Betrayals Along the Path to Truth
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.
Fact or Fiction? Go Write A Novel
Okay, I’m at least twelve hours late. I intended to post a quick entry this morning about Capote, the movie, which I saw and liked very much, but along the path to posting I got waylaid thinking about the fact versus fiction argument that springs eternal, especially when Capote’s name is mentioned. Before I lead you through my own digression, let me say that the acting in the three main roles — Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Catherine Keener as Nelle Harper Lee, and Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith — was outstanding. Their characterizations were incredibly understated and immensely powerful, no small feat, especially for the role of Truman Capote.
The movie is based on the book Capote by Gerald Clarke, which I have not read. Actually, I had not even planned to read it, but after reading Capote: A Biographer’s Story, a two-page essay in the Sony Pictures press kit (pages 5 and 6) in which Gerald Clarke explains how he came to write the book, with Capote’s cooperation, I think I will read the biography. In a process that lasted more than thirteen years, Clarke personally met and got to know all the main characters, except of course the two killers who were executed so he based his knowledge of them on the lengthy letters they wrote to Truman.
Clarke reports that he worked closely with screenwriter Dan Futterman, allowing him to use the letters to create dialog for the movie. Bennett Miller, the film’s director, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Truman, peppered him with questions about Truman’s habits and gestures, and Hoffman studied audio tapes of his conversations with Capote to recreate Truman’s voice patterns and inflections. Clarke believes that Hoffman “has done more than impersonate Truman. For the length of the movie he has resurrected him.”
That’s a ringing endorsement if I ever heard one, so I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the movie or the book…unless I choose to question Clarke’s ability to ferret real fact from Truman Capote’s self-serving, ego-aggrandizing reflections and recollections, or wonder if Clarke’s relationship with Capote was fraught with the same quality of duplicity that permeated Capote’s relationship with Perry.
It would be an easier existence if things could simply be right or wrong, true or false, fact or fiction, but like water is to earth, 70-75% of life seems to fall within the gray area, neither black nor white, fish nor fowl.
Mr. CultureSpace says
I don’t know how accurate Capote is, and, to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter. A film, I have always believed, must work within its own parameters; its faithfulness to its source material is secondary, if it matters at all….
To which Terry Teachout replies
O.K., I take the point—but what if the “source material” is the historical record? Does it “matter” if an artfully made docudrama contains significant distortions that large numbers of ordinary folk come to regard as the whole truth and nothing but?
I draw a line between the fictive nature of one’s memory and the conscious manipulation of information. I also draw a line at lying to one’s readers. I was outraged when I learned that Capote had created a fictional ending for In Cold Blood, but Edmund Morris’ use of a fictional character in Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, did not bother me because he not only disclosed, but explained the use of this literary license up front, describing it as ” a literary embodiment of the biographer’s own persona.” In the case of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, I was disappointed to read his admission, at the very end, that he had “taken certain storytelling liberties, particularly having to do with the timing of events.” At least he did not keep it secret. His rationale? “Where the narrative strays from strict nonfiction, my intention has been to remain faithful to the characters and to the essential drift of events as they really happened.”
When writers say things like that, or use phrases like “the greater truth,” I have to wonder what a writer can possible do to make the truth greater than it really is. Some writers talk about the narrative needs, good storytelling forms and conventions, to which I say, if you can’t tell a story the way it really happened, go write a novel.
Yes, I know that’s my simplistic side talking, the one who sees only right and wrong. So when in doubt, I consult the masters of my craft, people such as Roy Peter Clark and Lee Gutkind.
Clark is a Senior Scholar at Poynter Institute, a non-degree school for journalists in Florida. In his piece titled The Line Between Fact and Fiction he wrote:
Hersey [author of Hiroshima] draws an important distinction, a crucial one for our purposes. He admits that subjectivity and selectivity are necessary and inevitable in journalism. If you gather 10 facts but wind up using nine, subjectivity sets in. This process of subtraction can lead to distortion. Context can drop out, or history, or nuance, or qualification or alternative perspectives.
While subtraction may distort the reality the journalist is trying to represent, the result is still nonfiction, is still journalism. The addition of invented material, however, changes the nature of the beast. When we add a scene that did not occur or a quote that was never uttered, we cross the line into fiction. And we deceive the reader.
This distinction leads us to two cornerstone principles: Do not add. Do not deceive.
