Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

In an Age of Great Nonfiction Writing, Too Much Nonfiction Writing?

Feb 24, 2011

By R. B. Moreno, Colorado Review Editorial Assistant

Thirty-seven books of poetry. Eighteen novels and short story collections. One book of reportage: Framing Innocence: A Mother’s Photographs, a Prosecutor’s Zeal, and a Small Town’s Response.

That’s the latest count of “new/forthcoming releases from indie/university pubs,” as tweeted by NewPages.com on Friday. Having edited book reviews and read manuscripts for a few years, I’m not supposed to be surprised by these numbers. The underrepresented genre among the releases—nonfiction, creative nonfiction, or literary nonfiction, depending on your semantic preference—is still a young art form, as evidenced by the fight for its definition. Nationwide, MFA applications run 9:2 in favor of fiction and poetry over nonfiction, according to Poets & Writers, and as of 2010, less than half of that magazine’s top 50 writing programs offered MFA students the option of specializing in nonfiction.

Of course, indie/university publishers and the MFA regime aren’t the only measures of nonfiction worth our attention. Introducing an issue of Granta when I was four years old, then-editor Bill Buford ponders New Journalism and a revival in travel writing in terms that might apply to every golden essay: “it borrows from the memoir, reportage and, most important, the novel. It is, however, pre-eminently a narrative told in the first person, authenticated by lived experience. It satisfies a need. A need for fiction answerable, somehow, to the world.”

Three decades onward, Buford has been hard at work editing The Best American Travel Writing 2010 and the essay’s revival, it would seem, lives on. Public radio’s Ira Glass has dubbed writers like Buford, Jack Hitt, Chuck Klosterman, and Susan Orlean The New Kings of Nonfiction. In his introduction to that volume, Glass dubs the past decade “an age of great nonfiction writing” that may rival the Roaring Twenties. “Giants walk among us,” he adds. (The list of kings and giants, it should be noted, could do with a few more queens.)

Moreover, to read the New York Times Book Review as of late is to get the impression that the age of nonfiction, like that of Rome or America, has overstepped its bounds. The literary world, according to Times editor Neil Genzlinger, has been inundated by “a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it.” Genzlinger’s guide for “would-be memoirists,” which conveys the kind of hollow feeling I get from reading sex advice columns, comes in four parts:

1. “That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir.”
2. “No one wants to relive your misery.”
3. “If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already on it.”
4. “If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it.”

I’ll grant the fact that the writers Glass celebrates (and deservedly so) generally adhere to Genzlinger’s last rule. But notice, too, how the admonition to deny one’s own story in favor of other characters runs counter to Buford’s call for authentic, experiential, first-person narratives.

More important (and here’s my point in offering this post): ridiculing “our current age of oversharing,” as Genzlinger prefers to call it, can have the unfortunate consequence of convincing would-be essayists and memoirists that their stories have already been told. Don’t bother submitting, says this snickering mentality, because what you’re about to tell us is probably boring or predictably sad. Those qualities do apply to some of the manuscripts I read at the Colorado Review, but I can’t fault “oversharing” for having delivered them to our nonfiction drawer.

The predictable reality, most days, is that the Review’s nonfiction drawer contains too few submissions, especially as compared to other genres. Not 37:18:1, but closer to that ratio than one might think. Still, I’m heartened by what our friends over at Brevity have posted in response to “The Problem with Memoirs.” Here’s an excerpt from managing editor Liz Stephens:

if I find … a book written in a style I don’t like, about a subject I think is vapid, I’ll just leave it on the shelf. For someone else. Because someone else may want that, may be so unconscious of themselves that to see their life reflected back, in a tone they don’t find distancing, could [be] a game-changer. And if none of us think a book has worth, and we all leave it on the shelf, well, that’ll be its own reward, won’t it?

Can Genzlinger tell the woman down the subway stop from him what she should consider worth her time, just because an experience in a text does not speak to him? Some people write for the New York Times. Some people spend a lot of time worrying about their pets. Some people just want to sit down and have a laugh after a long day at work. It’s okay.

Let’s say that again. It’s okay.

2 Comments

  1. yrfriendliz says:

    As someone who recently emailed a bunch of MFA friends asking where I should send my nonfiction, only to have 2-3 suggestions and a “but you can look more”? I don’t think nonfiction is taking over anything. Genzlinger just comes off as an old book critic and they can be real wet blankets. All I ever get from reading pieces about “the death of” something or “the age of something” is discouraged. If we all listened to book critics everything would be Jonathan Franzen and nothing would hurt. But it would hurt because it would suck.

    I loved Liz Stephens’ response.

  2. R.B. Moreno says:

    Thanks for reading, my friend. To be fair, Genzlinger does cite the “40,000 hits, or 60,000, or 160,000″ one gets by searching for “memoir” at Amazon.com. But again, my sense (and yours too, evidently) is that Amazon’s profusion of nonfiction, much of which seeks a particularly popular audience, is far from being matched by indie/university publishers and their journals.

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