Non-Fiction Essay Writing: What Is Creative Non-Fiction?10:26
Creative non-fiction is a relatively new and somewhat slippery genre. By relatively new, I mean that the term tip-toed it's way into graduate and undergraduate writing programs in the 1970's, and was officially recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1983 (up to that point, the NEA only awarded grants to fiction and poetry writers).
But what does it mean, exactly? Is it akin to magical realism—mostly truth with a pinch of "creative" zest thrown in? Is it non-fiction written about creative things, like finger-painting or interpretive dancing? Apparently, the answer is elusive enough that Creative Non-Fiction Magazine includes a big green button on their homepage that asks, "What is Creative Non-Fiction?" and links to an answer.
To be honest, I wasn't exactly sure what definition I would find behind this circular button, but my general idea about the term turned out to be correct. Essentially, creative non-fiction is a written work that accurately describes real people and events, but uses literary techniques and tropes to do so in a "compelling, vivid manner." (that last bit comes directly from Lee Gutkind, father of creative non-fiction and author of the green button answer).
After considering this definition for little while, I decided that the explanation was disappointingly broad, and ultimately nothing more than an umbrella term for most non-fiction outside the realm of textbooks, academic essays, and how-to articles.
For example, works like John Krakauer's Into Thin Air, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea could all be considered creative non-fiction because they employ devices that increase the narrative force of the events they describe, but they are better defined in more specific terms (travel memoir, gonzo journalism, and historical non-fiction, respectively).
To go a step further, controversies over accuracy in works like Men Mezrich's Accidental Billionaires (which was discussed in the post Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network, and Writing Advice) make the definition of creative non-fiction even blurrier. It's unclear to what extent your "literary techniques" can distort the truth before they move your book into the fiction section.
I'm interested to hear other perspectives on this issue. Do you think creative non-fiction is a useful term? Would you consider yourself a "fan" of it? Do you think there is a substantial difference between creative non-fiction and well-written non-fiction? Was Ben Mezrich a little too creative? Does it damage the integrity of his book?