Gutkind, despite being derisively dubbed the “Godfather of Creative Nonfiction” by James Wolcott in a Vanity Fair article a few years back, is a much respected author and teacher – actually the first to teach a creative nonfiction writing course at the university level. In The Creative Nonfiction Police, a December 2001 article in AWP (Associated Writing Programs), Gutkind asks:
Are we more deceived by Truman Capote, who did not take notes and relied on memory to retell the horrible story of the murder of the Clutter family in In Cold Blood, or Michael Chabon who disguised real characters and situations in his novel, Wonder Boys?
Maybe the issues are cloudy and the answers gray, but Gutkind does have a prescription for creative nonfiction writers:
First, strive for the truth.
Second, recognize the important distinction between recollected conversation and fabricated dialogue.
Third, don’t round corners—or compress situations or characters—unnecessarily.
Fourth, one way to protect the characters in your book, article, or essay is to allow them to defend themselves—or at least to read what you have written about them.
Wherever you draw the line between fiction and nonfiction remember the basic rules of good citizenship: Do not recreate incidents and characters who never existed; do not write to do harm to innocent victims; do not forget your own story, but while considering your struggle and the heights of your achievements, think repeatedly about how your story will impact on and relate to your reader. Over and above the creation of a seamless narrative, you are seeking to touch and affect someone else’s life—which is the goal creative nonfiction writers share with novelists and poets. We all want to connect with another human being—as many people as possible—in such a way that they will remember us and share our legacy with others.
Amen, and have a great weekend.
And oh, if you haven’t seen Capote yet, go.
Shirley Horn on NPR
Tomorrow, Friday, Oct. 28th, Terry Gross is re-broadcasting a 1992 program featuring an interview with and performances by Shirley Horn. Check with your local NPR station for airtimes.
I’ve Got Mail: Greener Grass
Pliable from On An Overgrown Path wrote to me last week, after I discovered his blog and commented here on a post about Michel Petrucianni.
Wow – you actually knew Michel. I worked with Bernstein, Previn, von Karajan and others in my days in classical music (see this link for a photo ) but I would have really valued hearing Michel Petrucciani live, yet alone meeting him.
To which I reply: Wow — Bernstein, Previn and von Karajan, I would love to have known them! Having had a privileged New York City childhood, I attended Bernstein’s Children’s Concerts and loved him from afar. My dad knows Previn, having recorded with him (A Different Kind of Blues and It’s a Breeze), but I have never met Previn nor von Karajan, let alone seen either perform in person. Wish that I had. The grass is always greener.
Pliable tells me
I was lucky enough to catch the Trio Hum – Daniel Humair/ Rene Urtreger and late lamented Pierre Michelot in Bergerac a few years back – do you know the piano playing of Rene Urtreger? a very under-rated pianist I think.
Daniel recorded with my dad [It’s Nice to Be With You: Jim Hall in Berlin with Jimmy Woode (bass) and Daniel Humair (drums) – recorded in Berlin, Germany, June 1969 for MPS], and Pierre (who I lamented here) played with my ex at a Paris nightclub a few decades ago, so I knew them both, but I was not familiar with Urtreger. A little quick googling yielded a clip or two and a newly purchased CD (Joue Bud Powell ) is on its way to me now. Pliable has good taste! If you haven’t visited On An Overgrown Path yet, please do — you will not be disappointed.
Speaking of Photos
Speaking of photos, I just got a photo from the retirement party in Atlanta (read about it here and here). Dave is the retiree ( on the right holding the framed congratulations letter from Nancy Wilson) and his buddy, Stan, who wrote to me requesting the letter is wearing a tie.
I am still waiting to receive pix from my surprise birthday party — both “photographers” had to go out of town, but they have returned home now and I hope to see the shots soon. If I’m not too embarassed, I’ll share.
I’d really like nothing better than to stay in bed today — the weather is perfect for it (overcast and damp) and I am catching a cold (the first one in a very long time, years, I think) — but it is not to be. Today I must pack up the kitchen in preparation for renovation. Demolition is supposed to start on Monday. Demolition is really too strong a word, we’re not gutting and rebuilding; in fact the floor plan will barely change…well, maybe just a little. The refrigerator will shift position opening up a space to extend a secondary counter just a tad. The cabinets will get a facelift, and a few will be reconfigured on the inside so that the deeper recesses will have pull-out shelves for easier access. But the real deal is the kitchen counter, which is huge (12′ x 4′), central to the house and opens to the family room. This will become the design focal point of the space with bold new tiles. (Can you tell I’ve been watching too much HGTV?) I don’t like small tiles or lots of grout, so the tiles are 13″ X 13″ Galaxy Red — the name is deceptive as the color is not red at all; really more reddish-brown with golden tones.
