Slice Me Some Truth: Categories of Nonfiction and Preface
This anthology was initially conceived by its editors for three reasons. First, as writers, readers and teachers of creative nonfiction, we felt there was a need for a comprehensive anthology that surveyed the genre as it presently exists in contemporary Canadian literature. We knew an anthology such as this would be very useful to our students, and since it didn’t exist, we set out to create it. Secondly, this book is for readers who are curious about creative nonfiction; it will also serve as an introduction to the genre, or a useful cross-section for writers, for students, for teachers. Lastly, the book is intended for the general reader, that is, for anyone who enjoys a cracking good story. But, as we worked on putting this anthology together, we also had a wonderful time discussing the complex interplay of ideas and issues that good nonfiction tends to stimulate.
Taken as a whole, this book reveals a map of Canadian CNF, the complex interplay between narrative and fact, between truth and memory, between construction and imagination. The anthology is brilliantly varied and wildly diverse; covering the whole gamut of human experience and relationships with others. We hope that the readers will be as struck, as we the editors have been, by the courage, honesty, humour and depth illustrated by these works.
Creative nonfiction has, at various times been called faction, creative documentary, narrative nonfiction, literary journalism and a host of other terms, none of which has stuck. At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, this term, however problematic, will continue to describe a genre of literary writing described both by what it is not, ie., fiction, and by the vague term, creative. Thus, practitioners of the genre run into contradictions, both in the definition of their work, and the subsequent classification of its various forms. Creative nonfiction uses, as its material, actual events, people and memories. Yet unlike journalism, the writer appears front and center, and uses similar literary techniques and narrative structures to poetry and fiction.
So then, what is creative nonfiction? This much we know. In CNF, (as it is fondly known to its devotees,) there is an implicit understanding or pact made between the writer and the reader. Because the writer is using his or her own name, and the names of other people, the reader makes assumptions that the story is ‘true’ or at least as true as the writer can make it, given the fallibility of memory, another interesting and difficult issue. And of course, the reader only has the writer’s word that the story is true, unless someone steps forward to dispute it.
As Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson point out in their book on autobiography, “When we recognize the person who claims authorship as the protagonist or central figure in the narrative—that is when we believe them to be the same person—we read the text written by the author to whom it refers as reflexive…” (p. 8). They add, “Autobiographical truth …is an intersubjective exchange between narrator and reader aimed at producing a shared understanding of the meaning of a life” (p. 13). (Smith, Sidonie, & Julia Watson (Eds.) (1996). Getting a life: the everyday uses of autobiography, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press. )
Thus the reader believes that non-fiction writing is factual or real but, ‘real,’ of course is a complex term; the implications and connotations of its various philosophical and linguistic meanings are grounds for rich discussion and philosophical brow wrinkling. In addition, of course, readers bring their own subjectivity to a story, so in fact, speculating about the relationship of nonfiction to real life is always an interesting and complex subject.
The strong assumption by the reader that because the book is labeled “nonfiction,” we can trust that events in the story occurred more or less as presented, also needs to make allowances for the fact each one of a group of people who undergo an event will remember it differently. (Think of your own family and the disagreements about what really happened thirty years ago at that so-memorable holiday dinner!)
Some things can be checked and in fact, large magazines and publishers employ fact-checkers who verify that in fact in the year such and such, this person was in fact admitted to this hospital. The uproar with James Frey and the discovery, in late 2005 and early 2006, that elements of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, were untrue, was astonishing to some of us who have been through the fact-checking process: what was the publisher thinking of? Where was their due diligence? It turned out that he hadn’t lied so much as exaggerated and distorted much of the material. But the uproar was, on the whole, good for nonfiction in that it did bring the genre and some of its complexities to the forefront of literary discussion.
These issues are many, intricate and without easy answers. How does the writing itself function as a space of inquiry, a source of understanding? Does the actual process of writing a nonfiction piece change the writer and the story? What are the moral and ethical implications of writing a true story that inevitably includes material about people other than the author? And how far can or does the reader trust the writer’s ideas and portrait of what happened? There is also an ethical dimension in nonfiction writing. What are the ethics of publicly disclosing material held previously only within a private sphere, or at least within the confines of a family or a community? Are there only two spheres of private and public or part of something much broader and multifaceted?
How does or should the writer assume the right and the responsibility to tell his or her side, view and ideas of relationships with others? Must or should or can the writer mitigate the implications and the impact of this telling on the people who are both subjects and material? Can or should the writer anticipate how his or her intent and her actions will impact on these people? What, finally, is the writer hoping to achieve by telling his or her story?
Rather than answer these questions, we leave it to the work itself and the brilliant and multi-faceted efforts by these writers who have achieved so much.