The Fourth Genre: Creative Nonfiction in the Classroom

April 20, 2012

At the request of numerous participants in this recent conference, here are the remarks that writer Luc Sante presented at the plenary with Susan Fox Rogers.

I always find it momentarily surprising that literary nonfiction is treated as something new and strange. I guess I tend to imagine fiction and nonfiction as fraternal twins, born almost at the same instant, apparently distinct but each unimaginable without the other. They perform complementary functions, and fact and invention each require the existence of the other, perhaps off to the side and perhaps not, to achieve their particular credibility. The novelty attaching to creative nonfiction is owed primarily to bookstore categories that are just decades old, those same categories that gave us the conundrum of genre fiction: Do you read Patricia Highsmith because you admire her writing, or because you indiscriminately gobble crime novels? Similarly, the popular attitude toward creative nonfiction can be gauged in one question: Do you view writers mainly as performers or as conveyors?

Of course, writers can be both. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables contains a staggering amount of information that you would have to read hundreds of books to acquire otherwise—about the sociology of Paris in the nineteenth century, about police methods and jurisprudence in France, about the legacy of Napoleon, and much else—but you read the book principally for its story and secondarily for Hugo’s superhuman breath control and narrative architecture. Conversely, you tend to read Francis Parkman’s France and England in North America mainly for his account of the early European colonization of the future United States, and perhaps incidentally for the rolling cadences of his prose. Most writers lean toward one pole or the other, although there are exceptions. Where do you put Charles M. Doughty, for example? His Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888) is a portrait of the Arabian Peninsula that was unprecedented when he was writing it, and incorporates an enormous amount of original research both scholarly and experiential, but it is equally distinguished by its singular prose style, consciously shaped by Doughty to mime the rhythms of spoken Arabic. Its hypnotic power and its use-value appear to coexist in perfect balance.

Almost as old as the twinship of fiction and nonfiction is the gray area between them. Not for nothing was Herodotus called the “father of lies,” since he insinuated rumors, legends, and possibly stuff he made up himself alongside his facts, and with no guidelines as to how to distinguish among them. Daniel Defoe, whom some consider the first novelist in English, could not have been intending to deceive, exactly, when he presented A Journal of the Plague Year as an eyewitness account of events that had transpired when he himself was five years old—he was simply buttressing his research with immediacy. Likewise it wasn’t Stephen Crane’s fault that his account of the Civil War in The Red Badge of Courage was so grounded and so vivid that many veterans were convinced that it could only have been written by someone who was there—unlike Crane, who wasn’t born yet. This isn’t to say that the gray area wasn’t exploited in the past, by con artists, mythomaniacs, and above all by lazy hacks who cranked out texts as if they were sausage rolls, wantonly tossing in anything that occurred to them in guise of facts. That sort of breezy attitude dates back centuries.

What happened to creative nonfiction is analogous to what happened to many other fields of endeavor over the past century and a half: the division of labor was professionalized and specialized and atomized. Many job descriptions vanished under economic pressure: the learned amateur, the antiquarian belletrist, the wandering scholar, the self-taught memorialist. Increasingly, texts were written not by people who had an urgent interest in the polished execution of literary work but by experts for whom expediency ruled over style and sometimes even clarity. After a time, lack of style became the hallmark of seriousness. A rebarbative prose texture was associated with the sciences, than which nothing could be more serious, and thus it became an object of emulation by the humanities. No longer would the study of history, of art, or even of literature be tainted by the frivolity of beautiful letters. Impenetrable jargon, especially if accessorized with equations and diagrams, assured continued funding for even the most subjective of disciplines. The prominence of creative nonfiction in recent years perhaps in part represents a backlash against this academic tendency.

In any case, there has never been a time, at least in the last several centuries, when there did not exist something that could be classed as creative nonfiction, for all that the term itself is very recent. You can fit all sorts of things under its umbrella, depending on the skill, attitude, and mission of their authors: reportage and memoirs, popular history and critical speculation, travel writing and true crime. An aisle labeled “creative nonfiction” could encompass such diverse titles as Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore, André Breton’s Nadja, Joan Didion’s The White Album, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain, and A. J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science—although no two of those are likely to have shared a shelf in any large bookstore, past or present.

There are two big divisions within creative nonfiction: works that are based on reading and works that are based on experience, and, within that second category: works that are the result of investigation and works that are founded on memory. The biggest hurdle in teaching creative nonfiction to undergraduates is that, for the most part, logistical considerations preclude much research and even much reportage. The most available resource for the student is memory, which means that an overwhelming percentage of the creatively nonfictional works by students will be memoirs. Which leads to the obvious question. The adventurous mid-twentieth-century British writer B. S. Johnson posed it in a title: Aren’t You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs? That is not a question that very many people would likely ask today, probably, although it is not exactly obsolete.

