Creative nonfiction is a trendy, if controversial, literary genre. Where lies the line between creative nonfiction and just plain ol’ fiction? It’s often difficult to tell, but Lee Gutkind does his best to explain in You Can't Make This Stuff Up.
Part cultural history, part how-to, Gutkind's
guide expands on the do’s and don'ts of the genre and simultaneously skewers and revels in his own status as the “godfather” of creative nonfiction. Gutkind is an author and editor of nearly 30 nonfiction books, including the annual
The Best of Creative Nonfiction volumes.
The history lesson portion of the book is a swift read through the genre’s ascension to popularity, as well as a cautionary tale highlighting the many scandals that have derailed writers’ careers and titillated readers. Gutkind spotlights a handful of writers who got a little too creative with the nonfiction and pushed their fabricated stories as true-to-life events.
The cautionary tales are intriguing, but for writers the more compelling content is how to avoid become the next James Frey--nobody wants to traumatize Oprah to where she can’t sleep at night. Gutkind addresses the gray areas of quote attribution, timeline compression, and other storytelling techniques that can create problems for writers.
The writer is indeed the focus here, specifically experienced writers who are looking for a new avenue to explore. Gutkind sprinkles in writing exercises throughout You Can't Make This Stuff Up in a way that the book comes across as an enjoyable textbook. The writing exercises provide an outline for writers to follow as they pursue creative nonfiction interests. Published examples are evaluated and essentially picked apart with an eye on uncovering what works in the genre, and what should be avoided. Like any good writing how-to, Gutkind stresses realistic expectations but also provides the kick in the pants to never give up and always soldier on as a writer. Focus on always becoming a better writer.
Memoirists and journalists looking for a fresh approach or a change of pace would do well with You Can't Make This Stuff Up. Everyone else can enjoy a quick and enjoyable trot through an often maligned but compelling and growing literary genre.