You learn a lot when you do these projects (No, I’m not doing the work, just the planning). Tiles are much less costly than slabs of granite or marble, but they get you on the trim pieces. Whatever the tile might cost per square foot, the V-cap (that’s the counter edging) might cost eight to ten times as much for a 6-inch piece. Same goes for the corners and beaks. I got around this by abandoning the Galaxy in lieu of complimentary but less expensive trim pieces from a different company.
As for the rest of the plans, the linoleum floor will also be replaced with ceramic tile — Bengali Beige — which has a few veins of golden brown in it that match the counter (hard to tell in these pix), and the long-past-its-prime wall-to-wall carpet in the family room will give way to bamboo flooring, economical and ecologically friendly as bamboo is what they call a renewable resource.
So that’s the overview of what’s to come. Maybe I’ll post before and after pix…we’ll see.
Enjoy the Journey – IV
In the end, nothing we do or say in this lifetime will matter as much as the way we have loved one another.
— Daphne Rose Kingma, therapist, bestselling author, and frequent Oprah guest
I’m not big on promoting self-help authors and talk-show guests; in fact, I’d never heard of Kingma before, but she’s the one to whom this words are attributed and I like the quotation. This line seems particularly fitting not just as one in the series of thoughts related to contemplating one’s life at age fifty, but also in light of the recent deaths of people I know.
Shirley Horn was much loved by fans and friends as well as family. And it was, in fact, Shirley’s love of her own family that was responsible for the long delay in her career — some obituaries might imply that jazz audiences were lacking, but in the 1960s, Shirley was on the verge of “making it big” when she opted to stay home with her husband to raise their daughter.
The wife of a long-time friend of my parents also died recently. I have known this couple for as long as I can remember, but I have not been in touch with them for several years. Time has a way of slipping by…if you let it. Who haven’t you spoken to lately?
Another recent death is closer to home — my uncle died a few days ago and I am on my way to San Diego for the funeral. Despite the sad occasion, I am looking forward to seeing my cousins and meeting their children. I am taking the train and travelling light — no computer — so you won’t hear from me again until Wednesday.
John Levy Remembers Shirley Horn
Shirley Horn died last night; her daughter called us this morning. We hadn’t seen Shirley since she appeared in Las Vegas at the Johnny Pate 80th Birthday concert and celebration, playing in public for the first time with her then new prosthesis, but earlier this year she called several times, more often than in years past. I wonder now if she knew then how ill she was, but just didn’t say.
I have posted an excerpt from chapter thirteen of “Men, Women, and Girl Singers“ ; John was Shirley’s manager way back when and they remained close friends throughout her life.
When I first heard her, I did not know the full extent of her musical genius. But I did know that she was special. Actually I didn’t even know whose voice I was listening to on the radio in my office. And I was even more intrigued by the sound of the piano accompaniment.
Here is the complete excerpt.
Enjoy the Journey – III
Friday October 21st 2005, 7:40 am
Filed under: Quotables
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
More Jazz Masters Links
In this post, Rifftides directed readers to some nifty info on the NEA web site. One of his links takes you to the Jazz Masters for 2006 (of which my husband is one), and another link to the Jazz Masters Features page where you will find links to a photo gallery (Images), a couple of interviews (Conversations), as well as the great group picture that was shot at the luncheon at the Hilton Hotel in NYC in January 2004. Only 23 of the 73 Jazz Masters at that time are in that photo. If you’d like to see the complete list of all the Jazz Masters with links to bios and various other goodies for each person (sometimes video clips, discographies, interview clips…), visit the IAJE web site, here for the first 73, here for the seven awarded in 2005.
P.S. For those of you in the Los Angeles area, soon-to-be Jazz Master John Levy will be the guest Friday evening (October 21th – 8 PM) at the World Stage for the second of this Fall’s World Stage Stories events in Leimert Park (4344 Degnan Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90008 | one block east of Crenshaw, north of Vernon between 43rd Place and 43rd Street |
FREE AND AMPLE PARKING!).
P.P.S. New Yorkers, save the date Thursday, November 10th, 6:30 pm-8:00 pm — John will be he guest of the Jazz Museum in Harlem for one of their Harlem Speaks events (104 E. 126th Street
New York, N.Y. 10035 | admission is free, for reservations call the museum at 212.348.8300).