Manifesto

Robin Hemley & Leila Philip


Despite the ascendancy of the lyric essay as a form over the past two decades, the essay, whether lyric or otherwise, is still pegged to the category of nonfiction, an amorphous genre that to date has included everything from memoir to journalism to criticism. Any definition of nonfiction will include some variation of the idea that, foremost, literary nonfiction considers what is ‘informative’ and ‘factual’. But are such definitions limiting where many essayists and writers of sustained nonfiction narrative are concerned?

To take the matter further, must an essay, as a subset of nonfiction, entertain ‘thing-ness’ or the empirical world at all? Or is the truth of an essay sometimes the speculative endeavor itself, a literary engagement not with things or facts, but with a tidal wave of strange imaginings? A “Speculative Essay” concerns itself with the figurative over the literal, ambiguity over knowing, meditation over reportage.

For some writers, in all manner of nonfiction subgenres, from nature writers to literary journalists to personal essayists, facts as such matter for the ways they open paths to speculation. As Vladimir Nabokov most famously said, “The writer needs the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.”

While formal speculation is often conflated with the lyric essay, the lyric essay does not own speculation. Essays that tilt more towards metaphor than fact exist in a crack between genres that has as yet remained unclassifiable. Nonfiction narratives that use speculation as methodology and content are equally hard to classify under the current semantics.

Thus we propose the lens of speculative nonfiction. With this journal we hope to begin a new dialogue about this exciting corner of literary activity; we aim to set aside that tired dog of truth vs. fiction and consider afresh the literary territories nonfiction is charting in the 21st century.