Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Who Created Creative Nonfiction? Kim Todd in conversation with Rachel May

Who Created Creative Nonfiction? Long before Wolfe, Capote, and Thompson, dozens of women, as stunt journalists, established Creative Nonfiction’s hallmark conventions. Kim Todd’s new book, Sensational, finally gives them the credit they’re due. 

Kim Todd’s beautifully written book, Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s Girl Stunt Reporters, tells the story of the leagues of women who revealed the problems our society faced in the late 1800s, particularly in spaces inhabited by women. They donned disguises, went undercover, and reported on sexual harassment in the workplace, the conditions of the insane asylum, and many other social issues. Reporting in this same era alongside the stunt reporters was Ida B. Wells, who brought to light the lynching of hundreds of Black people. At times, as in the case of a still-nameless reporter who told the story of the wide availability of abortion access in Chicago, they subverted societal norms as well as newspaper reporting conventions. And of course, they suffered at society’s hands for daring not to conform. Stunt reporting was deemed “trash,” a judgment that Todd explains has persisted to the present day. 

Her introductory essay—and the book as a whole—make the case for the lasting value of the girl stunt reporter’s work, and how their writing actually establishes the baseline for creative nonfiction, long before those who have previously been credited with the genre’s founding.

We sat down to talk about the girl stunt reporters and their legacy.


RM: How did you decide to focus on stunt journalism, and what surprised you about the project?

KT: I started this project when I was tasked with designing a class for undergraduates about the history of creative nonfiction and early practitioners. I was taught that things started with Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism. I’d read Nellie Bly but hadn't heard very much about her, and it struck me how completely readable she is more than 100 years later, particularly compared to her peers who wrote long, ornate sentences and include references to the Bible and Shakespeare, which can be hard to unpack these days. 

In contrast, Nellie Bly does everything that I ask my creative nonfiction students to do: She tells a story through an engaging first person narrator. She uses scene-based construction. She uses a lot of dialogue. She creates these great characters. She draws you into the world she’s talking about through sensory detail—whether she's in the asylum being thrown into a very cold bath, or picking away at rancid food they’ve served her, or on the very uncomfortable boat ride from the mainland to Blackwell's Island—you're right there next to her, in a way that I think of as a model of creative nonfiction. 

As I learned more about her, it became clear that she wasn't the only one doing this kind of work. She was so successful that it opened a decade of opportunity for women to do undercover reporting about important societal issues in a narrative way, and—particularly fascinating to me—on issues related to women. Women reporters were able to go in disguise to these female-dominated spaces, so they could look at the way that women were being treated in public hospitals, or the poor working conditions of women in factories. Their work was really unique. 

I'd heard about the history of creative nonfiction starting with New Journalism in the 60s and 70s, and the history of investigative journalism starting with the muckrakers in the early 1900s—but these women were doing very similar things earlier than both. 

RM: Yes! I was taught that Truman Capote's In Cold Blood was the first work of creative nonfiction. 

KT: That's another thing that struck me—the men, when they're doing something innovative, often declare that they’ve created a new genre. Capote said, I'm writing a nonfiction novel! Tom Wolfe said, I call this New Journalism! Hunter S. Thompson said, I'm doing gonzo journalism! But these women were working within this genre and forging new territory without labeling it and saying that it's something surprising and new. 

One of the sadder elements of the book, which overall I think is hopefully joyful and exuberant, is that almost immediately, the women reporters were shamed for their stunt journalism. Often, when they're interviewed, they're semi-apologetic about it, like, Oh, yes, I just have to do this kind of work, you know, because I have to support my mother.

The genre was dismissed. After about a decade of success, a lot of the women made apologies for having worked in it or denied having done that kind of work, even though it was very clear that they did. 

RM: You write, “Bly shook free of the ruffles and hoop skirts of Victorian prose and made her sentences accessible to the less educated and to recent immigrants who might struggle with English—the specific readers Pulitzer coveted. While she advocated for serious reform, her writing was always a pleasure to read. She was funny” (39). 

