How creative nonfiction stormed the gates of academia

Review of The Fine Art of Literary Fist-Fighting | How a bunch of rabble-rousers, outsiders, and ne’er-do-wells concocted creative nonfiction
304pp. Yale University Press. £25 (US $35). By Lee Gutkind

In the mid-1960s a debate got under way in the US about an emerging hybrid genre called “the new journalism”, also referred to as “literary journalism”, “lyric essay”, the “nonfiction novel” – Truman Capote’s coinage for his contribution, In Cold Blood (1966) – “history with a point of view”, “narrative nonfiction” and, regrettably, “verfabula”. Eventually “creative nonfiction” became the generally accepted term, often shortened to CNF. Lee Gutkind’s brisk historical account of how a set of borrowed modalities became “the fourth genre” is deftly interleaved with anecdotes and insights drawn from a lifetime as a practitioner. (The book’s unwieldy title underlines the sometimes fractious infighting that accompanied the rise of the new genre.) He begins with a useful comparison between CNF and another hard-to-define artistic form. Like jazz, CNF “is a rich mixture of flavors, ideas and techniques … considered by purists as not quite legitimate”.

When the genre first emerged the establishment was dubious. In a sniffy essay in the New York Review of Books (February 3, 1966), Dwight Macdonald tagged the pretender “parajournalism”. This “bastard form”, he wrote, attempts to have it both ways by combining the “factual authority of journalism” with the “atmospheric license of fiction”. He went on to point out, as have many others, that CNF goes back as at least as far as Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). Other forebears include Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair, Rebecca West, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, James Agee and James Baldwin. Gutkind comments on several of these, but focuses on a group we might call the seven granite blocks of CNF: Capote, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, John McPhee and Tom Wolfe.

The controversy about the new form was triggered by Wolfe’s collection of magazine pieces, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), followed by The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), an account of the LSD-influenced high jinks of the novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who careened across the US in a school bus. In 1973 Wolfe published an immensely influential anthology, The New Journalism. In the introduction he excoriated traditional journalism’s “beige narrator”, who speaks in the hushed tones of “a radio announcer at a tennis match”. CNF writers, as the magnificent seven have demonstrated, put themselves on the stage of the story, sometimes becoming the lead actors, as in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), Thompson’s famous account of a drug- and booze-fuelled weekend.

Gutkind has written accomplished and immersive narratives about his involvement with baseball umpires, long-haul truckers, snake-sackers and professional wrestlers. But here he makes a convincing case that the rise of CNF was in part a response to the zeitgeist, which Wolfe called “the whole crazed obscene uproarious Mammon-faced” scene that came in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. CNF writers needed a lot more than the five Ws taught in journalism schools (who, what, when, where and why) to frame and explore the weird, violent and unprecedented events of that era.

Wolfe listed four fictional techniques that the new genre was using to wrangle these phenomena into focus: scene-by-scene construction of the kind realistic novelists from Balzac on, and later film- makers, employed; dialogue in full to reveal the unique flavour of each character, eschewing paraphrase whenever possible – Dickens, he points out, “had a way of fixing a character in your mind” using extensive dialogue and only a bit of physical description; close third-person point-of-view to reveal characters’ thoughts, accomplished by reference to letters, diaries, court transcripts and/or extensive interviewing, something that Mailer does brilliantly in The Executioner’s Song (1979); and, finally, the most difficult technique, presenting “the record of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing” – in sum, the symbolic status life of the characters. No one does this better than Didion in her report on the “social hemorrhaging” in the hippie community of Haight-Ashbury in her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). Talese, another pioneer of CNF, also excels in this regard. His Esquire profile “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (1966) is often pointed to as an exemplar of the form.

After D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf and the great novelists of the nineteenth century, the pressure on writers from the 1940s to the 1960s was to fictionalize life and leave nonfiction to historians and journalists. At first academics were not so much opposed to creative nonfiction as oblivious to it; many saw the term as a non sequitur. Gutkind provides examples of how little notice CNF initially received from the academy and from publishers. But when teachers of CNF sought faculty hires at the expense of the established genres, the professors pushed back. An unnamed professor at the University of Pittsburgh, where Gutkind established the first American creative nonfiction programme in 1983, said to him, “We’re interested in literature here, not writing”. Journalists were even more threatened. The inverted pyramid form – where the most important information comes first, allowing the end to be easily trimmed for the insertion of advertisements – was being disrespected, they argued, and the news flow impeded by the posturing of prima donnas such as Capote and Wolfe. Gutkind recalls an editor at the Pittsburgh Press calling creative nonfiction nothing but “throat clearing, depriving the reader of information”.

The tide began to turn in the 1980s, when “the collective force of all those books I have talked about by Mailer and Didion and Capote … the magnificent On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates and The Pine Barrens by John McPhee … had gradually given nonfiction a certain undeniable literary status”. Gutkind singles out a distinguished annual, The Best American Essays, the brainchild of Robert Atwan, as a turning point. Atwan’s proposal for the series was accepted, then for a few years questioned, postponed – publishers didn’t think the word “essays” sold books – until 1986. The guest editor for the first collection was the essayist and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick, who was succeeded by a formidable list of writers: Talese, Annie Dillard, Justin Kaplan, Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens, Mary Oliver and David Foster Wallace.

CNF has had some setbacks over the years: the admission of Vivian Gornick (another of the editors of The Best American Essays) that she composited characters in her early pieces in the Village Voice; Janet Malcolm’s initially unacknowledged compression of chronology in Psychoanalysis: The impossible profession (1977); and James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces (2003), written first as a novel, then after rejection published as a truthful account of his actual experience. Boosted by Oprah Winfrey, the book topped the New York Times bestseller list for fifteen weeks and was translated into twenty-two languages. Frey’s fraud was found out and Winfrey humiliated him on her show. None of these deceptions derailed the certification of CNF as a bona fide genre, however. A second symbolic moment occurred in 1990, when the National Endowment for the Arts changed the name of one of its fellowship categories from “belles-lettres” to “creative nonfiction”. The name was “a reluctant compromise” that came about in part because an outspoken professor in Pittsburgh “was making a lot of noise about creative nonfiction”. The professor was none other than Lee Gutkind. CNF, now often identified as “essay”, is firmly ensconced in the curriculums of MFA writing programs, second only to fiction as a student choice. But no writer has yet been able to claim parity with the seven granite blocks.

Originally published in the Times Literary Supplement, March 15, 2024.