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Thursday, Feb. 2, 2006 09:48 am

Just the facts?

There’s a new kid in town and his name is creative nonfiction.

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The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece By Jonathan Harr, Random House, 2005, 288 pages, $24.95.
I used to work in a library, and the person I most envied there was the cataloger. She got to see all of the new books first and decide where they would reside in the cozy confines of the Dewey decimal system. Agatha Christie was always in the mystery section, and you could bet your brother’s best baseball card that art history was gonna be in the 700s. Those were the good old days. Now there’s a new kid in town, and his name is creative nonfiction. Oh, it’s true, his ancestors have been around a few years. In the 1960s Tom Wolfe and company invented New Journalism. Twenty years later, Tracy Kidder performed the miracle of making the history of the computer not just readable but fun in The Soul of a New Machine. Creative nonfiction even has cousins on the fiction shelves — does The Da Vinci Code ring any bells? It used to be, you could walk into a bookstore and know that the facts were on one side and fancy on other. Now facts are fanciful and fiction is dripping with the “truth.” Is there really a line between reality and fantasy? Despite what the evening-TV listings would have us believe, the answer is yes. But the reading public is no longer satisfied with your “just the facts, ma’am” cuppa black joe. They want their choco-mocha latte. Lucky for them there is no shortage of writers ready to whip something up. I just finished reading Jonathan Harr’s The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece. Harr’s award-winning A Civil Action has been hailed as “the best book ever written on the legal system.” Although I doubt that his latest effort will find the same acclaim with art historians, it is nonetheless a captivating tale. Over the course of 400 years, a masterpiece disappears, and the scholarly detective work it takes to track it down gives this real story enough mystery to keep one turning the pages. It has all the elements that make creative nonfiction appealing: drama, dialogue, and descriptions that might be used by fiction writers. As one expert on the subject puts it, creative nonfiction “allows a writer to employ the diligence of a reporter, the shifting voices and viewpoints of a novelist, the refined wordplay of a poet and the analytical modes of the essayist.” There are cautionary tales in the world of creative nonfiction. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club, purports to be the tale of one man’s struggle to overcome his drug addiction. But as Thesmokinggun.com recently revealed, the book might have been more accurately titled “a million little lies,” given their investigation, which alleges that Frey invented much of what he claims to be factual. You can walk into any bookstore and find a table of new creative-nonfiction titles — or, if you want to sample some that are tried and true, here are a few suggestions: James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son; Truman Capote, In Cold Blood; Joan Didion, The White Album; Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood; Alex Haley and Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Michael Herr, Dispatches; John Hersey, Hiroshima; Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior; Tracy Kidder, House; Alex Kotlowitz, There Are No Children Here; Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes; John McPhee, Coming into the Country; Kathleen Norris, Dakota and The Cloister Walk; Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief; Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb; Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On; Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China; Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell; Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Hell’s Angels; Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life.
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