What’s the Story #44

Ok: So it has happened again, just as it does every few years—we’re embroiled in a discussion of Truth in nonfiction.

At this point, you probably know the drill: Some writer, ostensibly of creative nonfiction, pulls the wool over our eyes and tells us a fascinating, compelling, enlightening, unforgettable true story … that turns out to be a lie. Then the media jumps in—every newspaper, blog and magazine adding its two cents and reminding us of other examples of the horrific nature of creative nonfiction or narrative journalism: John Berendt made up dialogue and rearranged the story chronology in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil! Herman Rosenblat’s Angel at the Fence, a dramatic Holocaust love story, which was featured twice on Oprah, turned out to be a complete fiction! And let’s not forget Janet Cooke, who won the Pulitzer Prize in the 1980s for feature reporting for her Jimmy’s World story about an 8-year-old heroin addict who turned out not to exist. And Greg Mortensen’s accuracy in the bestselling Three Cups of Tea was questioned by Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild) on CBS’s 60 Minutes. The list of fakers and rascals is long and boring, and sometimes the accusations are unfair or overblown. 

But these mini scandals and the coverage they receive diminish the prestige and reputation of narrative/creative nonfiction, which is of special interest to the many readers of this publication who are writers, editors and teachers of the genre. But whoever you are, whatever your age or profession, nobody likes to be bamboozled, especially by a colleague, especially after spending money on a book and a weekend reading it. Or, worse, recommending it to friends or assigning it to a class.

But the most recent mess in the nonfiction storytelling world is considerably different. John D’Agata, who teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa and is co-author with Jim Fingal, a fact-checker for The Believer, of the controversial book The Lifespan of a Fact—is not exactly trying to fool or mislead readers or, for that matter, bowl them over with stories of redemption like Frey or heartwarming love like Rosenblat or dark and gothic murder like Berendt.

Rather, he tells readers, point-blank, that he is lying in the essay at the center of the book and justifies the violation by claiming he is making stuff up—fabricating fact—in the name of “art.”

I can accept the idea that exaggerating an event or situation, or compressing time periods, or creating composite characters may possibly help a nonfiction writer make his or her point more effectively—although I believe this is only rarely truly necessary. And as a reader, I hope and expect that in those rare situations, I am in one way or another made aware of the writer’s deviations.

But maintaining that you are changing nonfiction narrative, slipping whimsically into fiction simply because it is “artful” is downright arrogant—and ignorant. (I have a lot more to say about this book in my column on page [TK], which was adapted from an earlier review of the book in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

Meanwhile, some of the contributors to this issue mine other important ethical and moral conundrums, less often discussed but no less vital. In Between the Lines, B.J. Hollars discusses a series of photos of a woman who is alive in one frame and being carried out to sea in the next. The photos were taken on Plum Island, Mass., by a photojournalist for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, who has been criticized by some journalism ethicists for being too busy capturing the drama of the woman’s suspected suicide instead of attempting to prevent it.

“Is it the photojournalist’s obligation to intervene on behalf of a stranger?” Hollars asks. More broadly, he wonders, where is the line between documentation and exploitation? What are our responsibilities as nonfiction writers and reporters? And are there stories we have no business telling?

The essays in this issue mostly involve people trying to make sense of unfamiliar circumstances and settings, navigating between documentation and exploitation and, sometimes, simply confusion: In Blot Out, Colleen Kinder goes undercover in Cairo. Jane Bernstein attempts to make sense of a dinner in Hanoi, against the disorienting background of January Christmas celebrations. Meanwhile, Steven Boyd Saum recalls being in danger (or was he?) of radiation poisoning in Ukraine, not far from Chernobyl; J. Nicholas Geist immerses himself in the violent (or are they?) realms of bullfighting and video games; and, closer to home, Nathaniel Brodie writes about his search for a young man lost in the Grand Canyon.

The parameters of creative nonfiction are constantly being tested, challenged, defined and redefined, and while the “cycle of scandal” can sometimes feel wearisome, on the whole, I believe, the ongoing discussion is healthy. Although I have trouble understanding the intentions and the ethical barometers of some writers and their works, I appreciate the controversy: It makes us all consider more carefully what we read and what we write, and drives home the importance and potential impact of nonfiction storytelling.

About the Author

Screen Shot 2011-11-18 at 3
Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

View Essays