Reading Sensational and your argument about Nellie Bly in this context is so interesting. That excerpt that you pull out in your book of her language and how crisp it is—“Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would and I did.”—and how she illuminates these stories for people who didn't have access to education that other readers might have had illustrates how she opened the doors for a different kind of reading public.

KT: Exactly. You know, Bly worked for Pulitzer’s The New York World. And that was very explicitly one of his goals—he wanted to sell a lot of papers and he wanted to reach this audience of new immigrants who are flooding into New York at the time. So, the language had to be accessible and engaging. 

He was also particularly interested in reaching out to women. Importantly, the material that he thought appealed to them didn't all have to do with parties and the latest ballgowns, but delved into women’s lives.

RM: You write beautifully about the power of stunt reporters’ abortion coverage: “And still, after decades of suppression of the practice and discussion about [abortion], by the time the Girl Reporter made her rounds in 1888, abortion was everywhere. There was the sad, coded story from the St. Paul Globe in 1889 about a girl found dead in her sweltering boardinghouse room. Originally from Minneapolis, she’d gone to Montana eight months before, only to have returned to rent a room for herself and her husband, who never showed. Several days before she’d taken ill, she’d visited a Twin Cities doctor because of ‘uterine trouble.’ He suspected she may have died of ‘an internal hemorrhage. Maybe she took some drug or the cause was her smoking cigarettes, the paper speculated. But it doesn’t seem much of a mystery…[I]n writing about abortion…, revealing how commonplace it was, the Girl Reporter showed the lie at the heart of the idea that women could be divided into good and bad, fallen and chaste….And as is often the case with writing that breaks a taboo, everyone read it” (77). 

I thought so much about the movement, 20 years ago, for the legalization of the morning-after pill, and trying to get that passed. And the ways that people have been talking about abortion really openly since the Supreme Court ruling in the last few months, online and in essays like Nicole Walker’s New York Times Op-ed, making evident like how these laws are going to impact women. I think about abortion as a contemporary issue, and reading about it in the late 1800s was really fascinating and surprising for me, which I guess is really naive.

KT: No, not necessarily. Justice Alito’s decision is based on the fact that abortion is not part of American values or traditions, but in 19th century newspapers, it was everywhere, from that piece in the Twin Cities newspaper, to ads that were all over the place. So many of these big 19th century scandal trials which had to do with a young woman's mysterious death turned out to have abortion at the root. Either they died of a botched abortion, or they needed an abortion and their lover had lured them under the pretense of giving her one and murdered her. 

In 1888, a young woman writing for the Chicago Times went to doctors in Chicago, and asked them to provide her with an abortion, and charted their responses. This was at a time when the Comstock Laws, which sadly seem to be coming back, made it illegal to talk about abortion, or to write about it, so she could do the reporting under this cloak of exposing this horrible illegal thing. 

But actually, after pages of coverage, what anyone reading the reports would have taken home was the message that women were having abortions all the time and that many doctors would provide them. The reporter detailed all the different medicines you could take, all the different kinds of operations you could have. It became clear that it wasn't just poor, desperate women having abortions but also married women, wealthy women. It exposed how completely pervasive it was, and a lot of the doctors treated the women with respect and acted like this was a normal request. 

RM: It's so interesting. I didn't know that this time is so rich with stories of how women were changing the narrative but also had to be hidden within it to protect themselves.

I just love the way you embody the art of creative nonfiction in the book, as you’re telling the  stories of women who helped found the genre. You write, “…Eva McDonald, a voracious reader in Minnesota with a rebellious streak, …would discover the potential of stunt reporting as an activist tool. Small with a dark fringe of bangs, McDonald had a round, pale face and thick, ink-swipe brows. A bout of diphtheria when she was nine left her heart weak, but she was anything but frail” (42). 

How did you get into the rich detail of who they were and how it might have looked as they walked into an office to take a job? 

KT: I tell my students when they're doing research to use in creative nonfiction, that they're looking for all the things that the page is hungry for—images, scenes, sensory detail, any direct quotations they can find.

