, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson embraced a much more personal voice, no longer camouflaging the narrator’s personality. They cultivated the subjective voice, believing that the writer’s point of view had become an integral part of any story. Novelists also turned their hand to writing nonfiction and incorporated the narrative techniques that had served them so well in fiction. In 1966, Truman Capote examined the murder of a family in Kansas in his seminal work “In Cold Blood.” A few years later, Norman Mailer’s nonfiction meditation on an anti-war rally at the Pentagon became “The Armies of the Night,” a work that won the Pulitzer Prize. Its subtitle,“History as a Novel, the Novel as History,” spoke to the crossing of two great currents as journalism met creative writing. A new genre, often referred to as New Journalism, began to emerge in American letters.

Another starting point would be to look back into the mirror of literary history. Quickly we can locate a long tradition of creative nonfiction writings that lead in a direct line to the New Journalists of the 20th century. We can find fascinating writing in Daniel Defoe’s “The Storm,” his researched account of the great hurricane that struck Britain in 1703. James Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson” (1791) offers a powerful profile of the inimitable literary figure that still teaches biographers of today how to write. Notable authors like Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Stephen Crane and Jack London all began to explore using narrative techniques in their nonfiction reportage during the next century. George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, James Agee and Martha Gellhorn also explored nonfiction in their work while The New Yorker began a great tradition of featuring notable nonfiction, publishing A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell and E.B. White.

A third way to look at creative nonfiction’s evolution is to look even earlier toward classical writers like Plutarch, Tacitus and Herodotus. Their prose works reported on their world and times with grace and scholarship. Meditative essayists like Michel de Montaigne began a long tradition of thoughtful contemplative writing that examines the interior world of the author. Over time, we can see a blending of the objective voice with the subjective.

Like any living art form, creative nonfiction continues to develop and deepen. Using a broad brushstroke to describe the genre’s current trends, we can note a strong journalistic component in many nonfiction writers. These writers bring with them a long tradition of strict journalistic ethics, a commitment to reportage and a series of publishing venues (newspapers, magazines and electronic media) that hold the same values. In the universities, a second thread is developing. Poets and fiction writers are producing lyrical essays and memoir, emphasizing distinctly un-journalistic modes of storytelling. While they bring great narrative craft to their writings, they do not necessarily stress the journalistic demands for fact-based narrative.

If our theme is the evolution of a literary genre, it’s helpful to look at the tenets of natural selection and how certain qualities or attributes help a species survive over time. Creative nonfiction is thriving yet moving in two different directions simultaneously. It will be interesting to see what develops next.