The Evolving Face of Fiction: Literary non-fiction and Microfiction*

When we talk about “writing,” we expect to be directed to the usual genres of fiction, poetry, drama, and prose. However, today new genres and sub-genres are cropping up that blend, stretch, twist, and turn many of the existing genres and do it successfully no less! Two of such “new” genres that are gaining prominence are literary nonfiction and microfiction.

Non-fiction has been around for a while. But the new sub-genre that is being taught in the Universities in the US combines the creative streak of fiction with that of the factual basis of non-fiction is “Literary Nonfiction.” It’s also called Creative nonfiction, Factual fiction, Documentary narrative, and the literature of actuality. Of course, the source spring of this genre is good old storytelling. LNF has been around without anyone putting down a name for it. Remember Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood? That’s Literary Nonfiction.

The characteristics of LNF is that it tells a story that has happened but in a non-textual manner. That means that all the techniques that are used in writing fiction are employed here including character development, scene-setting, action sequences, dialog and interior monolog. The only thing that can be called as the distinguishing factor is the fact that LNF is based on real life incidents.

According to the University of Oregon’s Literary Nonfiction page, the LNF has a wide variety of concerns. One can write LNF while writing a memoir, personal essay, or even a biography. So the scope and size of LNF is as wide as fiction itself. One can talk about prison life as well as orange juice and still be a part of this genre!

Needless to say NLF is requires back breaking research especially if the subjects chosen are from history. For example, Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America chooses to concentrate on 1893 Chicago. So the research about that place and time needs to be thorough. On the other hand, if a subject that is more close at hand is chosen like Walt Harrington’s Crossings: A White Man’s Journey into Black America then the research required is more on the lines of meeting people rather than looking up dusty tomes in the library.

Is LNF purely an American phenomenon? Though writers from all over the world are drawn to this genre, at its core it can be seen as an American phenomenon. Madeline Blais, professor at the University of Massachusetts has this to say about LNF.

Literary nonfiction has a deep American backbone, fixed in the democratic notion that real stories about real people are worth telling. Literary nonfiction not only honors all the shibboleths of classical storytelling, but it also welcomes the best of other disciplines into the mix, giving it melting pot inclusiveness. (Blais)

Some of the classics in this field along with In Cold Blood are Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, Oranges by John McPhee, and Hell’s Angels by Hunter Thompson.

While literary nonfiction has been around for sometime, microfiction is gaining ground in the recent times. Unlike LNF, microfiction is a brash new genre that takes advantage of the diminishing attention spans of audiences worldwide. Some have called it “prose poems”, “short short stories”, “sudden fiction”, and “flash fiction” as well (Barenblat). Flash fiction story is any short story under 2000 words in length and typically less than 1000 words. Perhaps, in this age of information overload, this brevity accounts for the increasing popularity of microfiction.

Since this is an evolving genre, there are no distinguishing features except for the length. Some writers believe that this compressed form leads to the fiction being highly charged and full of energy. Typically, one work of microfiction will be about the same length as this article.

While using the same devices available to fiction writers, a writer of flash fiction must be extremely aware of the space constraint. Words, therefore, need to be very frugally used. That is the challenge of being a microfiction writer. However whatever be the constraints, the topics available to the writer of microfiction are endless. In sheer variety, microfiction can claim an upper hand.

Robert Shapard and James Thomas, in their latest edited collection Sudden Fiction (Continued) summed it up the best: “Each (story), whether traditional or experimental, proves that a tale told quickly offers pleasure long past its telling. This is serious fiction that’s fun to read.” (qtd in Hazard) There are a few anthologies in the market that have compiled the literature in this genre, though the production of microfiction is much much more as evidenced by their presence on the net. Some microfiction anthologies are Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Stories edited by Irving Howe, Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories edited by Jerome Stern, and Flash Fiction: Very Short Stories edited by James Thomas, and Sudden Fiction by Robert Shapard and James Thomas.
If one goes by the mantra that there is something for everybody when it comes to fiction, then Literary Nonfiction and microfiction satisfy the different fiction cravings of the reader. It’s fiction all right but with a twist. The two genres that extend the reaches of fiction and sometimes blur the edges of fiction and non fiction, and fiction and poetry are here to stay.


Works Cited

Barenblat, Rachel. “Prose Poems or Microfiction?” In Posse Review. Retrieved 16 August 2004. < http://www.webdelsol.com/InPosse/barenblat.htm>.

Blais, Madeleine. “Literary Nonfiction Constructs a Narrative Foundation.” Nieman Reports: The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University Vol. 54 No. 3 Fall 2000. Retrieved 16 August 2004. <http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/00-3NRfall/Literary-Nonfiction.html>.

Hazard, Shelly. What is Flash fiction? Homepage. Retrieved 23 August 2004. <http://www.fictioninaflash.com/page1003.html.>

Wallace, Ronald. Writers Try Short Shorts! (Parts I, II, and III). University of Wisconsin. Retrieved 17 August 2004. <http://mendota.english.wisc.edu/~WALLACE/short.html>.

What is Literary Nonfiction? University of Oregon. Retrieved 16 August 2004. .

__________

*I had written this piece a long time ago. This is one of my shortest literary articles. I thought I should post it. I had gone through the trouble of looking at resources and all that jazz. So, you could ignore the Works Cited list, if you want to. 🙂
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6 thoughts on “The Evolving Face of Fiction: Literary non-fiction and Microfiction*

  1. White Mughals, William Dalrymple.

    in recent times – one of the better examples of LNF. I haven’t read any of of the works cited at the end of your post – however – i think – you have presented a very lucid explanation of LNF.

    i haven’t experienced microfiction in any sense except for the stuff that i write (if it does qualify as microfiction), but LNF has kind of taken a liking to me – and seems to attract me to it’s shelf – irrespective of the book store.

    This was a very interesting read – thank you.

    PS: would you consider allowing non blogspot.com users to comment? 😉

  2. very informative, and imho, truly well presented too. i can also imagine the kinda research that went into this write up – thanks for sharing!

    capote also gave birth to a new kind of journalism – of reporting through the mind of someone who was actually at the scene of happening – almost ‘getting into’ the person’s head.

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