The Fine Art of Literary Fist-Fighting: How a Bunch of Rabble-Rousers, Outsiders, and Ne’er-do-wells Concocted Creative Nonfiction

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Release Date: 
January 23, 2024
Yale University Press
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The Fine Art of Literary Fist-Fighting . . . is often a graceful blend of memoir and history.”

Lee Gutkind, anointed with the mock title of “the godfather of creative nonfiction” by James Wolcott in a 1997 Vanity Fair essay that disparaged the genre and its myriad practitioners, has spent the better part of his writing and teaching career fighting about and for the meaning and status of a form of writing that has more pen names than Stephen King and J.K. Rowling combined.

If you don’t like the term creative nonfiction, try literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction. Maybe literary journalism or the new journalism sounds more grounded to you. Some would rather make the taxonomy more precise, deconstructing it into its constituent parts—the essay, memoir, travel writing, history, or biography. And the question of what to call this sort of writing is intimately connected to both aesthetics and ethics, giving rise to a range of practitioners of varying degrees of ability and morality. Thus, if readers look up the term creative nonfiction, they may come across the names of the disgraced James Frey and Clifford Irving or the esteemed Joan Didion and John McPhee.

Gutkind, the author of many respected works of literary journalism, had a long career at the University of Pittsburgh, where he helped found the nonfiction branch of the graduate program in creative writing. His most profound influence, however, can be seen in the impressive and long-running journal Creative Nonfiction, which he founded in 1997. Gutkind’s mock title and what some perceive as his self-canonization aside, he has done yeoman’s work bringing creative nonfiction to readers and opening the doors of the conservative academy to a factual writing that deserves a place besides poetry and fiction.

The Fine Art of Literary Fist-Fighting, its clumsy title notwithstanding, is often a graceful blend of memoir and history. As Gutkind takes the reader through his early outlaw status—a professor with no graduate degree, making him an outcast in academia; a wearer of leather jackets and motorcycle helmets amid the tweed jackets and bowtie set; and a chronicler of the stories of real people among a critical crowd of Marxists and New Historicists—he offers a brief history of literary nonfiction from Daniel Defoe’s early 18th century nonfiction hybrid A Journal of the Plague Year and Twain’s comic excursion around America and abroad in the 19th century to Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological immersions in the early 20th and Rebecca Skloot’s scientific suspense story The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, published in 2010.

In the spaces between Defoe and Skloot, Gutkind examines the usual nonfiction suspects of the 20th century: Jack London, George Orwell, Lillian Ross, Tom Wolfe, Rachel Carson, Gay Talese, George Plimpton, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Janet Malcolm, among others. As he details many of these writers’ contributions to the history of the form, he also shares breezy anecdotes about his encounters and friendships with many of them: Plimpton, McPhee, and Talese, to name a few. Gutkind’s survey works well for a general reader. It is both informing and entertaining, and his description of his assault on the ivy towers is one that aspiring writers and beginning professors need to hear.

Gutkind founded a conference on creative nonfiction at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland, that introduced hundreds of newcomers to the practice and the practitioners of the form. Besides serving many aspiring writers, the Goucher Conference operates as a narrative goldmine for Gutkind, who extracts funny and fascinating tales of Joyce Carol Oates’s sneakers or Vivian Gornick’s faux pas about making up material for her memoirs. Gutkind tells the stories of these writers, and he recalls the many successes of his former students who exited classrooms and conferences to make their way as writers of nonfiction.

Some readers may complain about the lack of attention paid to Joseph Mitchell or the absence of E. B. White and James Thurber, but Gutkind’s narrative is not intended to be a definitive analysis or history but rather the recounting of a memorable literary scuffle and one man’s writing and teaching life.

Others might find Gutkind’s writing a bit banal or redundant at times—“he had peculiarities—or tics you could call them,” “This tension—or should I say ‘power struggle’—was ongoing,” or “If I had my druthers—which is an interesting word. . . ..” Mark Twain might have advised that when in doubt, strike out some of this detritus. Gutkind’s book, and it has many merits, would be better if it didn’t drift into this type of redundancy—there are just too many “ghosts given up” and “towels thrown in” that clog the sentences.  But these are minor quibbles with a valuable account by a writer who engaged in the fray when creative nonfiction was in its infancy at a time when creative writing programs in America and around the world meant fiction and poetry exclusively.

Gutkind has done yeoman’s work in his career and in The Fine Art of Literary Fist-Fighting. Anyone interested in the embattled story of creative nonfiction in the hallowed halls of the academy should listen to what the godfather has to say.