Pub Rants

All Nonfiction Is Creative

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STATUS: I’m behind in reading sample pages in the electronic database. I know there are several people who have waited more than 2 months for a reply. My apologies. I just have a lot of client material that is taking first priority. I’m hoping to get semi back on track after RWA. Thanks for being patient.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? ONE WAY OR ANOTHER by Blondie

This is a rant I had totally forgotten about until now. I sat on a panel at the Tattered Cover—Lodo on Saturday morning for the Lighthouse Writers Litfest.

During the Q&A, several attendees posed a question about their “creative nonfiction” work. This, of course, puzzled the agents and editors sitting on the panel. Why? Because there is no such genre as creative nonfiction. All nonfiction (and fiction for that matter) is creative by nature so calling something “creative nonfiction” doesn’t really define it.

And then I remembered. This is a term often used by universities and writing programs but in publishing, we don’t use it.

If you are writing a memoir, it’s called a memoir.

If you are writing a collection of essays, it’s called a collection of essays.

If you are writing a prescriptive nonfiction self-help book, then that’s what you call it.

Seriously. No agent will ever call and editor and say, “Yo Jane, I’ve got a creative nonfiction project to send your way.”

So I would exorcise this term from your writing/publishing vocabulary (and if you head a writing program, see if you can get that terminology changed). It’s actually a disservice to writers trying to break into the publishing world.

Now, don’t worry. It’s not like I’m going to delete every query that uses it but it will raise an eyebrow and show you up as a novice right when you are trying to demonstrate your savvy and professionalism.

14 Responses

  1. Karen said:

    I thought “creative nonfiction” was the term for the genre Truman Capote invented with In Cold Blood where every event really happened but the author fills in the gaps on known dialog and motivation. No?

  2. JW said:

    Actually, I think you and your comrades are behind here.

    “Creative nonfiction” is a very helpful term. For readers it separates more scholarly works from something most people would actually want to read and for writers, well, “creative” non fiction isn’t “dry” non-fiction. Some things really do need to read like encyclopedia entries and some things really can’t.

  3. Anonymous said:

    I find the creative non-fiction term used by freelance magazine writers more than anyone else. Personally I think it’s silly term. Something is either true or it isn’t. Filling in blanks with information you make up turns your project into fiction based on a true story.

  4. Anonymous said:

    Karen – I’ve heard that called “narrative nonfiction” (to distinguish it from the inverted pyramid).

  5. Karen Duvall said:

    Ditto on the “narrative nonfiction” term. I’ve never heard the term creative nonfiction, but an example of narrative nonfiction is a biography told in story form. It’s all true, but because dialogue and scenes are speculated, some creative license is necessary. I love reading biographies written by creative writers who know how to tell a good story. It’s all true, but it’s entertaining in a way that objective reporting is not.

  6. k said:

    At the university where I teach (creative nonfiction, actually) the term is used to categorize a collection of courses that can be *any* type of nonfiction. I generally teach memoir, but other professors have taught a heckuva lota other types of nonfiction. I agree with Kristin–the term isn’t terribly descriptive. It’s useful at the university to describe a department full of a particular kind of writing, but it wouldn’t be very useful in publishing, I’d guess.

  7. k said:

    Oh, and I forgot to add. They call it “creative nonfiction” because that distinguishes it from the technical (like, engineers writing computer programming manuals for their oil refineries) writing courses that could also be considered nonfiction, but that not tons of people would want to buy.

  8. Steve Axelrod said:

    I’m confused. Most agents feel that an MFA degree is an asset; but terminology that identifies you as the product of an academic writing program (“Creative nonfiction”) is a liability. Why?

  9. Caitlin said:

    I understand ‘creative non-fiction’ to mean non-fiction that uses creative writing and narrative story telling techniques. It can include biography, memoir, true crime, travel writing, food writing. I don’t think it has to necessarily have to ‘made up’ bits as others have described above, though sometimes it does.

    It does not include non-fiction that is more geared to imparting information such as an educational text-book, a how-to manual, a personal finance book, or a self-help book.

    The reason the term ‘creative non-fiction’ is not useful in the publishing world is that it is not a genre. However, I believe that it is useful in the writing and academic world because it involves a collection of genres that use similar writing techniques and research skills.

    Categorising these things together for the purpose of teaching is useful. Clearly the writers need also to be taught to correctly identify the actual genre and that they should pitch to agents and editors based on that genre.

  10. Anonymous said:

    Funny, but that isn’t a very creative title.

    And I’m confused. If parts are made up, how can it be “all true”?

    I think the point is, know what you are selling and be specific when approaching an agent about your project.


  11. Kanani said:

    I’ve always thought this term “creative nonfiction” was a big duh as well.

    Years ago, I first heard it bandied about at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, probably the biggest book event in the west coast.

    Apparently, it came from MFA programs eager to expand their course offerings to those who were not writing novels, but non-fiction. And I do think it’s also to distinguish it from other course offerings in technical writing, in which you can also get an MFA. And yes, it uses a narrative form of reportage.

    Anyway, so it was a funny time to watch authors from Pico Iyer to Hunter S. Thompson get shoved together into this realm of conversation. Even Eric Newby was being tossed in. And that’s what it was… chatter. Not necessarily where the books would ultimately be shelved in the stores.

    I don’t begrudge them for doing this to define their busines, but I do think that creating yet another faux genre just confuses everyone.

    Call it travel writing, a memoir, an essay, political commentary, and in the case of Thompson, who really is the only one who fits in his very own genre.. gonzo journalism.

  12. Ryan said:

    I just wrote a paper (I am a creative writing major) trying to define this super-genre. I have narrowed it down to three key elements of creative nonfiction based on many experts’ descriptions:
    1) It’s based on fact (of course).
    2) The writer’s personality is voiced and related to the reader as a credible witness of the subject (unlike the narration of an owner’s manual, deadline reporting, critical biography, etc.).
    3) The language use is polished/stylized with devices found in fiction and prose (setting, tropes, metaphor, characterization, etc.).

    This type of writing is common among food criticism, many types of biography, informal essays, movie/book reviews, feature stories, and a dozen other subgenres. A “creative nonfiction writer” should be able to do a fairly good job across a diverse range of forms. That is why it is taught in the university. As for the publishing world, everyone has their nitch–even I know that.