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Against Creative Non-Fiction: A Manifesto

"Creative non-fiction", which has been recently promoted vigorously by some Canadian writers as a legitimate writerly genre and by others as a commercial market niche, is really just definitional vagueness piled atop philosophical imprecision. It is an intellectual embarrassment, and it is also about as likely to be taken seriously by booksellers and publishers as flying pigs.

Since creativity is a persistent quality in all biological behavior and its role in the manipulation of human language and thought is ubiquitous and qualitative rather than categorically present or absent, attaching the term "creative" to "non-fiction" is a first of all an ill-considered insult to every other form of thought. Second, to call a piece of writing "non-fiction" is simply to define what it does not do, rather like isolating human beings as "not-apes”—or "not-amoebae”. This is particularly unhelpful given that no two writers currently agree on the definition of “fiction”.

In commercial reality, “creative non-fiction” is a response to the takeover of book publishing by marketers, who are mostly ill-trained 25-40 year old technical school graduates who have taken a few courses in demographic modeling and preferential, occupational and tribal targeting. At best, these marketers are the sort of nitwits that think the terms "memoir" or "belles lettres" mean something written by dead French intellectuals, and otherwise have difficulty distinguishing their cultural asses from their breakfasts. At worst, they are cultural Visigoths who don’t see any difference between a book and a box of chocolates. The mission of the currently in-power marketeers appears to be aimed at obliterating traditional book genres that analyze rather than fabulate, replacing them with some rather limited categories of self-help, along with two or three categories for age-defined hobby pursuits and children’s propaganda. Proffering the category of "creative non-fiction" to these people is a little like offering live bunnies to pit-bulls. The attempt to create a market niche is also a tacit admission that the writers involved are as willing to suck up to the logic of the marketplace as any other commodity producers.

What bothers me more than this belly-crawling submissiveness is that "creative non-fiction" betrays a prejudice against the inclusive epistemology of art. Its specialist posture seems to suppose that it can establish empirically-sound factualities and coding even while it claims that its verity lies in the realm of creative imagination. Thus, it pretends to objectivity while using creativity to shelter it from the rules of discourse and evidence. I don’t think writers can or should have this both ways.

It is the achievement and the curse of the late 20th century to have proved that the epistemological conditions for “non-fiction” have been desolved and that there is no stable set of creative conditions that can safely call itself "fiction" outside of the extreme tabloids, where corrupt editorial writers appear to sit around with crack-addicted writers and fabricate stories to shock and amaze doe-eyed shoppers while they’re standing in a grocery checkout line. It is time for writers to face up to these conditions.

Until recently, what currently falls under the umbrella category of "non-fiction" could have called itself "documentary production". That would place it firmly within the culture of the first three quarters of the 20th century, where, with the ascendancy of photography, film and sound recording, we enjoyed an era in which intellectual life was, for the first time, grounded by documents rather than dogma. Writers understood that they could no longer trust in God, ideas or their own minds, but were at least able to believe their eyes and ears. But in the last twenty years, advances in digital technologies made it impossible to trust physical documentation. Any image or sound can now be distorted and rearranged electronically to create whatever the operating technologist wants it to, there is no longer a reliable way of detecting the manipulations and such equipment is now cheap and widely available. National Geographic, which had been the authoritative medium for photographic documentary throughout the 20th century, today chronically and characteristically recomposes its documentary images for aesthetic reasons, and occasionally, paranoids believe, for less savoury reasons.

The impulses behind the raising of the term “creative non-fiction” can be characterized as a response to the epistemological conditions everyone now faces whether they recognize it or not: conditions in which the verity of images and ideas can no longer reliably secured. Narratives—written or otherwise framed—can be authenticated today only by the artfulness with which their creator testifies to their verity, and by the transparency of his or her surrounding discourse. Writers today must not only assemble and present the shattered ideas, images and facts of the world, they must testify, convincingly and in person, to their authenticity.

Hence, what has been called "creative non-fiction" probably ought to be redefined as "testimonial documentary", with the recognition that poetry has again become the main highway to expressive truth. The trouble with this is that despite its accuracy, it has the panache of a block of concrete, and won’t fly any more gracefully than pigs do. So instead, let’s simply call it “writing”, and thus honour, as we traipse our merry way to the cultural boneyard, the one set of technical principles and cognitive procedures that written composition can carry on better than any other medium of articulation.

885 w. March 10, 2004

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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