Nonfiction’s older than the English language, but it’s when I go hunting for scholarship on book-length works of narrative nonfiction that I remember how—as far as the academy is concerned—the genre is young and new.
Check out how these two articles on The Right Stuff open. These are initial sentences.
From Charles S. Ross’s “The Rhetoric of The Right Stuff“, pub’d summer 1981 in The Journal of General Education:
Not to be confused with the novelist Thomas Wolfe, who borrowed the name of his most well-known book, Look Homeward, Angel, from Milton, Tom Wolfe is a New York journalist who has been publishing books with catchy titles since his Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby appeared in 1965.
And here’s Spencer Brown, reviewing TRS alongside three other NF books for The Sewanee Review in 1980:
If pressed to find a trait common to these four dissimilar writers, I should point to their sophistication, their being very With It.
It was The Right Stuff that lifted Tom Wolfe into his current station, but putting aside the “Lemme tell you about this weirdo of the moment you’ve probably never heard of” presumptions, there’s a kind of nervous hand here. Or an uncertainty of how to get going.
Every other week I’m shown links to articles online about how PhD school is worthless because no one gets tenure-track jobs. It’s untrue. People get these jobs every year. I’d say one bang-up plan for one’s doctoral studies would be some critical work on contemporary nonfiction, because like it’s easier finding sympathetic online reviews of Jonathan Franzen novels than it is anything anywhere on nonfiction books.
But then again: why would anyone bother studying this when there are fewer English departments in the country interested in hiring in this field than there are sufferable Jonathan Franzen memoir pieces in The New Yorker since, oh, the Clinton era?
Am I wrong? The novel died last year, and I think it died the year before that, too. Why isn’t the academy—and let’s not all piss on the academy, where many smart and hard-working people make their livings—moving on with the rest of us?