Labels: They’re not just for high school anymore

My MFA was in nonfiction writing, not fiction or poetry, which always surprises some people. Oddly, it’s writers who seem to be most thrown by this admission.

For example, a conversation I had upon being introduced to an author (of fiction) last year at a party:

Mutual acquaintance, before disappearing to get a drink: This is Elizabeth, she’s an MFA student at [school].
Author: Oh! Great! Are you doing fiction, or poetry?
Me, deflated: Um, I’m concentrating on nonfiction, actually.
Author: Oh.
Author, her eyes darting frantically around the room for chance of escape: So, what kind of things do you write? Biography?
Me: I’m writing a travel memoir about a year I spent in South Korea.
Author: Oh, how … interesting. Memoir. Like James Frey.

Non-writers are sometimes equally surprised, but the judgment is less often there. Many are even savvy enough to ask whether I write memoir or something “more journalistic”? (Both, and thank you for asking.)

I’m unsure of whether the problem lies in the supposed relative newness of creative nonfiction (it’s not, really, but it is newly a part of MFA programs, compared to fiction and poetry) as a literary genre, or in all of the labels and categorizing. There are a lot of labels:

creative nonfiction
literary journalism
new journalism
gonzo journalism
neo-gonzo journalism
new new journalism
the fourth genre*
nonfiction novel
narrative nonfiction
nonfiction prose

Not to mention all of the fancy ones (the literature of fact, the literature of reality, the art of fact, the art of truth….) and all of the sub-genres: memoir, biography, essay… And, there’s also the subject categorizing of nonfiction done by bookstores and libraries (science, history, current events, politics…). All of this, I think, makes for confusion among, well, everyone. I studied creative nonfiction writing and I don’t usually know how to refer to what I do. I tend to just stick with plain old “nonfiction,” because I find that it invites fewer judgments. The word “creative” tends to elicit comments about — and sometimes even comparisons to– James Frey, as in “Oh, so you’re like James Frey?”

So I’ve started to think it comes down to truth, or more perhaps, as Stephen Colbert says, “truthiness.” Because the uncomfortable reactions to the writing of nonfiction tend to escalate, I think, along with people’s discomfort levels over the idea of truth being bent, massaged, or exaggerated. It’s a topic that can really set people off (including me). Everyone has an opinion about this, opinions that are, I’ve found, pretty steadfast. For example, someone I was talking to recently kind of shrugged off James Frey and said that memoirs are all pretty much fictional … that memoir authors always bend the truth.

The point is that we all, whether we realize it or not, approach the writing that we read with certain judgments or assumptions already in place. I used to approach fiction thinking that everything is made up and was pretty dismayed to find out how much of some books wasn’t — I was dismayed to find out how much was true! Me, the nonfiction writer. It’s the same way with nonfiction; everyone approaches nonfiction in all of its forms with different ideas of what kind of liberties with the truth are ok, and which ones aren’t ok. When those assumptions are upended, we are generally either pissed off, as if we’ve been duped, or thrilled at the artistic license, the bending of the rules, and the blurring of the lines. Mostly just pissed off though.

It’s kind of strange writing in a genre that elicits such visceral reactions even in introductory conversations, like the one I had with that author. I suspect that genre fiction writers get similar reactions, particularly in MFA programs, where sci fi, romance, and mystery are pretty much absent from the curriculum. Hmm.

*The Fourth Genre is a label that irks me, as it implies that nonfiction is somehow last, after the first three genres of fiction, poetry and drama. What’s with the ranking?

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5 thoughts on “Labels: They’re not just for high school anymore

  1. ugh–sorry you have to go through that–I know I have my own snobbery, but I am aware of it–I apologize for the People Who Have No Clue (Ugh, James Frey)!

    One of my professors has both a nonfiction and fiction MFA from Iowa, and it was fascinating to take a nonfiction workshop with her. She listed off ALL the formats of nonfiction, and even encouraged us to write letters as our workshop piece! What she did was introduce us to the colorful and broad spectrum of nonfiction, and that’s an experience I will value forever.

    And yes–genre fiction writers REALLY get it bad.

  2. funny, i have the opposite problem!

    they: what do you write?
    me: (cough) fiction
    long pause
    they: oh, that’s nice. what kind?
    me: fantasy (cough cough)
    dead silence.

    maybe its because i tend to hang out with journalists and the like. yes, there’s a huge separation between fiction and non, and in fiction, between literary and “commercial”, and even in fantasy between “hard core” and “light” fantasy… and on and on.

    i’d like to say everyone should just write what they want, but the truth is, i do think there should be some standards. take the case of james frey- i am _not_ willing to accept that a memoir can, essentially, be fictional, as long as it is “true to the spirit”. i encountered similar feelings with historical fiction. it should, as much as possible, stick to the facts. where it varies, i feel the author has an obligation to disclose that, as much as is practical.

  3. Well, I don’t think it’s just journalists who have the opinions on fantasy writing …. my husband is a huge fan of fantasy novels, and his friends, none of whom are journalists (unless you count me) often refer to what he reads as his “unicorn books.” (I’ll admit to jumping on this bandwagon — sorry! — but only because it irks him so much and because there are rarely unicorns in the books he reads.)
    And it’s funny, I guess every group has its biases toward other groups…there was a lot of negative talk about journalism and journalists in my MFA program, which I have mentioned here before: http://fluent.typepad.com/fluent/2004/09/on_journalism_f.html.
    I guess we just have to buck up and ignore all the labels.
    And, I’m with you on James Frey and the memoirs… as journalist I can’t help but think that there’s an obligation to stick to the facts.

  4. Think how I feel! I write 2,000-word letters with maps drawn on them by hand. I don’t fit into any modern pigeonholes! There’s not really a space for the prolific literary letter writer in today’s world.

  5. There is always space for the prolific literary letter writer, I think. Books of letters are still published, though I suppose most of them are published posthumously, which I can see would be a bit demoralizing. Still, in a way, you write a kind of illustrated memoir, which is pretty cool. If you compiled all of your letters into a book, it would make an excellent read and would do what memoirs are supposed to do, which is illuminate some larger societal moment, as well as your personal story.
    I suspect you would prefer not to have your writing pigeon-holed into some modern genre anyway.

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