Definition of Narrative Nonfiction
Narrative nonfiction, often also referred to as creative nonfiction, is a literary term for a text that presents a true story written in a style more closely associated with fiction. The writer pays close attention to elements of plot structure, character development and themes to make the story as compelling as possible.
Narrative nonfiction is by no means a recent innovation, although the exact phrasing of the category may be somewhat new and it has experienced a surge of popularity in the early 21st century. Individuals have always written memoirs and autobiographies as means to share their personal stories and the circumstances of the world in which they lived, though their emphasis may not have been written with a narrative style.
The New Journalists were inspired by the shift in consciousness brought about by the 1960s and 1970s counterculture in the U.S and Western Europe. The '60s ethos declared that all individuals had unique experiences and distinct voices and that, democratically, they are all equal. Traditional journalism typically featured one voice or on-air personality, or a select few, to act as an authority by delivering their version of the news to the rest of the population. The New Journalists, including Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer, sought to use their personal experiences and feelings to gain journalistic authority. This type of reporting was revolutionary, as it championed breaking one of the fundamental rules of journalistic integrity.
Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" describes the murder of the Clutter family and the subsequent trial, conviction and hanging of the perpetrators, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. Capote wrote the book in the style of a journalist, conducting exhaustive research and interviews, but without recording or taking notes of any kind. Additionally, Capote asserts himself as the narrator of the book, includes personal information, and makes no attempt to appear unbiased. Other books like Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and Mailer's "Armies of the Night" walked the line between novel and memoir. The reader might not know what was true, what had been altered to protect a living person's identity or what had been exaggerated for dramatic effect.
The major problem with this style of non-fiction is that there are no stringent standards or guidelines. A reader usually wants to know what is real and what is not in a given work, and rightfully so. In 2003, James Frey published his memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," detailing his history of drug abuse and recovery. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey added the title to her book club and it was very successful. In 2006, evidence came to light that Frey had fabricated or embellished some parts of his story. Frey was consequently accosted by Winfrey on-air and became a pariah in the literary community. Around the same time, a woman named Laura Albert created a character named JT Leroy, a transgendered ex-drug addict and prostitute who had been abused as a child. Albert published several "memoirs" under the Leroy name and managed to fool many celebrities and well-known writers about her identity.
Then & Now
Popular anthologies of narrative/creative nonfiction feature examples from anonymous blogs and literary journals. A few sensational publications also resulted in a sudden public awareness of this perceived stylistic shift in the medium of memoir/autobiography. A few writers publishing in the early 2000s managed to establish a career out of the surge in popularity for narrative non-fiction. Predominantly, they are urban comedy writers who follow in Woody Allen's footsteps. These include David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs and Dave Eggers.
- Rostislav_Sedlacek/iStock/Getty Images