More Thoughts on The Fourth Genre... Whatever You Want to Call It

One thing that really struck me at NonfictioNow last week is just how many people seem to dislike the term "creative nonfiction." Many of us use the term without really thinking about it, but it seems that, when people do think about it, the phrase tends to bother them. Small wonder, really. Creative nonfiction is the one genre of literature that seems defined in negative terms-- it's not its own thing, it's just not fiction. More importantly, as Phillip Lopate notes, the term is about as descriptive as the term "good poetry."

Still, there's really no consensus on what else we should call this form of writing. Some have suggested calling it literary nonfiction-- frankly, I don't see how "literary" is more descriptive than "creative," and, as Mark Scroggins has noted, the use of the term "literary" in matters like these seems like a pretentious-yet-lazy way of simply saying "good."

Narrative nonfiction? Well, the term's more descriptive, but tends to exclude a lot of work that, I think, should fall under this generic umbrella. There isn't really a narrative to be found in "Of Books," after all, but it still belongs, you know?

Belles lettres? Gag.

Many have suggested that we don't need a term to describe the varied forms that fall within this "fourth genre"-- let's just talk about memoirs, personal essays, works of literary journalism, lyric essays, short-shorts... whatever. Of all the alternatives to the phrase "creative nonfiction" bandied about, this one is most attractive to me. But I don't think it's very practical. We have this term because, at some point thirty years ago, Seymour Krim and Dick Humphries realized that they needed a term to describe Krim's class that was designed to study and create works of "new" journalism and personal essays (two forms that Krim thought should be studied together due to their similarities), and this was the title they came up with (having abandoned Krim's initial idea of calling the class "Imaginative Nonfiction"). It makes a certain amount of sense-- in naming a class, one probably needs to be more concise than "Nonfiction Writing Such as Memoir, Literary Journalism, and The Personal Essay; Forms that Demonstrate a Bit More Personality Than the Typical Expository Essays You May Have Written in Freshman Composition." I mean, at our school, I wasn't allowed to call the graduate class I designed "Creative Nonfiction Workshop," because the catalogue wouldn't accept so many characters in the title.

Since Krim and Humphries coined the term, it has become widely used. MFA and creative writing PhD programs use it. It's the name of one of the genre's most prestigious magazines. The term appears on National Endowment for the Arts applications. It's hard to imagine getting rid of it, and I'm not sure I understand why anyone really, really wants to.

Actually, that's a lie-- I do understand. It's vague. "Creative." If you ask her, Emily will tell you (correctly) that the nonfiction she writes about tobacco use in Early Modern London requires creativity, but her work would never be called "creative nonfiction." Who sits down at the keyboard and thinks, "I'm going to try to write some uncreative prose today! I'll just turn my brain off and type!" Well, sure, there's Bret Easton Ellis. But who else, really?

I suppose in Bradleyland (where beer grows on trees and the monkeys and chimps all speak English and know how to play Scrabble), we would call this type of writing "Familiar Nonfiction." It evokes the traditional ("the familiar essay"), while remaining open to other, perhaps newer, forms of writing-- any prose that seeks to connect the reader to an author (or, in the case of literary journalism, another person or event) in an intimate way. Scholarship-- while creative-- is not familiar; it's a more formal type of writing. But a scholar who writes intelligently (yet intimately) of his own troubled relationship with, say, Hegel, would clearly find his work covered by such an umbrella term, I think. "Familiar Nonfiction" is a bit more descriptive than the term "Creative Nonfiction," but remains open to a variety of approaches.

But that's Bradleyland. People live in sugar cube castles with maple syrup moats there. We need to concern ourselves with life and literature on earth. And here, I suspect, the term creative nonfiction is going to be around for a long time. Compared to most of the alternatives, I'd say that's probably for the best.

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