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Creative nonfiction: but still it turns

I am enormously flattered to have my thoughts on the state of the essay featured as a blog post in an interesting ongoing discussion on Brevity’s blog. These thoughts started as a comment on an earlier post in an eminently readable thread.

Perhaps my words showed me in good form because I’ve been thinking about the state of creative nonfiction for a couple of weeks, ever since sitting in a meeting — of writers, no less — with my Nice Librarian smile glued to my face like pasties on a stripper while one writer kept repeating, “I don’t even see that as a genre!”

My reticence, and the fake smile (which make my cheeks hurt for two days), were because I wanted something from this group, and though I have heard this particular spiel before from others in this organization — remember Amadeus, “Too many notes”? — it seemed a tad counterproductive to jump on top of the table to shout “Oh yes it is a genre and I write in it and a lot of people write in it and schools teach it and heck Montaigne started it long before you were writing your poems and westerns and — and — WHATever, haven’t you ever read Joan Didion Philip Lopate Annie Dillard Gretel Ehrlich James Baldwin Emerson E.B. White Virginia Woolf hello hello hello?”

Such an outburst would have been possibly therapeutic, yes, but not an effective Milestone toward the Objective that would help me reach my Goal. Instead, I work slyly from within, a perfect mole, having founded a critique group that must perforce read my essays and other creatively nonfictional forms. I have already made one convert, muah ha ha ha ha! Soon, oh soon, they shall all be in my clutches!
I’m even attending the Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference. I was so excited to read about this conference — only a short flight from Tallahassee — that I called as soon as I saw the announcement to ask how I could register and was gently told if I waited three days I could register online. (For my MFA, I showed up two hours early for my first class, out of sheer impatience to get started. I was born early, too. Happy to be here, I am!)

If creative nonfiction doesn’t exist, could they hold a conference on it? In Oxford, no less, which drips with literary history? I think not! Were CNF not a genre, on news of this conference, Faulkner would have risen from his grave, arms straight in front of him like a Hollywood Frankenstein, grunting “Not Genre! Go home! Not Genre!” But that hasn’t happened, so there!

Faulkner notwithstanding, CNF don’t get no respect, and not just locally. I took a swipe at the Wikipedia entry for creative nonfiction when I stumbled across a discussion proposing to subsume it under journalism. The entry is still a big mess, but I’ll keep my eye on it so at least THAT doesn’t happen. (Oh, and you, the anonymous editor who didn’t know Virginia Woolf wrote the first version of “Death of a Moth”? Go to your room.)

It doesn’t help that the Dewey system balkanizes creative nonfiction all over the library. Locally, Cancer Vixen is in 362.196 MAR; Geography of the Heart is 305.38 JOH; The Year of Magical Thinking is B DIDION. This isn’t unusual. In libraries, “nonfiction” is this vast bucket of books ranging from shed-building to recipes to essays, and that which is literary becomes kernels of corn disappeared among the many. I think Maricopa’s Perry Branch, with its bookstore organization, handles this better, the way bookstores in general handle creative nonfiction so much better.

Oh, Galileo!

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5 Comments

  1. Sam wrote:

    Intriguing! I must admit that it had not occured to me that there was such a thing as creative non-fiction, but as it so happens I am currently reading Expletives Deleted by Angela Carter – which is a collection of essays about a number of things and I am finding it very interesting and very well written.

    Monday, December 17, 2007 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  2. Laura wrote:

    I’ve always meant to write a post about Dewey’s balkanization of literary nonfiction but, once again, you’ve beaten me to it!

    Monday, December 17, 2007 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  3. Laura, really, we have a panel discussion for AWP on a slew of library topics… why Dewey sux… how to get your book reviewed by Choice… etc. :-)

    Monday, December 17, 2007 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  4. Kathy wrote:

    I attended a publishing forum for writers last summer, and the agents panel said nope, for them creative non-fiction isn’t a genre. Hmm, I thought. It most certainly was in my MFA program. Perhaps it’s an academic thing? Should we just call them essays? –although I think that may be off-putting for some people. As for bookstores, some handle it well (my local Tattered Cover is an example), but Barnes & Noble? Dillard in nature writing, Didion in bios. And can someone tell me why writing about writing is all the way across the store with the dictionaries, instead of next to the literary crit?

    Wednesday, December 19, 2007 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  5. Wow, what was that forum?

    Essays make people think of what they did in school… and it’s also only PART of a genre.

    You are lucky to be near Tattered Cover!

    Wednesday, December 19, 2007 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

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  1. My Christmas Letter on Sunday, December 23, 2007 at 11:44 am

    [...] been a big part of Pretty Tallahassee. She’s a great writer and an equally great person, and yes, she knows what creative nonfiction is and even how to critically approach [...]

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