Creative Nonfiction vs. Non-fiction: What’s with the Hyphen?

Have any of you ever wondered why CNF is sometimes “nonfiction” and sometimes “non-fiction”? I know I sure have (then again, that curiosity might just reveal my utter geekiness). But really, why do people sometimes use the hyphen? How come they sometimes don’t? Why isn’t there some sort of consistency in the name of the genre? 

And does it actually matter? I think it does. If you consider “fiction” derives from the Latin fictiō, “to create,” then creative nonfiction roughly translates to “creative non-create.” Which, inherently, means the name for this genre makes no sense. “Creative non-create”–what does that even mean? That writing of any kind that takes root in fact or truth requires no creativity on the part of the author, in contrast to fiction, which is the pinnacle of creativity and imagination? I don’t believe that for a second. Hyphenating nonfiction, in my own personal opinion, just highlights the fact that CNF as a genre is defined solely and historically by the fact that it’s ‘not-fiction,’ ‘not-creating.’

And that hyphen is everywhere. Hello, Knightweb. Hello, Wikipedia. Hello, various literary journals and magazines and schools that use ‘non-fiction’ on their websites. Because of the overemphasis (over-emphasis?) I believe the hyphen puts on the genre’s lack of a proper name, there have been times when I’ve been looking at a websites for MFA programs or literary journals, seen that hyphen, and not wanted to look at the site any further. Which probably isn’t the best reason to disregard an otherwise highly respected graduate school or literary journal, and probably makes me seem pretentious, but then again…maybe I am?

On the flip side, besides my own personal vendetta against the hyphen, the technical grammatical rules for when-to-hyphen vs. when-not-to-hyphen are actually quite confusing and ambiguous at times. I learned that this past semester, when I was one of the Managing Editors for Gandy Dancer, and spent about three hours debating over whether a nonfiction piece entitled “Half Truths” should be hyphenated or not (when it’s a compound adjective modifying a noun & comes before the noun it’s hyphenated, when it comes after the noun it’s not, but when it is the noun and it’s the title…?). Realistically, the only reason why you’d really need to hyphenate nonfiction is because of the prefix “non.” But, according to this site, the only reason why you’d hyphenate a prefix is when the addition creates an awkward double vowel or consonant in the middle of the word (i.e., non-native vs. nonnative, ultra-ambitious vs. ultraambitious). Since that doubling doesn’t occur in nonfiction, I think grammar technically stands in my corner.

But what do you guys think? Does the hyphen (or lack thereof) in creative nonfiction actually matter–or am I just reading too much into this?

2 thoughts on “Creative Nonfiction vs. Non-fiction: What’s with the Hyphen?

  1. Stephen J. West

    Bravo, Katie! I am staunchly on Team Non-hyphen, ahem, NONhyphen. Maybe we should incite a revolution, our call to action sounded by renaming the genre Antifiction: a title that projects a deliberate and radical opposition to the elitism of literary imagination, as if it can only be found in the make-believe (hyphen intentional). Behold, the truthful hordes of Antifiction! The foundations of literature will shake at the force of our art-cum-fact!

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