I knew at some point I would have to bring up this topic, but was somewhat dreading wading into the troubled waters of the creative non-fiction debate. Firstly, I don't know if I am adequately able to define the vague oxymoron that is creative non-fiction in an academic fashion. So this is going to be a conversation about creative non-fiction as I see it.
From the beginning, I will give you the working definition that I use to describe it. Everyone has at least one friend who is a great storyteller, but seems to embellish the events to the point of slight absurdity. This is how I identify creative non-fiction. There may be an element of truth to the tale, and the details might be fudged to make for a more engaging experience for the listener or reader. Another point worth stating is that perhaps the limits of memory force some authors to fill in the blanks. Marina Nemat admits in her book Prisoner of Tehran that she is not capable of remembering all that happened to her during her stay in prison. As a result of her experience, including torture and rape at the hands of her captors, her memory of that period of her life is imperfect. Due to this confession within the pages of her memoir and my compassion for her situation, I tend to be more forgiving of any possible untruthful elements of her personal narrative.
To my mind the debate comes own to a question of truth in advertising. I think that the literary world (and Oprah) rightly came down on James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, who fabricated a large portion of his book which was marketed as a non-fiction. His readers felt personally deceived when it surfaced that his story was largely untrue. Rather than possible memory loss due to a traumatic situation, he knowingly lied about the events documented in his so-called memoir. If he had marketed the book as a fictional book inspired by true incidents of his life, than that is a completely different animal. When people pull a book from the shelves of the non-fiction shelf, there is an unspoken trust that the book contains facts or the facts as they are perceived by the author. What Frey did was a violation of that trust.
Another aspect of this issue of creative non-fiction is that of books that are marketed as fiction which are largely autobiographical. Authors will often draw upon personal experience for their writing material and some arguably delve a little too deeply. Though he is one of the greats of Canadian literature and a personal favourite of mine, Mordecai Richler seemingly borrowed a lot from his own life when creating his protagonists. As Jewish men in Montreal, they shared many of his life experiences and even his personality traits. Should these novels be considered creative non-fiction? I am not sure, and discussing these questions of categorization are perhaps a silly game for people like me that enjoy such debates. Some would argue that the labels no longer hold the same relevance as they once did, especially where memoirs are concerned. Others would say that the distinctions do still matter, and they want to know if they are consuming the truth or the product of the author's imagination. My primary concern is always the entertainment value of what I read, but these issues do inform if I pick up a book in the first place and they are worth thinking about when making conscious choices about what one reads.