I'd previously written a biography of a woman who lived in the 1600s, and there were hardly any print records available. What was wonderful about researching these women is that they were all writers. So, there were many newspaper articles, and because they were working in this proto-creative-nonfiction mold, they wrote very vivid descriptions and talked about their feelings as they were going into different spaces, getting into a disguise. 

One of the challenges of the book was to take these personas that they created to tell the story in the newspapers, and try to find some private documents that might have indicated what was going on underneath. For a number of them, there were troves of letters, and some oral history. 

RM: Who do you think were some of the most influential stunt reporters in their day? 

KT: Ida B. Wells was not a stunt reporter, but she took on the most hot-button topic of the time, writing about lynching in a very unflinching way. She sat down and documented every instance of lynching that happened in given years. This is something that the northern papers were hardly covering. 

At some point, to allow herself freedom of expression, she decided that she needed to own the printing press. She self-published a number of her books, so that she could say what she needed to say. 

In her memoirs as a younger woman, you see her very overtly dealing with the tension between her desire to speak her mind and the knowledge that it would be dangerous for her to do so. She reads something that makes her furious and writes, outraged, “Can such things be and no justice for it?” But then she adds, “It may be unwise to express myself so strongly but I cannot help it.” Owning her own press and publishing her own books is one of the ways that she gets around censorship.

RM: I'm glad you brought her up. Her work is so important, especially in thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement today, the ways that we can see everything documented on video screens, similar to the way that Wells’ careful documentation of lynchings created evidence that people just couldn't deny.

KT: She has this very chilling list, in one of her books, where she lists the reason that people were killed. For example, hanged for stealing hogs, lynched because they were saucy, lynched for no offense. It underscores the pervasive and unjust nature of these killings. 

RM: Like Black While Driving, Black While Walking, or Claudia Rankine’s ongoing list of people murdered by police in Citizen.

I was thinking about whether #metoo, founded by Tarana Burke, came out of this history, because women disclosed their own lives in an effort to create change, starting on Twitter and then in so many essays and articles; women’s stories were finally given credence.

KT: Definitely. These stunt journalists talk very explicitly about sexual harassment. That’s something I wasn't expecting to find. Women like Nell Nelson, or even Eva McDonald, who went into garment factories, for example, and looked at the way that women were treated—the reports are all right there. The women are telling the reporters, My foreman said if I wanted the promotion, I had to do something improper. They document horrible things that the men say to their female workers. 

RM: Thinking about this history, who are some of the most powerful voices that you hear in creative nonfiction today, doing work like this or work that’s similarly groundbreaking but not yet given enough credit?

KT: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed is exactly in this mode. She went undercover to see if she could live on minimum wage for a year. There were women doing exactly that in the late 1890s. Elizabeth Banks did a whole series on whether she could she live on $3 a week, the going wage for factory workers at that time. Like Ehrenreich, she concludes that no, it’s not possible. 

You also see these women’s influence in undercover journalism and immersion journalism, for example Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. You see it in a whole slew of experiments where people try to live in a certain way for a year, and in activism journalism, where people are exposing something with the goal of making a change.

Another piece that always stays with me because it seems so perfectly in the mold of the kind of reporting these women were doing is “The Price of Nice Nails,” by Sarah Maslin Nir, about nail salon workers being poisoned by the chemicals. 

RM: That was an amazing piece. 

When you started writing these stories, how did you decide who would be the most significant to include in the book?

KT: When I started researching Nellie Bly and finding other women doing this kind of work, I thought, Wow, maybe there are 12 women here and I can write a book about it. And it turned out that there were hundreds all over the country—so many major writers that I did not include in the book or couldn’t give enough space to. There were girl stunt reporters across the country, from huge city newspapers in New York and Chicago, to tiny newspapers out west.

Nellie Bly opened the door, and many women took a range of paths, using different strategies to negotiate hurdles. Some, like the girl reporter at the Chicago Times who wrote abortion [exposés], which was probably the most reputation-damaging topic—you didn't even have to be pregnant out of wedlock, even pretending to be pregnant out of wedlock was shameful—never emerged from behind that pseudonym. We don't know who she was. 

