Why We Call It “Creative Nonfiction”

A genre by any other name? The story behind the term "creative nonfiction"

For as long as the term creative nonfiction has existed, people have questioned how well the expression captures what writers actually do in the genre, and more than a few have wondered why in heaven’s name we started using the term in the first place. I’ve probably spent roughly half my waking hours over the past twenty years trying, variously, to justify, replace, or explain the unsatisfying label. That may be a slight exaggeration, but if you’ve ever been to a writers’ conference, you know how often the question comes up.

In response, I’ve decided to track down the culprits who gave us creative nonfiction—and to do it here, in the very magazine that bears the name.

First, though, let’s revisit a few of the complaints:

Essayist Phillip Lopate didn’t hold back in a 2008 Poets & Writers interview, characterizing the term as “slightly bogus,” then adding, “It’s like patting yourself on the back and saying, ‘My nonfiction is creative.’ Let the reader be the judge of that.”

The second word—nonfiction—doesn’t fare much better. “It’s always seemed odd to me that nonfiction is defined, not by what it is, but by what it is not,” Philip Gerard complains in his craft book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life. “It is not fiction. But then again, it is also not poetry, or technical writing or libretto. It’s like defining classical music as nonjazz. Or sculpture as nonpainting.”

Few seem willing to embrace the term, though by this point, almost everyone uses it. Alternatives have been trotted out, but none has taken hold.

For instance, the phrase literary nonfiction has a nice ring to it but risks sounding a bit pretentious. As Lopate might say, let the reader decide.

Narrative nonfiction works for the more journalistic end of the nonfiction spectrum, but it is a poor fit for meditative or lyric essays.

John McPhee has occasionally used the term literature of fact, but that’s a mouthful and also falls short of describing the breadth of the genre.

So creative nonfiction is here to stay, it seems, but how did we get here, and why does no one want to take credit for giving us this awkward term in the first place?

Another Poets & Writers article, from 2009, exploring the distinctions between creative nonfiction and traditional journalism, calls me out for something stupid I may or may not have said at an AWP Panel (yes, it’s personal), then points a finger directly at Creative Nonfiction magazine founder Lee Gutkind:

“Although he’s attained his own reputation as a creative nonfiction apostle, Moore was originally a disciple of the man credited with coining the term creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind, who taught a class with those words in its title at the University of Pittsburgh as early as 1973.”

Some of that is true, but most of it is hogwash. Though Lee is often credited with (or blamed for) coining the term, he didn’t.

The misperception stems, perhaps, from a 1997 Vanity Fair article wherein Lee was dubbed “the godfather behind creative nonfiction” by critic James Wolcott, who did not intend that title to be in any way flattering. You be the judge: the caption to an accompanying illustration reads, “NAVEL GAZERS. For writers Lee Gutkind, Phillip Lopate, Laurie Stone, Daphne Merkin, and Anne Roiphe, no personal detail is too mundane to share.”

Wolcott, of course, went on to publish his own memoir eventually. If you ask me, his nonfiction is fairly creative (and his navel extremely well-gazed).

The point is, Lee didn’t invent the name, though he did, of course launch the magazine you are reading right now. When I asked him to clarify his understanding of where the term came from, he confessed to being entirely unsure. “In the ’70s, I tried to find a term suitable to my colleagues so they would allow me to teach courses in the genre,” he wrote in response to my query. “For a while it was called new journalism, but the J word was unacceptable in English departments.”

I can attest to that, since I was Lee’s student back in the mid-1970s (I told you it was personal), and new journalism was indeed the term being bandied about.

Lee remembers strategizing with his mentor Montgomery Culver, searching for a way to define “what was so different about what I was doing and what I could teach writing students that feature writers and journalists couldn’t.

“At the time, both Monty and I agreed that we had somehow, somewhere, heard the term [creative nonfiction] before,” Lee explained, “but [we] hadn’t the slightest idea when or where or from whom.”

Michael Steinberg, editor of the anthology The Fourth Genre (and, later, the literary journal of almost the same name), recalls that Creative Nonfiction’s front cover may have been the first place he saw the term. His best guess, he told me, was that Lee may have adopted the label from the National Endowment for the Arts.

But if Lee first heard the term sometime in the 1970s, it wasn’t from the NEA. “‘Creative nonfiction’ was added to the prose guidelines for FY1990 fellowships,” the NEA’s Rebecca Maner wrote me when I started digging. Prior to that year, she added, the nonfiction genre was listed as “belles-lettres.”

(Belles-lettres? You don’t have to like the term creative nonfiction, but, hey, it could be worse.)

Joe Mackall, cofounder of River Teeth, believes he heard the term in the late 1980s but has “no memory of where or from whom.”

Sue William Silverman, winner—in 1995—of the AWP Book Award for Creative Nonfiction, tells me she hadn’t ever heard the term until she submitted her book a year earlier for the contest.

No one, it seems, could recall where they heard it first, so I launched my own investigation. The earliest use Google turns up is from 1984. The earliest hit from LexisNexis harks back to 1981, when Phyllis Grosskurth’s biography, Havelock Ellis, won the Arts Council of Great Britain’s “creative non-fiction” book prize.

Michael Stephens, writing in Creative Nonfiction #2, takes it back a bit further, recalling his teacher, the late Seymour Krim, saying that J. R. “Dick” Humphreys, founder of the writers’ program at Columbia University, coined the expression in the late 1970s to describe a new course Krim was planning to teach. The idea was to signal that this was a “creative” writing course, not journalism or expository writing.

But it goes back even further. I dove into various online academic databases and discovered the term might have originated on the very campus where I currently direct one of the few PhD programs that include the creative nonfiction genre. (Yes: still personal.)

The earliest use of the term seems to be in a review of Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, written by David Madden—a scholar, writer, and professor here in Ohio from 1966 to 1968. In the review, which can be found in the 1969 Survey of Contemporary Literature, Madden calls for a “redefinition” of nonfiction writing in the wake of Truman Capote, Jean Stafford, and Norman Mailer, then turns to a brief discussion of Norman Podhoretz. “In Making It, Norman Podhoretz, youthful editor of Commentary, who declares that creative nonfiction is pre-empting the functions of fiction, offers his own life as evidence,” Madden writes.

What Podhoretz actually said in his memoir, or intellectual autobiography, was that he “did not believe . . . that fiction was the only kind of writing which deserved to be called ‘creative.’ . . . But the truth was that the American books of the postwar period which had mattered to me personally, and not to me alone either, . . . were not novels . . . but works the trade quaintly called ‘nonfiction,’ as though they had only a negative existence.”

Podhoretz, it seems, anticipated the term we now use to include memoir, literary journalism, the essay, and more, without actually using it. Madden is responsible for the shorthand “creative nonfiction.”

In an e-mail exchange with me, Madden remembers using that term and the phrase imaginative non-fiction interchangeably while at Ohio University, and says that he “continued to use those two terms when I moved to Louisiana State University and created the undergraduate [creative writing] program.” (LSU is my MFA alma mater, it turns out, so the personal connections, for whatever they are worth, continue to stack up oddly.)

Madden is sure that he invented the term, rather than appropriating it, and the trail ends there.

So now we have our answer—and our champion. Or scapegoat. Let the complaining resume.

About the Author

Dinty W. Moore

Dinty W. Moore is author of the memoirs Between Panic & Desire and To Hell With It, and the writing guides Crafting the Personal Essay and The Mindful Writer, among other books.

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