What is Creative Nonfiction?
It's not every day that the editor of a literary magazine is referred to as the godfather of a genre or has a book featured on the Jon Stewart show. But Lee Gutkind is not just any journal editor. His brainchild, the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction, has both reflected and largely influenced the cultural shift toward nonfiction and memoir over the past decade. Here, writer Rachel Worrall talks to the visionary editor to learn more about Creative Nonfiction--the magazine and the genre at large.
Interview by Rachel Worrall
Why the recent switch from literary journal to magazine?
A journal is much smaller in size, it looks like a book, exactly like a book - it's academic looking. A magazine on the other hand is larger and is also illustrated. Creative Nonfiction started out as a journal because we wanted it to be taken seriously. We wanted to be accepted by the literary world. When the journal started you couldn't even take a course in Creative Nonfiction. You couldn't get an MFA degree in it. Now Creative Nonfiction is taken far more seriously by both the publishing world and the academic writing community.
Why do you think that is?
We are living in an increasingly complicated world and consequently we are forever growing in terms of the things we need to learn. Today the average person needs to know more about science and technology than ever. As a result more and more professionals are turning to creative nonfiction to explain what they do to reach a larger population. Many medical schools now teach their students how to write in a Creative Nonfiction fashion. There are courses in Narrative Medicine, Narrative Law, Narrative Science.
Creative Nonfiction is now the fastest growing genre in the industry - you can get a PhD in it. Everyone wants to write in this genre so we've re-launched the journal as a magazine to reach a much larger audience who want to read serious essays plus hear news and information about the genre itself. Creative Nonfiction is, quite literally, the voice of the genre so we thought it was time for a change - for our voice to speak out more to be heard.
How do you commission or find work? You have a theme an issue, right?
Yes, and we advertise our themes in advance. Most recently we had Animals, and upcoming we have Food, The Night, then Anger and Revenge. We get our submissions in two different ways. Sometimes we commission pieces - Issue 38, for example, was entirely commissioned. Other times we solicit manuscripts from all over the world, and sometimes, when we have good sponsors, we are able to offer large cash prizes. The winner of The Night competition for example will receive a $5,000 prize.
How much do you usually pay your writers?
Hardly anything! $10 a published page. But we have a very sophisticated readership. Many agents and editors read Creative Nonfiction. In Issue 39 for example we had a couple of writers who had never been published before. It's a prestigious magazine and for people, especially in the academic world, it's a great credit to have: so the money is not big but the impact is huge.
What's your editorial selection process?
It depends on whether the work is commissioned. A column is usually assigned to a writer and I will usually work with the column directly but with the essays that are submitted we screen them down to about seventy-five and then all the editors will begin to look at them in a more intense fashion. You'd be surprised how many people send us fiction instead of non-fiction, and we sometimes even get poetry - so you can quickly screen out those and then the editors will go through the rest very carefully. We'll have serious discussions about what will or will not make it when are down to about fifteen or twenty.
What about your editorial board? Do you draw upon them at all?
We have a prestigious editorial advisory board but we don't bother them every day. We ask for feedback, certainly, especially recently with the transition to the magazine. Some people give us more feedback than others and some people share copies with their friends and other colleagues and in this way we get more people knowing who we are.
How have you found the transition to working as a magazine?
It's been difficult. We've had to conceive ourselves as something entirely new. The journal was straightforward - we picked fifteen or twelve essays, or eighty-five pages worth of writing and edited them. The big challenge then was which ones to choose and in which order to put them. Now we have six or seven essays, so every one has to count, but now as a magazine, we're getting more submissions so we're getting more to choose from and we're using a different kind of ordering, for example, by theme.
With the column layout we also have to think through which columns to choose, whom we would like to write for us also. It's a very different orientation. The journal was a much easier, a far less complicated process.
I may be teaching female pre-release prisoners Creative Nonfiction next spring. How would you go about your first lesson?
You're lucky because you are a fiction writer and so you know how to write narrative and you know how to write scenes. Traditional nonfiction writers don't know how to write scenes and they don't have a lot of experience doing it. The first thing to do is to get your students to write a scene, specifying that it can't be a made up scene but must have happened in front of their eyes. The other challenge is that they not only have to write a scene but they must be creative in the way they report that scene. The scene does not just have to communicate but to teach.
Creative Nonfiction is not just about writing a made-up scene. It's about communicating something to a reader. First your students must learn how to recreate scenes and then they must learn how to communicate information within that scene. Then they must learn how to write many scenes in long form in a way that makes leads you from one story or from one scene, to another.
Why do you think Creative Nonfiction - and memoir - has become so popular in recent years?
It used to be - twenty or thirty or forty years ago that a young person's first book would be a novel, but now they seem to be more often calling it nonfiction or a memoir. The memoir craze has changed the face of fiction as well as nonfiction. It's not just about needing to know more information, as I mentioned earlier, but also because we're all so isolated in our homes these days. We no longer sit on our porches and communicate with our friends and neighbors in a daily meaningful fashion and so writing your memoir is a way of talking to other people, feeling like you're being heard.
What about the debacle over supposed memoirs such as James Frey's A Million Little Pieces?
Well, Frey's agent and editor supported him in publishing the book as a memoir even though it started off as a novel. Frankly these days the industry lacks strong moral fiber from agent to editor to publisher - they only care about what's going to sell, they don't care about what's good and what's bad. The negativity of the industry itself embitters writers, which leads to the loss of their integrity because they so much want to get published.
What would you like people to know about Creative Nonfiction - the magazine?
I'd like people to know that, for the first time, we're accepting queries for column writing (you can't query us for an essay). I would love to see some queries and new ideas for some of our columns, just a paragraph description outlining what you would like to do would be enough. We want to bring in new people, new writers.
Secondly, for those people who want to learn more about Creative Nonfiction, if they're working on a book or a long article and they don't have time to take an MFA, I'd like people to know that we have a mentoring program whereby we can connect writers with some of our writers who are also experienced teachers. We've just introduced two inexpensive on-line courses, one on the personal essay and two on the basics of Creative Nonfiction.
Thirdly I'd like people to know we have a terrific and free monthly newsletter with a 15,000 long subscriber list and if you don't want to be on the mailing list you can get it by going straight to our website - www.creativenonfiction.org.
You can also see our upcoming themes listed there and information on what's new in the Creative Nonfiction world.
Fourthly I'd like people to know that we're completely independent. Most literary magazines are connected to Universities but we raise our own money and exist on our own.
And fifthly of course, I'd also like people to know that we'd also like new subscribers, and new advertisers (laughs).
What's the future of literary magazines (print)?
Print magazines are going to stay but we can't offer stand alone print versions. We have to begin to offer ourselves in a number of different digital ways. At some point, for every print publication, our readers will be able to download the magazine onto an iPad or whatever else is invented in the foreseeable future. They will also be able to download only selective pieces. There will be more choices available to readers, it will be very price oriented and retail situation dependent.
Is Creative Nonfiction writing, political writing, would you say?
The best pieces of Creative Nonfiction not only communicate but affect and persuade a reader. The different pictures that we draw must make an impact upon our readers. It's like non-fiction cinema (laughs). It's a different way of making a point. But those points don't have to be political, the key is to express one's opinions subtly by choosing which scenes to show. It's in choosing those scenes and illustrating them carefully that we allow the reader to draw conclusions and therefore make an impact.