What is creative non-fiction and where did it come from?

It’s one of the most important and fast-growing movements in contemporary writing, but what exactly is creative non-fiction? The blanket term covers the work of many writers, including some who would be astonished to be listed under that label.

The simplest definition is true stories well told. Delve a little further and it’s writing that uses literary craft and techniques (narration, characters, dialogue, scenes) to tell stories about real people and events in a way that brings them to life. When she was prose editor of Westerly magazine, Rachel Robertson went further: it’s usually told in the first person and the narrator’s voice is a key part of the work. “The best works … use their apparent topic to explore a deeper issue and are both timely and timeless,” she said.

Susan Orleans’s work is an example of creative non-fiction.Credit:Christopher Pierce

Of course, this kind of writing has been around since St Augustine wrote his Confessions, but we can see it develop in the past decade or two through the boom in memoirs, travel and nature writing, personal essay collections and immersive journalism. Well-known examples include Annie Dillard’s An American ChildhoodBarbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Susan Orleans’s Orchid Thief. There are also anthologies and magazines devoted to the form and courses on offer for would-be writers.

Lee Kofman, herself a teacher and writer of creative non-fiction with her books The Dangerous Bride and Imperfect, has compiled a brief online history of Australian writers in the genre, from the pioneers (Clive James, Robyn Davidson, Thomas Keneally), to the veterans (Helen Garner, Raimond Gaita, Robert Drewe), through to the newcomers (Anna Funder, Kate Holden, Alice Pung, Chloe Hooper). There are already new names to add to that list.

The epicenter of the form is the US, and one of its great teaching pioneers, Lee Gutkind, has written in Creative Nonfiction magazine about its birth and history. University English departments enabled the form to grow, he says. It had its roots in the New Journalism of the 1990s and books such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but nothing like it was being taught when he began teaching. Why not, Gutkind wondered.

So, almost by stealth, he began to teach it, mostly because nobody else wanted to. It helped that he was “a bit of an interlocutor” in academia. He recalls a heated debate among colleagues about the classics that ended when the department chair said “after all, gentlemen, we are interested in literature here – not writing”.

Creative non-fiction techniques are at work in Julia Baird's Phosphorescence.

Creative non-fiction techniques are at work in Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence.Credit:susan papazian

He thinks the academy resisted because something about the writing was threatening, “often revealing the darkest side of things, of war, of poverty, of inherent societal racism”. But gradually universities became more accepting, not least because the form attracted an entirely new breed of students.

“Fifty years ago,” Gutkind concludes, “we were hardly a blip on the radar … Today we are not just a part of the literary ecosystem, we are its most active and impactful contributors – leaders and change-makers and motivators where we once did not belong.”

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