So far in our semester-long undergraduate Creative Writing class, we’ve learned some basic (if argued over) definitions of Creative Nonfiction; we’ve examined the difference between the “situation” and the “story” in personal essays (a differentiation that helps us structure our essays and develop our ideas); guest blogger Michael Steinberg has discussed “The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Creative Nonfiction”; we’ve glimpsed the “Brave New World of Video Essays”; and, last week, we examined the sub-genre of Personal Reportage. This week it’s time to examine another sub-genre of our ever-evolving corner of the writing world: Personal Cultural Criticism.
Many Nonfiction writers use the personal essay form to examine their own lives – and perhaps their memories – in the voice of a crafted narrative persona. Others immerse themselves in locations or current events and combine journalistic research with subjective observation and interpretation. When producing Personal Cultural Criticism, writers turn the spotlight of subjectivity onto current, historic, or timeless cultural questions. Instead of simply describing a night spent in an Irish monk’s retreat, they might use that experience to explore questions of religion and science, as Chet Raymo does in “Celebrating Creation.” Instead of relating just the facts of a historic cultural event, such as the release of the movie Star Wars in 1977, they use that event to examine the culture of a time and place and how it was infused into individual lives, as Jonathan Lethem does in “13, 1977, 21.” Both of these essays appear in our textbook, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction.
As with any personal essay, what distinguishes the content in personal cultural reportage is the subjective voice of the narrator (usually speaking in the first person), who invites the reader into his or her mind to ponder and reflect upon a particular subject. In “Celebrating Creation,” Raymo spends the night in the Gallarus Oratory, a seventh-century church, to try to determine why Irish monks might have been inspired by such a place. The experience, including a dramatic viewing of the glorious night sky, leads him – and the reader – into a thoughtful comparison of religious and scientific explanations for creation. The setting and his experience, artfully rendered as he invites the reader into the scenes, become the backdrop for his intellectual musings.
In “13, 1977, 21,” Lethem tackles a vastly different topic. He declares from the start that as a 13-year-old boy he saw Star Wars 21 times. He then takes the reader back in time to meet “a white kid in spectacles routinely visiting Times Square by subway in the middle of the 1970s,” who, “though I was conscious of a certain seamy energy in those acres of sex shows and drug dealers and their furtive sidewalk customers…was never once hassled” (102). Lethem deftly combines cultural description and subtle commentary – including a mention of his father’s decision to spend part of the summer on a commune – with an examination of his own struggle with his parents’ separation and the impending loss of his mother from brain cancer. He tells us about Star Wars and New York City in the 1970s, but arguably more important, he tells us about himself: “the kid who partly invented himself in the vacuum collision of Star Wars” (104). That is the hallmark of the personal essay when it is carried over into cultural writing; we learn how the narrator’s mind works and discovers as we gain insight into the subject at hand.
Many writers and readers believe that the genre of Creative Nonfiction is limited to book-length memoirs and personal essays focused on sharing the experiences of a single life. This impression is what sometimes prompts critics of the genre to consider it nothing more than literary “navel-gazing.” What we’re discovering through the course of this semester, however, is that the broad umbrella of Creative Nonfiction encompasses a variety of types of writing on numerous issues and subjects, and that memoirs, personal essays, personal reportage, and personal cultural criticism offer the writer rich opportunities to explore much more than individual experience. Yes, CNF writers use their experiences – but they transform those experiences into literary texts in order to invite their readers on journeys of discovery and ultimately on searches for the truth.
Lethem, S. “13, 1977, 21.” The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers Of/On Creative Nonfiction. Eds. Robert L. Root, Michael Steinberg.