Sunday, April 18, 2010

Creative Nonfiction's redesign, issue 38 of the new era

One of the things I picked up at, or possibly was sent after the AWP conference was the new issue of Creative Nonfiction, the first in their new redesign (for more on this, you can take a look at the site; they're doing some interesting expansions). If you haven't seen it, it's setup as a magazine like, say, Real Simple (which was/is a magazine theoretically in pursuit of simplicity by virtue of buying a bunch of shit to simplify your life), perfect bound, 96 pages or so, in a more traditional magazine size, 8.5 x 11". Gone are the boring litmag conventions of old. Now here are some nice design decisions, excerpts from their Tiny Truths daily #cnftweet contest on Twitter, bits of things that connect to bigger bits on their website, a bunch of non-essay stuff such as interviews with Dave Eggers, columns from Phillip Lopate, and a chunk of the now-everywhere (even the Colbert Report) David Shields' Reality Hunger. There's also their new section, "Pushing the Boundaries," in which they apparently plan to feature nonfiction that "pushes the boundaries."

I also ran into an editor of Fugue magazine from the University of Idaho, and they have a similar sort of section, where they run one experiment each issue. I look forward to checking that out. As for CNF, this issue's experiment (they never say essay) by Sarah Gorham, a piece (essay, obviously) called "Study in Perfect." I'd like to talk more about this particular essay at some point, but for the moment let me say that it is by far the most interesting contribution in the issue. And that we should perhaps be cheered by the small chink of "experiment" in the Creative Nonfiction definition of nonfiction.

I think we should also be irritated by the compartmentalization of "experimental" works to the "Pushing the Boundaries" section, both here and in Fugue (though I haven't looked at Fugue in a while so I can't speak to how it works there just yet).

When I say we, I mean anyone who appears in CNF's pages, particularly in that section. When I say we I also mean readers. I also mean writers. I also mean people.

(As an aside they have an early list of writers "whose work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction since issue #1" which oddly includes my name. I'm not sure where I got drafted.)

If you know me at all, you've probably heard my irritation about the term experimental before. As if any worthwhile piece of anything that aspires to art is not an experiment. Otherwise it's all just plug-and-play, which is to say genre. Pick your subject, pick your research, pick your standard narrative nonfiction form, and boom! there's your essay.

As we know writing anything interesting is not like that. And though most of the essays in this issue do not do a lot to interest me (a couple of the columns are somewhat interesting, however), they're probably confined somewhat by having to be on-topic (the topic for the issue--that section anyhow--is "immortality").

And I hate to think that inevitably the most interesting in the issue is the one labeled experimental and boundary-pushing. And the only one (apparently) written by a (gasp) poet. Yet it is.

I don't know if it's a good sign that CNF, which has of course published some very good essays in its previous 37 issues, is including this "boundary pushing" section, possibly curated by the forward-thinking Dinty W. Moore (I'm not totally sure about this, but it seems likely). More fruitful might have been to just publish these sorts of essays in the magazine without the label. I think we can all figure out what is boundary-pushing and what is not. CNF has always been honest about the fact that there is at least a boundary.

And CNF is trying to join the conversation at least about the expansion of nonfiction, so that's something.

But this shit still rankles: Oh, you can come in, but you have to use the back door. Stay in the small green room. Wear this sign. Don't speak too loud or you'll disturb the guests and irritate our readers.

And maybe that's it: the readers for the new design of the magazine are meant to be nonliterary magazine readers, which is, after all, just about everybody. So baby steps, right?


One also wants to know: who is pushing the boundaries? Who is congratulating themselves about their pushing the boundaries?

Let me be clear: Sarah's essay is a lovely essay. She is an interesting poet and editor (she edits Sarabande Books, that published, among others, Jenny Boully's recent book, The Book of Beginnings and Endings and Lia Purpura, etc.). I don't think she's the one congratulating herself for pushing boundaries. I'd actually be interested to know if she submitted or was approached, if she knew she'd be the one to push boundaries here.

To awkwardly change subjects, this redesign and rethink of the magazine seems to me to be a mostly successful outgrowth of what CNF and the Gutkind editing and textbooking empire has been doing for quite a while, which is to be more expansive, pretty, commercial, and more (one hopes) relevant. I have to admit that I do feel obliged to keep up on what's going on with CNF, because the magazine is certainly part of the conversation in nonfiction.

(Also part of the conversation in nonfiction is Fourth Genre, who has a full-page advertisement in the issue, interestingly enough.)

And CNF is a whole lot better in this format, so I actually want to read it and keep track.