About a decade ago I decided to make up a reading and writing course called “Autobiography, Memory and Lies.” I had recently reread Peter Handke’s extraordinary memoir of his mother, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, and it led me to think of other approaches to autobiography—experimental, oblique, and even duplicitous, working both sides of the fiction/nonfiction divide: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Joe Brainard’s I Remember, W. G. Sebald’s Vertigo, Stephen Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse, and works by Benvenuto Cellini, Blaise Cendrars, Elias Canetti, Diane di Prima, Georges Perec, Kathy Acker. I was excited by the possibilities. As usual, I didn’t screen prospective students—rightly or wrongly, I tend to think that what students have written before is not necessarily a good indication of what they will write in my class—so I simply signed up the first twelve students who applied. To my consternation, two-thirds of the class was composed of students who had a story they urgently needed to tell and who weren’t especially interested in playing around with its telling. They were students who had undergone trauma of some kind, who had taken the name of the class as an opportunity to unburden themselves, but who would only be equipped to come to terms with their experience much later, after decades, if ever. In the most extreme instance, one girl came to class only twice, the second time to deliver a manuscript relating how her father murdered her mother. She declined to read aloud from it. I never saw her again.

I was stricken, of course, and for a long while I questioned my ability to teach writing at all. Eventually I made peace with the experience. I just hadn’t seen it coming. The students and I had both had our expectations thwarted. Hewing to traditional narrative, though, I had learned an important lesson, at least as far as course titles were concerned. Since I still think my idea was a good one, I’ve silently incorporated aspects of it into the class I’ve taught almost every year since, which is harmlessly titled “The Essay.”

I try to fit a wide range of lessons into a semester. I spend most of the term on technical assignments, working for example on different kinds of description: action, sounds, places, personalities. Required above all the many necessary skills for the nonfiction writer is a kind of hyper-alertness—you have to be able to see your subject, to hear it and smell it, whether it derives from recent experience or only from reading. One of the sad things about primary and secondary education now is that the study of rhetoric disappeared long ago; I find that I sometimes have to teach remedial rhetoric. I do advanced work on style and pitch, and the ability to change registers on a dime when needed. Anyway I don’t teach any particular kind of writing—students have to sort out for themselves what their angle is. My job is to lay out the tools.

As I often tell my students on the first day of class, creative nonfiction is the Wild West of literature. No one has yet succeeded in fencing off the range, and it lies as free and open as fiction might have been before the imposition of such widespread folk beliefs as the story arc and the three-act structure. This is not to say that there haven’t been attempts to reduce creative nonfiction to a formula, since that can seem to make things easier for students, even as it tends to encourage a deadening sameness of result. It is not to deny, either, that creative nonfiction is bound to the same common-sense cautions as any other kind of writing—generally speaking, you want to draw readers in rather than drive them away. But creative nonfiction is essentially a process in which a writer retraces his or her steps through a subject, taking the reader along for the ride. Since there are as many possible subjects as there are grains of sand, and as many paths through any of them as there are human beings, each work of creative nonfiction is singular, at least in theory. As long as writers are honest and open about how they came to know what they know, and acknowledge their own limits and errors—as long as unresolved contradictions and uncomfortable facts and untidy assymmetries are embraced as creative constraints—creative nonfiction can continue to produce surprises, for writers and readers alike.

Luc Sante
April 20, 2012 


The Fourth Genre: Creative Nonfiction in the Classroom

If this is the kind of writing that’s out there, why aren’t we encouraging our students not simply to read it but to write it—to be apprentice nonfictionists, preparing to join the conversation? Why can’t they be writing in a viable genre instead of training in a non-genre and trying to excel in forms they won’t use after college?          
-- Robert Root Jr. “Naming Nonfiction (A Polyptych),” College English, Vol. 65, No. 3 (January 2003), pp. 242-256.

As teachers, we are sometimes challenged by how to categorize and present to students texts identified as creative nonfiction, a form that often combines (or even confuses) factual accounts of compelling events with equally compelling stylistic devices used in fiction. Why, when we are already responsible for teaching students to read fiction, poetry, and personal essays, should we consider adding this “fourth genre?” The question this conference asks is: why not consider how this “fourth genre” might help us teach students about the elements of good writing? Certainly, students feel challenged when they seek models to express, in an authentic and original voice, their personal insight and connection to issues of larger social importance. Yet, creative nonfiction contains elements of memoir, research paper, journalism, and reflection, while it uses literary techniques—character development, scene setting, dialogue, and close description—to create a factually grounded narrative. It is also what today’s students will most likely read when they leave school.  

This conference presents an opportunity to explore the implications of creative nonfiction for teaching writing—for teaching about factual narrative, the responsible use of data, first-person interviews, and historical information in creating papers that inform as well as delight and surprise.

The conference consists of small group workshops, led by Institute faculty associates and a plenary session featuring a keynote speaker and discussion.

Plenary session: Featuring speaker Luc Sante and respondent Susan Fox Rogers. Sante is visiting professor of writing and photography at Bard College, and author of, among other publications, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, Evidence, The Factory of Facts, and Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905-1930. Rogers is visiting assistant professor of writing and first-year seminar at Bard College and has been an IWT associate since 1993. She is the editor of twelve book anthologies including: Solo: On Her Own Adventure; and Going Alone: Women’s Adventures in the Wild, and the author of MY REACH: A HUDSON RIVER MEMOIR.

Workshop fee: $140 (includes morning coffee, lunch, and anthology of texts)