categories: Cocktail Hour
I swore I would not be drawn into the latest round of the “truth in non-fiction” debate, but as someone who makes their living teaching “creative nonfiction” it’s hard not to give in to the pull. The other day I wrote a comment on Brevity’s Facebook page: “The truth (!) is that if you have worked in this genre for a while it is really quite easy to be both artful and accurate. A simple introductory phrase, a framing, takes care of everything. It’s a joke really. Like listening to skiers on the bunny slope debating about what it might be like to go down the black diamond trail…….”
I have grown increasingly strict with myself when it comes to my work. But I’m not so strict with others. A few years ago I was on panel about just this subject with three other writers, Philip Gerard, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Bill Roorbach (aka Bill). Quite accidentally we sat ourselves down at the table in the order, from right to left, that we believed that nonfiction must be factually accurate. I believe Philip sat on the far right, John next, then me, and Bill on the far left. Philip is a friend and I just had the pleasure of reading his great new book of essays (The Patron Saint of Dreams, published by Hub City Press) but he was once a journalist and so doesn’t see why it’s so hard to be both artistic and accurate. And why not? My own position has moved steadily in the direction of fact, to the point where if the panel were held today I might be sitting on Philip’s lap.
But I still respect Bill’s refusal to heed the more strident orders of the fact police, and his insistence that this is a genre that should be subjected to standards of its own, not those of journalism. The most obvious example is remembered dialogue from childhood, which brings us right back into the hazy halls of memory.
That said, anything of that sort can be handled with proper framing, as I suggested in my Brevity comment.
That’s how I feel today. But here’s something from my old lefty days, back when the James Frey thing broke and he was brought before Oprah to publicly confess his crimes.
Against a Literature of Fact
Long before anyone had ever heard the name Frey, there were those who equated the rise of memoir with the end of civilization. Several years ago, for instance, James Wolcott of Vanity Fair used the lingerie-and perfume-filledsoapbox of his magazine to preach that most memoirists are whiny narcissists, navel-gazers who write about victim subjects like child abuse or cancer or watching their fathers die. I took offense at this, maybe in part because I’d just written my own navel-gazing memoir about the death of my father, but also because I couldn’t help but feel that Mr. Wolcott’s adopted role as stern preacher was blinding him to what was really going on in the diverse and dynamic world of contemporary nonfiction.
A similar blinding has occurred over the last three weeks as we’ve heard a scolding chorus issue forth from dozens of columnists, commentators, and of course from the great benefactor herself. “I believe the truth matters!” thunders Oprah as the crowd cheers. Something must change! Facts must be checked! Off with his head! Of course we all agree that Frey was wrong to have lied, to have made things up whole cloth. But in the moral oversimplification of the moment, everyone seems to have forgotten that our culture has a long proud tradition of fictional nonfiction. Ignoring this tradition, not to mention ignoring the fact that most of us understand that memoir is not always literal truth, we all found ourselves outraged, outraged, that we had been lied to. The collateral damage became obvious when Oprah’s next book, Elie Wiesel’s Night, came under attack for factual details, most prominently the age that the narrator was carted off to Auschwitz. That there is a world of difference between this inaccuracy and those of Frey, that to compare the two books would only be reasonable if Wiesel had invented the fact he was in a concentration camp at all, didn’t matter. What mattered was the emerging belief that memoir should be held up to the rigorous journalistic standards of factual accuracy.
I humbly defer. In fact, despite all the recent handwringing, I contend that we are in the midst of a golden age of imaginative nonfiction, and that while much of that literature isn’t factual in the journalistic sense, it also doesn’t need to be. During the same week that Freygate broke, I began teaching an annual class to undergraduates on the history of literary nonfiction from Montaigne to the present. Montaigne’s work, begun in the 1570s, signaled not just the birth of the essay but of an attitude, putting the self on display to reveal the contradictions of self, and hoping to achieve, through candor, the intimacy which the essayist Philip Lopate calls “the hallmark of the personal essay.” One could argue that Montaigne’s chronicling of his own every move was the closest thing the 16th century had to reality TV, and in fact Montaigne painstakingly revealed the particulars of his life, including his bowel movements, (if James Wolcott wants to slam someone, here is his man). But he does so with the belief that “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” That is, by talking to and about himself he is, to some degree, talking to all of us.
Obviously Montaigne’s attitude suits these times, and I contend that in recent years something creative and vital has been unleashed in the world of nonfiction. Yes, there have been some sappy recovery memoirs, though I dare readers to name three other than Frey’s. But more to the point we have had the essays of James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and Wendell Berry, the wild comedy of the not-always-factual New Journalists, notably Hunter Thompson and the young Tom Wolfe, and honest, hard-minded memoirs like Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Philip Roth’s Patrimony (as powerful as any of his fiction, though one could argue that his fiction is also Montaignian) and more recently the experimental nonfiction mosaics of writers like Richard Rodriguez. This is no less than a flowering and these authors, and dozens more, provide a growing sense and obvious proof that the actual facts of one life can be arranged in ways that rival the best fiction. And believe me they are arranged. While none of these writers simply made things up, as Frey did, they all, to a varying degree strayed from the purely journalistic version of truth. On the other hand, they are the true literary great-grandchildren of Montaigne in that honesty is their first virtue. “The mind is a burrowing organ,” said that fine creator of creative nonfiction, Henry David Thoreau. The work I’m describing isn’t lurid, sensationalistic, or sloppy. It is the hard work of burrowing into one’s own life to make stories.
