In our excellent writers meeting this afternoon a new phrase was brought up, ‘creative nonfiction’ which most of us had never heard of before but were immediately intrigued by. Creative nonfiction is apparently also known as literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction, and as you can guess is a genre of writing. It employs literary styles and techniques to produce stories or narratives which are factually accurate . It’s different from most other ways of writing factual pieces which although maybe beautifully and even poetically written, are presented for their factual and accurate content. Recently for my book club I had to read ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics‘ by Carlo Rovelli; I hardly understood any of it, but I read all of it because it was so elegantly and well-written. There are also literally millions of novels written about factual things and actual events which are, nevertheless, fiction.
I looked to Wikipedia for a definition, because I grasped the idea but needed to see it explained. According to Wikipedia, the literary critic Barbara Lounsberry suggests several characteristics of the genre in her book ‘The Art of Fact’
- document able subject matter chosen from the real world as opposed to ‘invented’ from the writer’s mind… topics and events discussed in the text verifiably exist in the natural world
- exhaustive research which allows writers “novel perspectives on their subjects” and “permits them to establish the credibility of their narratives through verifiable references
- the scene – vividly describing the context of events in contrast to objective reportage
- fine writing with a literary prose style
- verifiable subject matter and exhaustive research ensure the nonfiction aspect of literary nonfiction
- narrative form and structure display the writer’s artistry
- polished language reveals that the objective of what has been written is literary
A book I read some time ago which I think may partly fall into this genre is ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, or, The Murder at Road Hill House’ by Kate Summerscale, which was an examination of the facts surrounding the murder of a little boy in 1860, and the investigation into the crime by Mr Whicher of Scotland Yard. When I read it I recognised that some of it was written in a way different from the usual historical accounts of events. Ms Summerscale had done research to be able to describe the weather, the state of the harvest, the vegetation in the countryside through which the train travelled from London to Somerset. I found it a little irritating as it seemed to fall between a factual account and something more elaborate. I think why it didn’t work for me was that it wasn’t consistent, and also occasionally, the author subliminally appeared in the text. Maybe I should read it again, and think of it from the outset in a different way.
So creative nonfiction, and a story I want to tell… the story of my great grandparents Louis Walford from Tasmania, and Lois Penny from Northamptonshire… I am never going to be able to know all of their story, but maybe by using aspects of creative nonfiction, I could tell part of it in an imaginative and yet truthful way.
Here is a link to the Wikipedia page I mentioned: