Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Term that Launched a Thousand Rejections (Not)

Here's a little Christmas present that was waiting for me in my mail box today from a reader, extolling the wisdom of blogging agent Kristen Nelson. Here's what the note says:

FYI, You write: I am a published, award-winning author of fiction and creative nonfiction

Kristen Nelson at Pub Rants writes: "Several attendees posed a question about their 'creative nonfiction' work. This, of course, puzzled the agents and editors sitting on the panel. Why? Because there is no such genre as creative nonfiction. All nonfiction (and fiction for that matter) is creative by nature so calling something 'creative nonfiction' doesn’t really define it. And then I remembered. This is a term often used by universities and writing programs but in publishing, we don’t use it. If you are writing a memoir, it’s called a memoir. If you are writing a collection of essays, it’s called a collection of essays.If you are writing a prescriptive nonfiction self-help book, then that’s what you call it. No agent will ever call and editor and say, 'Yo Jane, I’ve got a creative nonfiction project to send your way.' So I would exorcise this term from your writing/publishing vocabulary (and if you head a writing program, see if you can get that terminology changed). It’s actually a disservice to writers trying to break into the publishing world. Now, don’t worry. It’s not like I’m going to delete every query that uses it but it will raise an eyebrow and show you up as a novice right when you are trying to demonstrate your savvy and professionalism."

It apears that Nelson has never heard of the most prestigious nonfiction journal around, which is entitled, hello, Creative Nonfiction. (Incidentally, I am proud to report that I have had the good grace to be chosen for publication by Lee Gutkind and the editors at CN.) I also will continue to call my nonfiction work creative because I think the above reasoning is ridiculous puffery used to fill up a blog. BTW, I very much doubt that the term "creative nonfiction" has ever been responsible for any of my esteemed rejections. (Raise an eyebrow all you want: me no care.)


Anonymous said...

As the person who sent you this information, you said I was "extolling the wisdom of blogging agent Kirsten Nelson." Thank you for publishing my note in whole, because it's clear there is no extolling. I simply quoted what you said and what Nelson said. So where's the extolling?

That said, logically, there is something at least a bit contradictory about "creative nonfiction." If it's nonfiction, then it's the facts (ma'am), and creative could mean embellishing or altering the facts.

It's not contradictory if by creative you mean well-written, which I hope all professional and/or commericaly viability is.

You omit from your post that Nelson says that nonfiction falls into several categories: memoir, narrative, self-help, etc. She is saying that as a term of art in the agent/editor world creative is not one of them, that memoir, etc. is what they use to describe a book and that creative is not one of those genres. She adds that "creative nonfiction" is never used by agents or editors. I think she is a competent authority on this point. She acknowledges that the lit-crit/academic types do say "creative nonfiction," and I guess the journal of that name proves her point.

Anonymous said...

Apologies, you did include Kirsten's comments saying a memoir is a memoir, self-help is self-help, etc.

I think she speak well for herself.

Writer, Rejected said...

Sorry to offend, dude. I did get the sense that you were giving Mrs. Agent Lady a whole lot of credence, and you do say above that you think she is a "competent authority."

Perhaps she is a fine business person, but she is awfully snooty and well beyond her purview concerning a term that many legitimate writers use to refer to their work.

But then again, as you know, I don't really like to give these people too much authority. Just my way, I guess.

Anonymous said...

I'm not taking sides. As neither a writer nor reader of nonfiction, I feel like I'm sort of impartial, but I've always thought the term "creative nonfiction" was pretty stupid. It's like the word nonfiction was so boring or something that they had to use creative to make it sound better. I'm sure there are others who don't read much nonfiction who would feel the opposite way.

Anonymous said...

oh big effing deal if a writer wants to use an academic/artistic label like literary nonfiction or creative nonfiction. Let the lazy-ass agent translate it for the lazy-ass editors, rather than sitting around and judging people with her raised eyebrows.

It makes me sick.

Anonymous said...

I'm giving her credence regarding the business of agenting. Do you have any reason to disbelieve her when she says that agents and editors do not use the term "creative nonfiction."

All writing is creative. You start with a blank page or screen and end with a creation.

Here's the question: What is noncreative nonfiction?

Anonymous said...

"rather than sitting around and judging people with her raised eyebrows."

um, that's part of the job description of being an agent, actually the whole of the job of being an agent: being judgmental.

Writer, Rejected said...

As noted by one of the anonymice above, creative nonfiction the same as literary nonfiction. Don't be so coy. I'm pretty sure you know what that means, but here's a definition just in case:

"Creative nonfiction (sometimes known as literary nonfiction) is a type of writing which uses literary skills in the writing of nonfiction. A work of creative nonfiction, if well-written, is factually true and artistically elegant. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which should also contain accurate information, but is not primarily written in service to its craft."

There's plenty of thought out there about creative or literary nonfiction, even books written about the craft, which you can find on google.

And here's a link to the above quote, which was from wikipedia, of all places, for your edification:

p.s. The agent's job is to judge writing, not people. It's different. Humility is a fine professional quality, don't you find? Sitting around thinking someone is not worthy because they use a totally legit term is just plain small, though you are right, my writing friend, an agent can do whatever she pleases....and usually does.

Thanks for the healthy discussion. I wish you only peace.

e said...

WTF? We accept the term "creative writing." If someone said, "Isn't all writing creative?", you'd slap them.

Anonymous said...

WTF? We accept the term "creative writing." If someone said, "Isn't all writing creative?", you'd slap them.


Thanks for mentioning this. It reminds me that I've never referred to myself as a creative writer--only a writer.

And as is the case with creative nonfiction, the only place you see the term creative writing is in academia--never in publishing.

(BTW, I greatly prefer narrative nonfiction--my genrre--to literary nonfiction. Literary is evaluative. Narrative is simply descriptive. Whether my writing is literary is something for my reviewers to decide, not my editor or agent.)

So slap me.

Anonymous said...

Kirsten did not say that using "creative nonfiction" is an auto-reject, only that it would raise her eyebrows. My view: They're getting thousands of queries. Why raise their eyebrows?

In the end, I think good, commercially viable writing breaks through--even if you call it creative nonfiction in your query.

Wendy said...

People can be so flipping pedantic. Whether or not "creative non-fiction" is its own genre or not is debatable but ultimately irrelevant. The term just describes non-fiction that isn't journalism or technical writing, as you said.

It's not hard to get.

Why do some folks, like Nelson, get off on lording their power over other folks?

Pdf said...

"But then again, as you know, I don't really like to give these people too much authority. Just my way, I guess"

Isn't this the entire basis for this blog? Talking about people in the position to reject you and disecting every little word of that rejection? I'd say you give these people plenty of authority.
If you wrote a collection of essays and talked them up to your agent as "creative non-fiction" would you be upset if he/she presented them to an editor as a collection of essays? Would you trust the agent to know the business enough to best sell your work?

Writer, Rejected said...

PDF: You are right. I don't care what my agents calls it, as long as my agent sells it. But I do like to have some fun and some fertile discussions with others about these matters, and to do so I must engage. Perhaps you are right that I give "these people plenty of authority," though from their response, I don't think that's the way it always comes off. All in good fun. And it's interesting. Don't you think?

pdf said...

Sometimes it is interesting, but your passive/agressiveness can be a little much.
Rejection is a difficult thing to take for creative people struggling to get their work out. Unfortunately there is a business side to most creative endeavors and business isn't always that sensitive to the artists' intentions or vision. Sure it is fun to have a conversation about all this stuff, but calling out an agent on her knowledge of the business is just as bad as a publisher telling you you wouldn't know a good metaphor if it socked you in the eye.

Writer, Rejected said...

Oh, I see. You must be an agent or an editor. Sorry to ruffle your feathers.

But I didn't call any agent out on anything: she has a blog where she puts up her expert opinion every day, and I merely disagreed with her (wrong) opinion about the use of the term "Creative Nonfiction." Also I find her attitude unnecessarily haughty, and think she should be a bit more careful about indicating that a fairly well-known literary term makes a writer look green, when in fact I don't think it does. I think it demonstrates the divide between art and business, a divide I personally long to protect.

Just because she would never use the term in a sales pitch doesn't mean a writer using the term in a query letter is dumb or inexperienced. It merely means the writer doesn't know her business practices, which are particular to her, or doesn't care what she calls it to someone else in the business. And why should a writer need to care about such matters? That's what the agent is for.

Anyhow, many agents and editors have told me that I don't know how to tell a story effectively, or write a novel. And yes it's a sock in the eye; we writers get that sort of thing all the time, as indicated by this blog.

