Telling a story of real-life experiences is a simple enough pursuit. As in fiction, the aim is to compel readers to keep reading, to teach them something new, to open a window on a previously undiscovered world. In the hands of master practitioners like E. B. White, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John McPhee, Nora Ephron, and Anne Fadiman, that's exactly what nonfiction narratives do. And, as three recently published and entirely different collections amply demonstrate, there are growing numbers of quality chroniclers of truth out there. Finding their work is relatively easy. Categorizing it is another matter.
"It is a bit confusing," says Robert Atwan, series editor of the Best American Essays, the latest edition of which will be published next month by Houghton Mifflin and includes work by Jo Ann Beard, Mark Danner, Malcolm Gladwell, Louis Menand, Molly Peacock, and others. "We've gone through so many labels—New Journalism, literary nonfiction, creative nonfiction—with some sticking around awhile and others falling out of fashion." Even the term essay is not without negative connotations, as Atwan found out when he first proposed the series to his publisher in the mid-1980s. "The New York Times had just published a review of a collection by Wilfred Sheed that criticized the book for ‘having the nerve to use the word essay in the title.' Nobody liked the term because it reminded them of being forced to write about topics they hated for high school classes."
Lee Gutkind, editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction, the thirty-second issue of which was published in book format by Norton in July as The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. 1, takes a simpler approach to the terminology conundrum. "I see creative nonfiction as an umbrella that includes almost every other possible category in use," Gutkind says. "Creative essay, narrative nonfiction—it's all story oriented, a way for writers to communicate information and ideas."
Others consider the debate irrelevant. "I've never heard of the term creative nonfiction," says Ira Glass, host of the popular weekday National Public Radio program This American Life and editor of The New Kings of Nonfiction, which will be published by Riverhead Books next month. "I also hate narrative nonfiction as a term because it sounds too boring. At least creative nonfiction sounds like it might be fun. Really, I don't care what it's called. It's more important that the story reaches the reader, that they like it."
Consciously or not, the editors were influenced by these attitudes as they assembled their anthologies. Following the template established for all Best American volumes, Atwan sifted through a preliminary list of approximately four hundred pieces that "could be considered essays of literary quality." A shortlist of about a hundred essays—all of them taken from print publications such as the New Yorker, the American Scholar, Esquire, and the New Republic—was then passed on to this year's guest editor, David Foster Wallace, who had the final say on choosing the twenty essays included in the 2007 edition.
"The short-listed essays are almost always the most outstanding of the year, but the guest editor's choices are pretty much a matter of taste," Atwan explains, citing Wallace's reluctance to include memoir-driven work. Instead, weighty pieces ranging from Marilynne Robinson's rumination on Christian liberalism to Mark Danner's insights on the war in Iraq merited inclusion. "Another guest editor could have picked an entirely different set of essays from the shortlist," Atwan says. Wallace was unavailable for comment.
Gutkind followed a similar submission and sifting process (with the help of coordinating editors Hattie Fletcher, Dinty Moore, and Irina Reyn), but unlike Atwan and Wallace, who drew from more traditional publications, Gutkind sought out pieces from unexpected sources, including Web sites and blogs. "There are so many great writers who aren't being published in the major magazines for any number of reasons. Some of them do land with small literary journals, but blogs are a way for them to get their voices out there and find an immediate audience," he says. Five of the twenty-seven pieces in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. 1 were first published on blogs such as Waiter Rant and Opinionistas. Gutkind later learned that a handful of these bloggers—including Kelly Gruver of Hot Coffee Girl—had forthcoming book contracts.
Gutkind says it's the "burst of inspiration and spirit" of blogs that appeals to him, but the editor says he is mindful of their drawbacks. "A magazine or journal or newspaper edits its writers," he says. "The opportunity to rewrite a piece multiple times enables a greater clarity of focus that is not as likely on a blog, which is more likely to turn out sloppy and unfinished writing."
Glass found some inspiration and spirit of his own while assembling The New Kings of Nonfiction, though he didn't go looking for it on blogs or Web sites. The essays in the anthology—which includes work by Bill Buford, Malcolm Gladwell, Chuck Klosterman, Susan Orlean, Coco Henson Scales, and David Foster Wallace—were first published in books, newspapers, and magazines.
Glass compares editing an anthology to hosting a radio show. "You decide to have a party, invite all sorts of interesting people to take the stage one at a time," he says. "The results are sometimes strange but always very exciting." In the case of The New Kings of Nonfiction, the party was a fund-raiser; Glass was approached by 826CHI, a Chicago-based nonprofit writing center, one of whose sister organizations, 826NYC, had two years ago partnered with editor David Sedaris on the fiction anthology Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules (Simon & Schuster, 2005), the profits of which were donated to the organization. 826CHI suggested Glass edit a nonfiction anthology with a similar goal, and even though he had been "turning down book ideas" for a decade, the charity angle appealed to him and he agreed. Obtaining reprint permissions for the previously published pieces—typically a difficult and time-consuming endeavor—proved not to be a problem.
"If anything, it was easy because it was for charity, so money didn't matter—and because of the title," Glass says, laughing. "Who could say no to being called one of the new kings?"
Sarah Weinman is an editor of the publishing industry news blog GalleyCat. She writes for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among other publications. Her Web site is www.sarahweinman.com.
“Five of the twenty-seven pieces in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. 1 were first published on blogs such as Waiter Rant and Opinionistas.”