On September 9, 2003 Newsday published a piece by Aileen Jacobson titled Taking Liberties: With true-life novels, literary journalism and courses in creative nonfiction, the land between fact and fiction is publishing’s booming neighborhood. And she opens with an italicized caveat:
This article is a work of nonfiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s reporting and are used factually. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely intentional.
Once upon a time, I was safe in the assumption that what was printed in a newspaper was factual, unless of course it was on the op-ed page in which case it was opinion or propaganda. Who, what, where, when and why. The same was true for television’s news programs. The lines are blurring such that it is no longer possible to know anything with certainty. The evening news was once the purview of Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite types — hard-bitten journalists that worked their way up to the anchor desk with years of field reporting and sleuthing under their soles — and we trusted them. (Okay, so I’m dating myself.) Today we get airbrushed talking-heads reading Teleprompters and regaling us with infotainment.
Nonfiction books were also purported to be the truth, and nothing but the truth, that’s what made them different from historical fiction and other novels. Historical fiction used to be my favorite genre – but even as a teen, devouring works by works by Leon Uris, Irving Stone, and Robert K. Massie, I knew that I was reading fiction even if I assumed that the basic historical facts were accurate. And if I did make such an assumption, no matter the depth or bredth of that author’s research, I still would not have dreamed of using Exodus or Lust for Life as factual sources for a research paper. Whether it’s biographical fiction, or just the inclusion of famous people in stories other than their own, a la E.L. Doctorow, it matters not to me, as long as you admit that it’s a figment of the writer’s imagination.
In response to Mr. CultureSpace’s Capote posting, Darren of Long Pauses responded with a comment in which he quoted Doctorow as saying “I’m absolutely convinced everything in my novel is true even if none of it ever happened.”
The arts, when well-crafted, have great powers, among them the ability to make one believe or to suspend disbelief. And those who wield power have a responsibility to use it wisely, fairly, and honestly.
Jacobson’s Newsday article also mentions the ruckus reported on Salon.com over some remarks by Vivian Gornick. The title of the Salon piece (written by my colleague and fellow Goucher alumna Terry Greene Sterling) asks the crucial question:
Confessions of a memoirist: Acclaimed writer Vivian Gornick admits fudging the facts to a roomful of journalists. Did she exercise creative license — or betray her readers?
In the case of memoir, Ms. Gornick makes “a definite distinction between what the writer of personal narrative does, and what the writer of biography, newspaper writing, or literary journalism does.” She writes:
To state the case briefly: memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.
I may applaud her goals, but I don’t think readers misunderstand; they are misled. It is the author’s right to set the terms of the contract with his or her readers, and the author’s obligation to make those terms clear. That’s the crux of it for me – betrayal is where I draw the line. Or at least I try.
Authors should not, and need not, lie to their readers. Nor should they lie to their sources, and that brings up another can or worms related to narrative nonfiction. A certain degree of trust must exist between the subject and the writer, but is it possible for a writer earn that trust without misleading the subject? The simple answer is yes, but in practice it is not so easy. Leah Garchik in her column in Friday’s San Francisco Chronicle writes about an interview with Mike Wallace and journalists’ use of the phrase “between you and me” to elicit conspiratorial confidences even when cameras and tape recorders are rolling. “Isn’t saying “between you and me” somewhat duplicitous?” she asked. Not surprisingly, she also asked Wallace if he’d seen Capote (he had not).
Janet Malcolm opens her slender put powerful work — The Journalist and the Murderer — with the following statements:
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson.
Oh no, not me, I say. But in truth it’s a sliding scale: some are more or less deceptive than others, and few, if any, are pure. On the more benign end of the scale, our lies are usually ones of omission – we keep our reactions and judgments to ourselves. It’s a balancing act: if you like your subject, you still have an obligation to your readers to tell the whole story, show the whole person, warts and all; and if you don’t like your subject, you still have an obligation to illuminate all sides of a story. Malcolm wrote:
“What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s skepticism. Journalists who swallow the subject’s account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.”
This balancing act is one of the things that make writing narrative nonfiction so difficult. As usual, the grass is always greener on the other side. Novelists need not abide by the rules….well, that’s not really true, they just have a different set of rules. Malcolm describes the difference between fiction and nonfiction:
…the writer of fiction is entitled to more privileges. He is master of his own house and may do what he likes in it; he may even tear it down if he is so inclined…But the writer of nonfiction is only a renter, who must abide by the conditions of the lease, which stipulates that he leave the house—and its name is Actuality—as he found it. He may bring in his own furniture and arrange it as he likes (the so-called New Journalism is about the arrangement of furniture), and he may play his radio quietly. But he must not disturb the house’s fundamental structure or tamper with any of its architectural features. The writer of nonfiction is under contract to the reader to limit himself to events that actually occurred and to characters who have counterparts in real life, and he may not embellish the truth about these events or these characters.
Whichever path you choose, be true to yourself, respectful of your subjects, and honest with your readers.