Genre Specifics and MFA Head’s Up

Yet another “memoirist” has shat on the genre of creative nonfiction, leaving us all wondering how hard fact checking can actually be. Read this excerpt from an LA Times article , which quotes one of the most respected scholars of the genre:

One obvious question (aside from “why won’t book publisher’s hire fact checkers?”) is why don’t these authors simply present their books as fiction? After all, many novels are truer than their authors often admit. So why not play it safe and replace the word “memoir” with “novel” on the title page?

Lee Gutkind, editor and founder of the journal Creative Nonfiction and by some accounts the “godfather” of that genre, believes “creative” and “nonfiction” can fuse without posing ethical difficulties; the idea is to use the narrative techniques of traditional fiction to tell stories that are true. “Professionals know that, and the best do it extremely well,” Gutkind said, “but the bar may be lower for someone who has an amazing story of tragedy and restitution.

“I don’t think [Rosenblat’s story] is a particularly terrific story compared to the fictional worlds created by most fiction writers today,” Gutkind added. “It’s a cute story … but it doesn’t have the scope and depth required of fiction. But once you say it’s true, it becomes the kind of thing a publisher can take to the bank.”

Avoiding the label “fiction” may also be the result of a more complicated set of cultural factors, namely that society’s taste for finely crafted storytelling seems to be waning. How else to explain TV audiences’ apparent preference for reality and talk shows over scripted sitcoms and dramas? How else to explain Seltzer’s defense, which suggested her story would have no impact unless it was perceived as true. “I just felt there was good I could do, and there was no other way that someone would listen to it,” she told the New York Times.

Once upon a time, I had a nonfiction story accepted to an anthology. This must have been late 2005, as I was preparing to apply to grad schools but had not yet received formal instruction in the nuances of creative nonfiction. Since anthologies notoriously take ages from acceptance to publication, I had a lot of time to think about the piece I had submitted. It’s safe to say I had a few worries about the story in the back of my mind, though I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why.

Meanwhile, I continued writing nonfiction vignettes about growing up, all for the sake of exercising the memoir muscle to come up with a gem I could include in a grad school portfolio. Mind you, a publication credit in an anthology would have looked mighty fine on my CV at the time.

When the anthology was finally ready to go to press, a contract came my way. I read the fine print and those questions that had been steeping in the back of my mind could no longer be ignored: Did I remember the event correctly? Was that really all on the same night, or did that happen over the course of several weeks? This was not long after the Frey controversy.

I didn’t know enough about the craft of writing to articulate my doubts much more than those two questions, but I did know enough about gut feelings and the difference between right and wrong. Something felt very wrong about the story I had written and, after all that time to think about it, I was finally able to articulate it: The story accepted for publication presented a series of small events happening over the course of one evening when, in fact, the events had happened over the course of a few weeks.

I immediately emailed the editor of the anthology and didn’t sign the contract.

The editor wrote back swiftly with one question: “Do you mean to say that your memory is a composite memory?”

This, perhaps, was my first formal lesson in the craft of writing. Yes, I replied, it was a composite memory. Everything I wrote about is true, but it didn’t happen in that time frame.

The editor responded with the news that she could not publish my story and I reacted with much relief. Later, I would learn that composite memories are acceptable in some cases. In the case of the story that I almost had published, however, cramming everything into one night drastically changed the tension in the story. In my mind and in the mind of the editor, this strayed too far from representing the essence of the memory to the best of my abilities.

Want to hear more from Gutkind? See his latest blog post , which is a warning to all prospective and current MFA in Writing students.

Showing 2 comments
  • Felicity

    Way to be honest with yourself and editors, lady! Your money and your mouth definitely coexist.

    You know I’m interested in this question, especially the ‘why not call it a novel’ part. I may link back to you in the next couple of days, if the blogget this inspires comes to fruition.

  • Britt Kaufmann

    I’ll bet that news makes you glad you got your MFA when you did! Good timing.

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