Rosie Right: How to tell the truth 

For some reason, the term creative nonfiction has popped into my consciousness recently. Perhaps because on the surface it seems to refer to some of the phony news reports of plagiarized books and interviews that have been revealed in all their disgrace.

They certainly seem to be creative nonfiction. But, actually, creative nonfiction is a respectable form of writing that is, indeed, taught at universities. From what I have been able to discover, it is nonfiction written in a form that uses many of the devices that fiction and poetry use to make what the writer is telling us more colorful and immediate.

There are Web sites with academic discussions of the form. Phil Drucker of the University of Idaho on his site defines it as "a hybrid of literature and non-fiction. The facts come alive through narration and setting — or well developed scenes." But he warns: "Never invent or change facts or events."

The University of Pittsburgh advertises: "We were also the first and remain one of the few programs to offer a concentration in creative nonfiction."

In a Web discussion of the genre, Pittsburgh professor Bruce Dobler lists many nonfiction works that qualify for the description. These include Gay Talese's "Fame and Obscurity," Lewis Thomas' "Lives of a Cell," Tom Wolfe's "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son" and Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood."

The Web descriptions emphasize that creative nonfiction is factual and, as professor Drucker warns, it must not distort or change facts. And here is where we arrive at some ambiguity. The words creative nonfiction seem to the uninformed reader almost an oxymoron.

Life is so full these days of blurred moral distinctions that I am afraid it is going to take me, as a nonacademic, a while to become comfortable with a literary form called creative nonfiction. Next question: hyphenate nonfiction or not?

New Words:

Virtuecrats — those who want to demonstrate America's moral superiority to the world — Maureen Dowd, New York Times, Saturday, June 3.

Let Rosie hear from you by mail (1707 Summit Ave., Richmond, VA 23230); by e-mail (rozanne.epps@styleweekly.com);or by telephone (358-0825).

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