At other times, people drop out of stunt reporting when the criticism gets too intense. For example, Kate Swan McGuirk went on to use the name Kate Swan to do all of this reporting for The New York World that was accompanied by very large pictures of her doing very dramatic feats, and she became a target for a lot of criticism of the girl stunt reporter. Whether it was because it was that she was using the first person too much, or because she was exposing her ankles, people really piled on her. She dropped out of reporting and disappeared for a couple of years, then came back under a slightly different name, forging a career doing demonstrations of gas stoves. 

Other women just didn't care, like Caroline Lockhart. She was a reporter for the Boston Post, and did all these outrageous stunts. And then she moved to the west and wrote quite risqué Westerns dealing with all these improper topics and seemed like she had a great time and a great life.

RM: I just love your introductory essay and the way that you defend what these reporters were doing, questioning why their bodies should be made to undermine the story: 

The issues faced by stunt reporters and excavated by Woolf still play out today. Writing by women about women continues to be shunted into separate literary categories, those that are both high selling and low prestige, like romance novels, ‘chick lit,’ and memoir. Like stunt reporters, the authors of online personal essays are expected to write about their bodies and are punished for doing so with scorching criticism (and sometimes threats) in the comments section. It’s a no-win situation. In contrast, roles brande[d] more ‘male’ are held in high esteem, like war correspondent and investigative reporter. What is considered respectable versus sensational or literary versus popular often remains centered on discomfort around female physiology, leaving writers who take women's lives as their subject to navigate the narrow, rocky passage between tame and scandalous (9). 

KT: These women could write for the women's page, they could talk about recipes and sleeve lengths; that was eminently respectable. They’d get very little money and lots of praise. Or, they could do these things that were much riskier, had much more societal value that people actually wanted to read—but then they faced a huge wave of condemnation.

RM: What do you what do you think is the greatest lesson that you took away from all of this research? 

KT: These judgments that were made so long ago are still very much with us. Even now, people will say, Oh, that thing that that women were doing in the last decade of the 19th century was really embarrassing and set women back for a long time in journalism. So, I decided to research their work with an experiment, to see what happens if I call it good instead of bad. And it is good.

I was surprised by the way these aesthetic judgments, that this work is trash, were passed down from 1898 and keep getting recycled—Women shouldn't talk about their bodies. That first person thing was really bad—even when we’ve very clearly moved on. 

RM: I just love that, yes. We see women’s work that way historically—with memoirs, for example, if you're too confessional, it’s not literary, it's just worthless. I think a lot about how I’ve been told to silence parts of my story, or that I have to tell it a particular way to be meaningful.

KT: Another thing that was driven home to me through the reporting was the Catch-22 that women were in at the time and which is still very relevant today. I include a quote from Joanna Ross’ book How to Suppress Women’s Writing that says it well: “In the face of continual and massive discouragement, women need models not only to see in what ways the literary imagination has been at work on the fact of being female, but also as assurances that they can produce art without inevitably being second-rate or running mad or doing without love” (259).

I think my take home message, which I will try in my own writing from here on out, is to be braver. 

RM: How do you do that? 

KT: My favorite quote, which I put at the start of the book, is by Nellie Bly. She says, “I write the truth because I love it, and because there is no living creature whose anger I fear or whose praise I court.” 

I don't know if I'm there, but I hope to get there. It's something to aspire to.


Kim Todd is the award-winning author of four books of literary nonfiction. Her most recent, Sensational: The Hidden History of America's “Girl Stunt Reporters,” was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award and the Richard Frisbee Nonfiction Award. Other books include Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis and Tinkering with Eden: A Natural History of Exotic Species in America, winner of the PEN/Jerard Award and the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. Her essays and articles have appeared in Smithsonian, Salon, Sierra Magazine, Orion, and Best American Science and Nature Writing anthologies, among other publications. She is a member of the MFA faculty at the University of Minnesota and lives in Minneapolis with her family.

Rachel May's work has been published in Guernica, LitHub, The New York Times, National Geographic, Outside, and elsewhere. She's the author of four books, most recently An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family & Slavery, a work of creative nonfiction, which the New Yorker calls a "meticulous and insightful account of slavery's role in early mercantile America."