This is a thing about creative non-fiction (and why I hate it) that I wrote for my Writing Creative Non-Fiction class back in April.
There is a style of writing known as “creative non-fiction”, a name I find wholly inaccurate. These supposedly true accounts are usually written from memory, and at best represent a one-sided perception of events. But the fallibility of human memory mean that even a biased but accurate account is unlikely to say the least.
We've all experienced those moments where we think “Wait, did that happen or was it a dream?”, we've all had those arguments with friends or family members about events at which we were both present – “John was definitely with us that day.” “No, John was off in Thailand at the time.” – and ironically we can all remember at least one occasion where we had a crystal-clear memory of something only to be shown irrefutable evidence of the opposite.
This is why we expect journalists to find evidence to support their stories before publishing. But call it “creative non-fiction” and suddenly you're off the hook. You can almost even get away with knowingly making shit up. After all, one should never let the truth stand in the way of a good story, and if it's basically true then what's the harm?
The harm, of course, is that often it's not even basically true. My sister has a distinct memory of going to see They Might Be Giants with our brother. But she didn't, she went with me. She knows this, there are Facebook posts from the time proving it, but she still remembers him being there. Memory is tricky like that. And no one's going to suffer any harm from that particular mix-up, but it shows how easy it is to get things wrong, even to the extent of attributing things to entirely the wrong person.
This is well-illustrated by the public dispute between poet John Kinsella and his two (former) friends Robert Adamson and Anthony Lawrence. Kinsella alleged episodes of drug taking, carousing and pornography that the other two felt were both untrue and harmful to their images and reputations. Did these events take place, as Kinsella recalls? We simply can't be sure. Even leaving aside the possibility that he may have been lying, his memory of events may be terribly inaccurate. Something he remembers Adamson doing or saying could have been an entirely different person, and there's no way any of us can know that – not even the people who were there.
And that's just if we assume good faith on the author's part. As readers we can never be sure just how “creative” the author got with their so-called “non-fiction”. Journalists are expected to confirm their information before they publish, and fiction authors are expected to be making things up to make better stories. Writers of creative non-fiction want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to claim the category of non-fiction while still being free to “get creative” and not have to bother with the tedious work of making sure what they say is actually true.
To me, the genre of creative non-fiction is fundamentally dishonest. If you're not going to make sure your claims are accurate and supported by evidence then call it what it is – fiction. Put “inspired by real events” if you like, but don't pretend it's the truth. Don't call it non-fiction.
Bennie, Angela. "War, Blood, Courts: It's Poets at Arms." Sydney Morning Herald 8 Aug. 2006. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.
Kinsella, John. Fast, Loose Beginnings: a Memoir of Intoxication. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2006. Print.