But as you seem to suggest, perhaps it's not so nice or wise of me to cross the line and potentially offend the people with power to publish. Is it so different to say in a public forum that I don't agree with one agent's take on one term in the business? I don't know. It appears to make people upset.

pdf said...

That's funny. No, I am not an editor or an agent. I am an artist and I have had my share of rejection. I just think you have a real half-assed approach here with all of your "it's all in good fun" stuff. That agent didn;t sound haughty to me. She sounded pretty direct and honest--you know, not hiding behind an anonymous blog identity. She is a businesswoman and if you don't need to bother with her business, than ignore it. The thing is, you say one thing and then do another. If you didn't care about the publishing business, then you would publish your own blog with your writing on it--@#$! the establishment! But there is nothing wrong with wanting approval for your work and not compromising it in the process, just be straight about it.

Writer, Rejected said...

It is very true that I do often curse the establishment, and yet I want to be published.

Call me complex; I'll never be straight.

Thanks for your comments, though.

I have enjoyed the discussion.

Lobster Face said...

I don't like the term "creative nonfiction" myself, for the record. "Literary nonfiction" is more on-point, I think. When I use "creative nonfiction" it's because the term is sort of writer slang and makes it easier to communicate with other writers; at the same time, I understand that outside of the world of MFA programs and writers' colonies and lit journals, few people know what CNF means.

I don't care that this lady made this comment, either way. Her blurb sounds slightly less offensive than most of the other commentary on publishing offered by such self-aggrandizing medusas as Miss Snark. Also I'd rather read Nelson's mundane, slightly conceited salvos than the tripe that passes for intelligent criticism at any of the "leading" lit blogs you hear so much about nowadays. But hey, that's just me.

L. Shepherd said...

I have never really cared for the term, but I've seen waaaaaay too many publishers and agents asking specifically for "creative nonfiction" to believe that the term isn't used by editors and agents. That looks like a novice agent to me rather than someone who is bothered by novice writers.

editor, lapsed said...

Coming to this discussion late, but....Truman Capote's In Cold Blood was a prime example of a book considered creative nonfiction -- does anyone remember how it was referred to at the time? I think "nonfiction novel" -- but it might be interesting to unearth the terms used then, which I think have lingered in the common debate.

As for the above (perhaps long-finished) conversation, obviously everyone has the right to his/her own personal quirks. If Ms. Agent/Blogger had said, "I can't speak for others ["I don't know whether I'm in the minority or the majority among agents and editors"], but for some reason the phrase raises a red flag, making me question the professionalism of the offering," I suspect we wouldn't have had this argument. Readers could then decide, hmm, maybe I'll try a different term. (Narrative nonfiction strikes me as a good one.) Someone confessing her own personal qualms isn't giving them the authority of Law, but someone purporting to speak for the entire industry can seem to be overstepping.

Speaking of which, I confess to being baffled by the tendency of some readers of this blog to go off on its author -- assuming W,R is declaring him/herself the voice of authority when it seems to me he or she is just expressing a writer's personal qualms. Is this "passive/aggressive" tagging possibly a reaction to presumed authority in general?

Anonymous said...

I am way late in the game here (better late than never, right?) But, I had to comment in WR's defense. If any agent posts their opinions in a blog...they ask, nay--BEG for public commentary and if they can't take it...perhaps they should consider letting their screen go dark.
And just as a parting comment...I am tired of hearing that certain words, etc. will signal me as a rookie. Who the f*ck cares? If Plath, Hemingway, or even Steven King sent in a query with one of said words, do you really think it would matter?
Really. Let's put this in perspective, shall we? Or perhaps this is their way of being able to explain why they rejected something of value? When they see it in publisher's weekly they can still sleep at night..."Well, she did say creative fiction..."
Since when did being green become such a bad thing?

burgguy said...

Lee Gutkind pretty much coined "creative nonfiction" to set himself apart. Simple as that. He cooked it up back when I was one of his students. The bloated definition is allows Gutkind and his acolytes to become arbiters of "literary skills" used in "artistically elegant" nonfiction. And he uses his journal as the peer review. Sadly, it's caught on.

All this parsing hurts literature. I have had stories win awards for "creative nonfiction" that were rejected by journals for not being "creative nonfiction" per se. I have read essays on NPR that were touted as poems... by esteemed poets. Let's forget about all the little boxes, okay?

It's all bullshit. And Gutkind is one of the masters.