Literary culture is currently undergoing one of its periodic documentary turns. The best-known of these began in the early 1960s, and became known as “The New Journalism”, a term that denoted a kind of highly crafted reportage characterised by heightened authorial concern with literary style and voice. Truman Capote’s “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood (1966) is regarded as one of the founding texts of this documentary resurgence, which, by the mid-1970s had shaped the literary mainstream to such an extent that Tom Wolfe predicted that narrative non-fiction would “wipe out the novel as literature’s main event.”
Wolfe’s prediction proved a little wide of the mark, but it remains the case that much of the most gripping and ambitious writing today – and this includes screenwriting – can be found outside the fiction shelves.
In the case of film, a new generation of directors are seeking to reenergise the documentary form, in which they’ve discovered a default layer of narrative power bestowed by actuality. The Imposter (dir. Bart Layton, 2012), for example, is among the most extraordinary psychological thrillers of recent years; it tells the story of the French-Algerian confidence man Frédéric Bourdin, who impersonated a long-lost Texas teenager who disappeared (presumed murdered) in 1994. The film is creepy and unsettling, with a narrative tension and psychological power that derives from its documentary status. The realisation – which keeps hitting you as you watch – that these events really happened, that these emotions were lived through, that the testimony you are hearing is wrung from life makes it viscerally powerful to sit through. Yet layers of literary craftedness are there, too: there are flashbacks and nuggets of withheld information, there are unreliable narrators aplenty, there are lies and fabrications for the viewer to unpick. But at the heart of it lies the uncomfortable fact that this is a true story.
This is something to which fiction does not have routine access, and it bothers me. I read a lot of novels and short stories because I enjoy them, and because the best ones have a lot to teach about how to structure a sentence or a scene. What they don’t and can’t convey, however, is the visceral punch of actuality, which is what I really look for in writing. On that basis, even the most rewarding fiction tends to disappoint. If I’m allowed to wax epigrammatic for a second, I would say that fiction’s strength is its language in the head; its complexity on the page. Fiction’s weakness is that it’s not the real thing. The very artifice that makes it shine is what in the end disappoints. For example, I greatly admired Jennifer Egan’s prize-winning novel/prose sequence A Visit From The Goon Squad (2010), with its wit and formal inventiveness. It was a wonderful read, but in the end I was left unsatisfied by the fictional world that she created. Compared to, say, the Alice-in-Wonderland mind-fuck of Anna Funder’s non-fiction masterpiece Stasiland (2003), which conveys with Borgesian flair what life was truly like in communist East Germany, Egan’s kooky made-up world seems timid and uninteresting. Or compare a film like The Royal Tenenbaums (dir. Wes Anderson, 2001) with Sarah Polley’s not-quite-a-documentary Stories We Tell (2012), in which she uses a mix of home movies and filmed reconstruction to tell (and untell) a disturbing family story. Again, the witty made-up world of the family Tenenbaum seems pale and smooth when compared to the grain of the real thing.
Some of the most engaging recent literature has also set out to explore the blurred boundary between reality and artifice. The “novels” of W. G. Sebald strayed quixotically across documentary and fictional forms (his books were classified by his publishers as “Memoir/Fiction/History”), as do the non-fiction novellas of the celebrated French writer Annie Ernaux, whose memoirs of her parents, A Man’s Place (1983) and A Woman’s Story (1988), deal candidly with the technical and emotional challenges of their own composition. A few pages into A Woman’s Story, Ernaux pauses to reflect on the making of the book, and to offer a kind of manifesto outline of her “difficult undertaking”:
The more objective aspect of my writing will probably involve a cross between family history and sociology, reality and fiction. This book can be seen as a literary venture as its purpose is to find out the truth about my mother, a truth that can be conveyed only in words. (Neither photographs, nor my own memories, nor even the reminiscences of my family can bring me this truth.) And yet, in a sense, I would like to remain a cut below literature.[i]
In my view, of course, she remains a cut above; but what Ernaux is articulating here is a profound desire to write “the truth” while also writing literature. For those who like definitions, this is a pretty good definition of what creative non-fiction is about.
So where might writers of creative non-fiction seek to place their work? I’m not sure that the situation is all that different from fiction, which is to say, it’s just as hard. There are few dedicated mainstream channels beyond journals such as Granta. But there are plenty of small outlets (i.e. they pay a pittance) for highly crafted or experimental pieces of non-fiction writing. I always enjoy reading Things magazine, for example (it used to be print only; now it’s mostly online), and Cabinet magazine takes creative essays; as does Hippocampus magazine, which specialises in what it terms “memorable creative non-fiction”. Hippocampus is worth a browse just to see where the personal essay is right now. There are plenty of other journals out there – they just need a bit of seeking out.
Book publishers, in spite of what you might think, are always on the lookout for new stories and new voices (story and voice being just as important in non-fiction as they are in fiction). In terms of sheer numbers, non-fiction outstrips fiction by some margin when it comes to numbers of titles published every year, and the great advantage for a writer is that you can usually pitch a proposal for a non-fiction title rather than a finished manuscript. A good idea can often prove a foot in the door to publication, because if there’s one thing that publishers know about their readers, it’s that they love being told true stories.
[i] Annie Ernaux, A Woman’s Story, trans. Tanya Leslie (London, 1990), p. 13.