Tag Archives: nonfiction

Are You a Fox or a Hedgehog?

There’s an interesting article over at the Guardian book pages from their literary critic, Robert McCrum, about the different types of writers that tend to get considered for literary awards. He draws from Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, The Fox and The Hedgehog, as a way of classifying the types. (You can download the essay by clicking here), and read more about Berlin in this article in The Independent.

In fiction, Berlin’s famous distinction between hedgehogs and foxes, drawn from the pithy fragment attributed to the classical poet Archilochus (“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”) remains influential. Hedgehogs, in Berlin’s celebrated essay, see the world through the lens of one big, defining idea. They include Plato, Dante, Proust and Nietzsche. Foxes, who scour the landscape, drawing on a wide variety of experience and are indefatigably averse to a single explanatory idea, include Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, James Joyce and, dare I say, Salman Rushdie.

McCrum doesn’t stop there, though. He also contrasts “history course novels” (such as those produced by Pat Barker and Ian McEwen) and the kind of “English course novels” that Martin Amis and Lorrie Moore write. Then, in nonfiction, there are the “mores” and the “differents.”

Mores are writers who, as the label implies, are immensely gifted and vastly superior to their fellows, but are conventional in their vision. Classic mores include Thomas The World Is Flat Friedman and Niall The Pity of War Ferguson. Your different, who might be a hedgehog or a fox, is a mould-smashing one-off, usually an original, and probably quite undisciplined, writer. Differents include Dostoevsky, Oliver Sacks, Naomi Klein, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell and Atul Gawande. As readers, we may be better satisfied, in the short term, by the mores, but it’s the differents we remember, and who will probably have the lasting influence.

McCrum’s argument is that “foxes” and “mores” win more prizes than “hedgehogs” and “differents.” It would take more of an in depth survey than I am prepared to carry out to prove him right, but I can certainly get on board with the idea that we live in a fox’n’more orientated society, and it’s these writers who seem to earn the most money. We demand versatility from our writers, and breadth of knowledge. It ain’t easy being different!

The REAL New Kings — And Queens — of Nonfiction

Kelly Nuxoll has written an informative and thoughtful article for Poets and Writers magazine about citizen journalism, making the case that what she and her fellow citizen journalists do is more akin to creative nonfiction than it is to traditional political commentary. The immediacy of it gives it power — one of Kelly’s colleagues, writing for the Huffington Post, was the woman who broke the “Obama thinks that voters are bitter” furor. I advise you to read the whole of Kelly’s article to see her argument in full.

The online version of the magazine includes Kelly’s “Postcard from the Campaign Trail” that expands on her thoughts, and includes this paragraph:

I have an MFA in creative nonfiction: Reported, first-person pieces are what I do. I disclose information and use language to reveal my bias, and I expect the reader to take my work for what it is—the perspective of a single individual. I also take my task very seriously. I’m the eyes and ears for all the people who aren’t in the room, and I try to convey both the substance of what happens and also the mood, the setting, my own reaction and those of the people around me. These, the devices of fiction, are important in making a scene come alive. But they are especially critical in describing a presidential campaign, which can be sanitized by sound bites or spun into unrecognizable fluff by a press office. As citizens in a democracy, we need all the information we can get about the candidates and the apparatus that surrounds them. Creative nonfiction offers a lens that is colored by voice, tone, and critical intelligence.

Kelly’s thoughts remind me that, after all this time, creative nonfiction is still a term that a lot of people have problems understanding. I’ve had to define it innumerable times, sometimes even to people who work in publishing. Continue reading

Nonfiction Writing Awards

The winner of the UK based and BBC Radio Four sponsored Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction was announced a coupe of days ago: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale. The author receives £30,000, or $60,000 at today’s crapulous exchange rate. I think this makes it the richest purse for nonfiction in the world. Even the Pultizer prize winners only get a measly $10,000.

Being Brits, the organizers have to hyphenate nonfiction — something I choose not to do as I have been living in the States for nearly ten years now and besides, “non-fiction” just seems so…formal. Plus it puts more emphasis on the components of the word, which makes it seem like a reaction of a genre, defined in opposition to the “true art” of fiction. Am I the only one to hear the implied slur in that, or am I just being over sensitive?

I have actually been looking for an alternative to “nonfiction” for some time. Faction? Reality prose? Both gross — any better suggestions, anyone?