Creative Nonfiction, the magazine, has begun to suck.
I’ve subscribed to the genre’s flagship journal, Creative Nonfiction (abbreviated “CNF”), for eight years, since issue #21, and recently it’s changed its format, logo, ad policy and placement, and (here’s my beef) quality. The journal version had a dullish cover; its new format’s cover is still dullish but sized for newsstand sales. Editor Lee Gutkind (“the godfather of creative nonfiction”) and staff used to send me a semiannual so filled with thrilling essays that reading it was a kind of debauchery, and I set it aside until I could fully savor it, as if it were a box of chocolates. And I worked for the day that I would believe I’d written something good enough to send there.
Subscribe to CNF and you will receive its anthologies from time to time. In Fact (2004), was a winner I assigned to a dozen of my classes, and The Best Creative Nonfiction (2007) showcased daringly different shapes for creative nonfiction and included essays culled from other litmags such as PMS (poemmemoirstory). The Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 2 I threw away. I’m tired of reading about how lost and lonely a man feels after paying for a blowjob. The Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 3 (2009) didn’t make a lot of sense, but one of its essays, “The Face of Seung Hui Cho,” about the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre, was such a knockout that I sent its author, Wesley Yang, a fan letter.
The format change began with issue #39, and the current issue, #40, is the second of this type. CNF fills these big pages with white space, hideous illustrations, big “pull quotes,” and ads for MFA programs, but the body type is freakishly tiny (9 point? 8 point? at least one point smaller than the old type). There’s a sense of hollowness, and darn it, they’ll fill the hollow with fevered prose about breast cancer (by a famous name, but written as if she’s the first ever afflicted and the first to write about it), the winners of CNF’s daily tweet contest (#cnftweet), and, in the current issue, #40, themed “Animals,” with nothing-to-say narratives by writers with famous names describing their raccoon problems or their daughter’s pet mice, or their ditz of a spendthrift father; and a crossword puzzle. No lie! And maybe the worst: lyric essays, low on substance but done up in diva prose. That’s prose which requires the use of the word “thus.” Or Tinkerbelle prose, which requires the word “chrysalis.” Even Philip Lopate’s column, and the interview with Lauren Slater (who owes her fame to CNF) say nothing new. Thanks, Lauren, for telling the world that writers of creative nonfiction have to make stuff up. We don’t.
I’m never against change and maybe the new CNF is just getting its legs and will prosper. Hope so. Reading #39 and #40 I realized what I want: essays searing enough to shift my perceptions, esthetics, and boundaries, and my whole life. I want the “human news” the best essays deliver. I want the cutting edge of the expanding universe of creative nonfiction. I want to be spellbound by sheer excellence. I want creative nonfiction so real it makes me writhe. The editors know what I mean.