The glory of nonfiction

from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s interview with James Norton for Flak Magazine

“I believe in the glory of nonfiction. I don’t believe in the hierarchy of genres that seems to prevail in the United States. Is the novel the higher calling, or is poetry the higher calling? Frankly I think nonfiction is equally great and equally profound—and often gloriously better. I’m a convert to my own genre, is the way I’d say it. You meet a lot of nonfiction writers who feel their next step ought to be to write a novel, and for a lot of them, it’s just not a good idea. The number who have actually pulled it off is actually very small.”

“My influences as a writer come out of a lifetime as a reader. It draws from all over the map. It comes from the real training I got as a Ph.D. scholar, reading 18th-century and 17th-century prose in depth. It comes really out of a love of all sorts of writers—at the moment, John McPhee and Joan Didion, essays by Richard Rodriguez, some by Annie Dillard . . . It’s a very eclectic range of influences, and they have more to do with what I hear in my ear than what I see in nature.”


Filed under creative nonfiction, Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, journalism, NOTED, poetry, research

6 responses to “The glory of nonfiction

  1. Brian

    Well put! I’ve never heard of Klinkenborg, but I will look him up.

  2. Thanks! He is an editorial writer for The New York Times and writes the occasional “Rural Life” column. He is a stylist, and his nonfiction books are elegant, personal, and deeply reported, observed, and researched. His strange novel Timothy, or Notes of an Abject Reptile, is written from the point of view of a famous English naturalist’s pet tortoise; I love it, but it is one of those books people either love or hate.

  3. I like that phrase “hierarchy of genres.” That does seem to be a prevalent idea. I think, though, it must’ve climbed from Romanticism and great man/great ideas theories.

  4. Good point, a likely source indeed.

  5. John

    I have a difficult time with criteria for whether or not to reference the stuff that pops into my mind.

  6. Yes, I think there’s a tension with that, especially in different genres of nonfiction: a strictly journalistic or scholarly account may require attribution or emendation. In a memoir, the unbidden stuff may represent a rich vein of discovery to explore. But in both cases, the gift from the unconscious may need to be moved, repositioned for greater effect or because credit or elaboration makes it more appropriate in a different spot.