Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Creative Nonfiction: The Voice of the Genre...

I have to admit that I liked Creative Nonfiction a lot more than I imagined I would. Or perhaps, in the cause of greater honesty – much more than I had secretly hoped I wouldn’t like it. In full disclosure, I should point out that the slight chip on my shoulder going into the exploration of CNF comes from being thrice rejected. In the self-defensive crouch of declined suitor, I imagined CNF to be the Old Guard – the stuffy tweed and pipe set – and thus I could wear my rejection as a point of pride. We young punks don’t want our Oscars, could care less what the Grammys say, don’t care about Pulitzers and Pushcarts.

But of course we do. We want – I want – this validation as much as anybody else, want the validation of the establishment, want to crack that upper-echelon, of which CNF is clearly a part. They are, after all, The Voice of the Genre, as their own subscription insert reminds me. Say it several times in a row. I like to intone The Voice of the Genre as I imagine Walter Cronkite would: Tonight - Creative Nonfiction…the Voice..........of the Genre… It is also strange that we only get The Voice of the Genre on said subscription insert, compared to the much more humble True Stories, well told, that is the official byline throughout the magazine proper. I suppose this is because one might assume that if you have the issue in hand already you don't have to be sold on it the way you might have to be if you're just holding the perforated subscriber card. The difference between say The New York Times as Paper of Record versus Competent journalism, mostly true.

But I digress.

It is also necessary to point out, for full disclosure, that I had never in fact experienced an issue of CNF. I’d read blurbs here and there – reprints or links – but never cover-to-cover enjoyment. So I won’t speak to the re-design – although I would encourage any of you that are more versed in the history of CNF to weigh in on the big change circa CNF 38.

CNF 39 is a pleasant mélange – and I mean that sincerely – of craft, insight and art. We begin with seven pages of tribute to Norman Mailer, on the 30th anniversary of The Executioner’s Song, including personal interactions, excerpts of his work, and a must-read Mailer list, chronologically ordered. This is followed by a pair of what I would loosely term “Writer’s Insight” pieces – Heidi Julavits on reading (literary déjà-vu), and Robin Hemley on writing (defending the memoir) in Confessions of a Navel-Gazer.

At the heart of the literary sandwich that is CNF 39 are seven essays, and here is one of the truly pleasant surprises of this issue: four of the seven are writers being published for the first time. Lee Gutkind states, in his From the Editor intro to this issue, that “A primary mission of this magazine is to introduce new writers and to inspire them to keep writing,” and on this count he’s true to his word. This is an easy enough statement to overlook. If you glance at the “what we’re looking for” section of any literary publication – regardless of where they position themselves on the academic/artistic continuum – they all say something to the effect of “we’re looking to publish the best from established writers and up-and-coming newbies.” But often when reading the heavy-medaled bios of the Nonfictioneers included in any given upper-echelon publication, we get the feeling that they’re just saying they publish newcomers to keep their incoming slush pile big enough to justify their slate of interns. Which is to say, again, that I appreciate the emphasis on first-timers in CNF 39.

Of the three essays out of these seven that I chose for class discussion I should also admit to a couple of biases. First, I didn’t choose either of the two entrants from last year’s CNF Program-Off that were published in this issue, in deference to our very own Natalie Cunningham, who was one of the five finalists last year – and I make no apologies for my unreasonable home-team booster-ism in this matter. Secondly, I chose John Nosco’s Apology not just because it is awesome in general – which it is – but because it is a two-page sentence – a style of which I am admittedly partial to.

After the mid-sandwich artistic-essay meat, we end CNF 39 much as we began – with craft/insight and “etcetera.” The craft/insight being comprised of Phillip Lopate’s regular Show and Tell column, in this edition concerned with the uses of contrariety – and a Writer at Work section in which Michael Rosenwald explores and dissects the typed notes of Gay Talese from a New York Times piece circa 1979 on the loser Yankees of that year. And let it be said that though the Yankees may have purchased a few World Series titles since then, they are still, and will always be, losers in my heart.

