How Do We Draw the Limit on Genre?

Written By: Alyssa Carbutti

Is there really such a thing as true creative nonfiction? Of course, there are works that claim to be based solely on the truth, but what are the guidelines for “truth”? Nobody is monitoring how much creative liberty an author takes. I suppose there is no real solution for determining how honest something is unless it’s based on solid facts. A work that is inspired by an author’s memory can never fully be accurate because memory itself is such an unreliable tool. Things get blurry as time passes. The emotions felt during the actual memory might fade away, resulting in different emotions during reflection. Does this emotional shift result in dishonest work? Or is the shiftiness of memory something that is excused within creative work? Something assumed? Things become very unspecific and the timeline jumps around, skipping over the dark holes of what’s forgotten. 

It is in this way that memory sometimes creates: it embellishes the blanks with the imagined. It becomes almost impossible to distinguish the imagined from the what is concretely remembered because everything blends together in a thematic collection of moments. I don’t say “truth” here because I think there is a certain honesty in the unknown. I am simply unsure of the limits. I feel that there is some honesty in recreating a scene based on the descriptions of someone who was in the memory with you. It is not your memory, but it is a memory nonetheless. Things become dishonest when there is no evidence, or help from others to recreate a memory or a place that you have forgotten. 

The genre of fiction can also be questioned. Can someone really create something that doesn’t already exist in some capacity? Is it really possible to dream up a monster that doesn’t resemble some collage of features from real life animals? Think of the Kraken…it looks awfully similar to a giant octopus or squid. The imagined seems to always be based on what’s real. Many stories labeled as fiction contain plot lines that are very similar to events of the author’s life, or a story the person heard about. A lot of fictional characters draw inspiration from real people. Some authors write entire books about their real life, change all the names, and call it fiction because they don’t want anyone to know it’s true. They’re either protecting someone, or they don’t want to own their story. 

The lines of these two genres seem very blurry to me. As a reader, I trust the author of any nonfiction story to resist embellishing the truth to a certain extent. I hope they value honesty as much as I do, but I’ll never really know. When I read fiction I’m always suspicious of the truth. I try to pick out the parts of the story that feel too specific to be entirely made up. I try to see through the emotions that feel too accurately described. 

Genre aside, when I’m reading any book, I simply focus on the writing. Does it capture me? Does it thrill me? Does it transport me past the time and place I think I’m in before I open up the pages? 

I can’t help but wonder if we really need the genre labels. Stylistically and structurally the genres are the same, aside from poetry. I think there is fiction in the truth, the made up embellishments. Or even fiction in what’s left untold. It lies in what the author can’t bring themself to jot down on the paper, sealed with shiny immortal ink. Fiction also contains truth. I think in order to accurately describe an emotion you have to know what it feels like. To describe a place, you have to have been somewhere like it or done an incredible amount of research. The writing will always reveal what is true and  what is imagined. Everything is simply creative work—a beautiful mess of words and feelings. 

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