The New Creative Nonfiction Writers

Kelly Nuxoll
From the July/August 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

There has been a lot of talk about how the Internet has changed political campaigns in this election cycle, about how the candidates have raised piles of money through online donations and used e-mail and Web sites to communicate with their supporters. But less has been said about how the Internet has changed political journalism—in particular, citizen journalism, a growing genre akin to creative nonfiction. These days, anyone with a blog can publish news and opinions on the campaigns and potentially influence the race.

The last time campaign writing had this much punch was probably in 1972, when Hunter S. Thompson covered the Nixon-McGovern race in a drug-addled haze for Rolling Stone.

The last time campaign writing had this much punch was probably in 1972, when Hunter S. Thompson covered the Nixon-McGovern race in a drug-addled haze for Rolling Stone. Thompson's manic tone accurately captured the chaos of politics in a way that cautious, just-the-facts-ma'am reporting could not. Thompson was also unapologetically partisan—at once contemptuous of politics and in favor, against his better judgment, of McGovern, who went on to lose spectacularly in November.

At the time, there was not a word for the kind of writing Thompson did, rooted in real events but propelled by stream-of-consciousness prose. An editor called it "gonzo journalism," which had the advantage of suggesting there was also something slightly unhinged about the author. Thompson, of course, embraced the term.

The other groundbreaking work in campaign reporting is probably Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes: The Road to the White House (Random House, 1992), a book—roughly the size of a cement block—that probes the psyches of six presidential candidates in 1988 (Republicans Bob Dole and George H. W. Bush and Democrats Gary Hart, Joseph Biden, Richard Gephardt, and Michael Dukakis). The book feels more like a novel than a newspaper, and it gets at the complexities and nuances of campaigns that straight-up reporting can't reach.

Nevertheless, both Thompson and Cramer were trained reporters, and their work was published long after the events they were recounting had passed—in Cramer's case, a full four years after the election he was covering. Citizen journalism is characterized by the nonprofessional status of its practitioners and the speed at which they publish. Thanks to bloggers, videographers, and anyone with a digital camera, cell phone, or recorder, campaign events play out in almost real time on the Internet. One effect of this immediacy is that citizen journalists are able to not only comment on the race, but influence it.

In April, a fellow citizen journalist, writing for the Huffington Post, commented on Barack Obama's mentioning that some midwestern voters were "bitter" and clung to "guns and religion." The quote was picked up by the mainstream media, and within seventy-two hours both Hillary Clinton's and Obama's campaigns had invested many hours (and many thousands of dollars) in responding to it. The media's response to the words helped portray Obama as elitist and may have affected his performance among voters.

In this case, the Internet allowed a one-off remark to be broadcast over and over, like a bullet shot into an echo chamber, but citizen journalism allowed it to be heard in the first place. The author of the Huffington Post entry attended the private event where the candidate was speaking, not as an official member of the press, nor as a strictly loyal supporter, but as a fan of Obama who wrote about the campaigns for a popular political Web site. In this capacity, she was bound by journalistic ethics to tell the truth of what she heard, but free as a citizen to write about the event however she saw fit. Her blog entry is a gem of an essay, including a reflection on her father and an excerpt from a poem. Like Thompson and Cramer, the citizen journalist not only gives readers information, but helps them see it through the writer's eyes.

Creative nonfiction writers may find citizen journalism an extension of the craft they already practice, but for the public, it may take some getting used to. For one thing, citizen journalism doesn't fit into a category familiar to most readers. News writing is expected to at least aim for objectivity; satire and opinions are reserved for the op-ed page; dialogue, figurative language, and ruminations are relegated to creative writing. Citizen journalism often blends these forms.

At worst, this combination can undermine readers' confidence in the authority of what they are reading and can infuriate journalists who rightly fear their profession is being threatened by people untrained in the conventions of the craft. (To add insult to injury, citizen journalists, by definition, work for free. In a business that already has more supply than demand, journalists must now convince publications to buy the cow when the milk can be got for free.)

At best, citizen journalism not only expands the genre of creative nonfiction, but opens up publishing, making it more diverse, more democratic, more critical, more insightful, more entertaining, and—God help me—more American. On the campaign trail this year, I've encountered high school students blogging about education and foreign policy; a retired TV producer who volunteers his time and equipment to film supporters' stories; a group of recent college grads who are reporting on the race in order to educate their peers about the political process; a graduate student publishing ethnographic research on the Iowa caucuses; self-appointed researchers who comb through Federal Election Commission data to find specious entries in the candidates' financial records; and countless individuals who write thoughtful, poignant pieces about what they observe in the campaigns and how it fits with their own feelings, history, and expertise. All together, the nontraditional campaign coverage this year feels like a Walt Whitman poem come to life, coupled with a healthy dose of free-market capitalism—each writer has to develop her own following based on the appeal of her voice and the reader's confidence in her information.

As a Jeffersonian, I'm delighted by the plurality of voices this year and by how creative and sharp many of them are. But as a writer, I have to admit I'm dying a little bit inside.

Until this year, a dedicated creative nonfiction writer dabbling in journalism could pretty well stay undercover, standing anonymously in line for a campaign rally and then going home to scribble down everything she'd glimpsed and overheard. In a few days or weeks, she could develop her thoughts into a longer piece and hopefully get published by an independent magazine, where those thoughts would have virtually no influence at all. But thanks to the Internet, everyone else in line is a potential writer too, and the pressure to get one's ideas out when the news cycle is still fresh is intense.

The new visibility of citizen journalism also means the candidates are now on alert that anyone, anywhere, at any time may be chronicling their words and body language, and everything is fair game for broadcast.

After my fellow citizen journalist broke the story on Obama's "bitter" statement, an Obama campaign spokesperson acknowledged that there's "an expectation now—even at private events—that everything will be recorded and posted." This means that we, as writers, are losing the unguarded moments that make for the best and most revealing stories, and we as a public will lose our last best hope at getting a glimpse of the candidates as they really are.

Kelly Nuxoll has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University. She is a citizen journalist for the Huffington Post.


The New Creative Nonfiction Writers

Great article! What I can't figure out is who reads all these blogs? We're quickly turning into a society of more writers than readers.