Part One of the “Etcetera” (my term) is the entrant under the title of Pushing the Boundaries. Here again your trusty blogger must acknowledge a personal bias, in that I was disappointed to find that the PTB section was comprised of only one essay. If this is going to be a recurring section of CNF, I will be more forgiving of the meager three pages devoted to pushing said boundaries, but I have to admit that when I submitted my PTB essay, including a personally-burned soundtrack CD for said literary missive, I was under the impression that Pushing the Boundaries was going to be its very own special issue – or at least more than three pages in the back quarter of the next CNF.

Part Two of Etcetera is CNF Online, comprised of a couple blog entries and a collection of Twitter essays (750 words? How about 140 characters! Take that, Brevity!). Part Three is a last-page column entitled – cleverly enough – afterWORDS, in this particular issue being devoted to the artless idiocy of modern nonfiction book subtitles.

The layout is not that much different than the New Yorker, Atlantic or Harper’s in some sense – the bookending of the primary long-form literary main course with smaller chunks – the hors d’oeuvres and after-dinner cognacs. In particular the final-page articles – Findings in Harper’s or afterWORDS here in CNF – seem to imply a kind of utilitarian literary circle – as if one could start reading from either end of the publication.

A couple final notes on form – I like the purple hued pages and the watercolor art accompanying the essays. I think, for example, that the obscurity of the watercolor wolf in motion (in Why I Run) works much better than a more literal photo would.

Also a nice touch is the interactivity – we get online content from Jerald Walker and Robin Hemley, which I’m including a link to here. Both insightful, and for myself in particular I found Hemley’s response to his most hated question – “after writing X did you feel healed?” – to be a great addendum to his defense of memoir.


I honestly didn’t know that much about either CNF or last week’s entrant, the Kenyon Review. I expected CNF to be what The Kenyon Review turned out to be – somewhat tedious, marginally artistic, mostly academic essays. I was, unabashedly, pleasantly surprised by Creative Nonfiction, which is more humble (Voice of the Genre notwithstanding) and helpful than I would have imagined - and even though that means I can no longer wear my rejection slips like badges of young punk honor, I must now consider myself a fan.


  1. You can see the former design (just the covers, but it's telling) at http://www.creativenonfiction.org/cnfshop/index.php?cPath=24_26

  2. Also (I posted this a second ago but it didn't show up; apologies if it appears twice) the Pushing the Boundaries section is new as of the CNF 38 redesign but is a regular feature now. CNF 38 had a single six-page essay for PtB. The fact that CNF has a special, apparently one-essay section dedicated to experimental essays is part of an ongoing debate about the ghettoization of non-traditional forms. You can read an interview with Gutkind about the redesign at this URL, but you've got to scroll about 3/5 of the way down to where the CNF discussion starts. http://triquarterly.org/old-new-godfather-creative-nonfiction

  3. Yeah, I didn't realize that Ander had ripped them a pretty good one about PTB at the time of the redesign. I agree with all of that - it is annoying to be segregated thusly, all things should be published as is without additional categorization, etc., but I'll take that PTB column over nothing. I also would be inclined to think of it as possibly being a positive moniker - a "showing off" so to speak, possibly to purposely draw attention to groundbreaking work: "hey, we've got something REALLY cool to show you on our special pedestal of hipness." Or maybe not. Open to interpretation...

    I think I would have probably had a different experience if my expectations had not been so low, and if the oppressive stink of boredom courtesy of the Kenyon Review hadn't still been lingering in my nostrils.

    As far as the redesign, I remember now why I never paid attention before - it looked like Reader's Digest. The new CNF design has a bit of a Normal School touch as well - albeit in a more slick, reserved East Coast way.

  4. Kirk, did you see logic as to why some of the essays have columns and others have solid text? I couldn't quite make out why they decided to do this move, except maybe to look exotic. Perhaps the marco approach makes more out of it?

  5. Good eye - I hadn't even paid attention to that. It appears that the solid text is reserved for the "essays" and the excerpts of Executioner's Song - while the columns are used for "the columns" - i.e. regular features sections. Art vs. Craft distinction?