Though there is a long tradition of imaginative nonfiction, we are now entering a new place of cross pollination between the essay, memoir, reportage, biography, and fiction. At the birth of any form there is always sloppiness and uncertainty of rules. Perhaps that is best exemplified in the last writer I teach in my course, whose book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, came out almost 425 years after Montagine’s. While at first glance Dave Eggers and Michel de Montaigne might not seem to have much in common, they both explore the world through exploring themselves, stripping selves away, remaining skeptical about a thing called truth while bumbling, Colombo-style, toward honesty. In fact the prefatory section of Eggers’ paperback version of his book self-consciously anticipates the backlash that Frey apparently went whistling by, acting as a pre-emptive strike against accusations of self-aggrandizement and dishonesty. This begins right on the copyright page where Eggers admits, “This is a work of fiction, only in that many cases, the author could not remember the exact words said by certain people, and exact descriptions of certain things, so had to fill in gaps as best he could.” The effect of these words, in contrast to the secretive, Nixon-ian air of the guilt-ridden Frey, is refreshing, like talking with a friend who inspires trust by honestly admitting past lies.
Oprah may tell us the truth matters, but the truth is it’s not that simple. Every seasoned reader, even Maureen Dowd, must know that the memoristic contract with the reader is quite different than the journalistic one. Anyone who sits down to read a detailed account of a conversation a memoirist had when he was thirteen with his mother over the death of a goldfish, should know that what is on the page is made up, or as we say in the trade, re-created. Astute readers also know that within the world of memoir there are lies and then there are acceptable lies. As Bill Roorbach, another daring contemporary writer of nonfiction, says in Writing Life Stories: “Approximating the words from a lecture attended long ago at your modest college is something quite different from saying you studied under Robert Lowell at Oxford.” Another historically “acceptable” lie is time compression. I recently published a book of nonfiction about the great nature writer John Hay, and I taped many of our conversations. But when it came time to novelistically frame my time with this man, I decided it was better to have our meetings take place over the course of a single year, rather than the sloppier two years and change that it actually took. My justification for this was fairly highbrow since mine was a nature book and for a model I could point to Thoreau’s Walden, which had also been squashed down from multiple years into one. Not a lie, true, but it may keep Thoreau and me off future Oprahs.
Sins of time and dialogue may seem relatively minor. But then we get to human beings, who inside our pages become something called characters, and this is where it gets messier. Omission is one of the lesser crimes of character: I have an essayist friend who wrote a beautiful piece about experiencing a moment of euphoria after climbing a mountain alone. The only problem was that the companion the writer had actually been hiking with read the essay and grumbled about being edited out. Equally common is creating something called composite characters, when several real life people are smushed into one. This is usually motivated by a desire for clarity and artistic neatness among minor characters: say you are writing about a time when you were in the hospital and you conflate three night nurses into one. Students of mine once read the work of a memoirist who later, when he came to speak to us, admitted that a minor character they had all really loved had actually been built in this way, from the parts of several characters. They felt understandably betrayed.
Of course the simplest way for an author to use these techniques without upsetting readers is by fessing up. A major complaint about Frey’s book is that nowhere did he say or suggest that it wasn’t all true, that he in fact rode the “true story” horse hard until it bucked him. The paradox within the genre is that while we may forgive a few misplaced facts, we never forgive an overall lack of honesty. As it turns out one of the surest and most obvious ways to establish this honesty is by telling the reader right at the start that what follows may not all be exactly true, and within the genre disclaimers have risen to a kind of minor art form. For instance, at the beginning of This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff writes: “I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome. I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.”
This last point is a vital one. Intention may be hard to discern and somewhat vague, but intention matters. One of the reasons for the Frey backlash is the sense of many readers that they were manipulated and betrayed, and that Frey’s motivations were not honorable ones. In the best essays or memoirs we feel just the opposite: that the writer is honestly wrestling with ideas and then trying to present them to us as nakedly and frankly (and artistically) as possible. A good memoir becomes great when we sense this honest effort to make sense of life’s facts. Can readers be misled? Lied to? Can candor be used as a false trick, the way really good liars use it in life? Certainly. But we also hope we can ferret out intention, and, more importantly, that we know when something is art. (Long before the recent revelations about Frey’s book, many reviewers commented that certain things didn’t feel true.)
If in the aftermath of the Frey scandal nonfiction writers are held closer to journalistic standards it will be for the most part a very good thing. But it would be a shame if this were taken too far. The fact that the rules within memoir are not as rigid is one of the most exciting things about the genre, and that excitement has given us both the New Journalism and the lyric essay. There is plenty of fact out there for anyone who wants it; in our society the onslaught of journalism is constant and unabating. Take a look at any book review page and you’ll see that never before has there been such a profusion of factual books about some subject, usually, since 9-11, about war and politics. But there are those of us still hungry for life stories, and for whom stories made from real life are the most fascinating. Samuel Johnson wrote of how readers like to read about the lives of others in part so they could “put to use” what they read in their own lives. This, too, is part of the hunger for lives.
In The New New Journalism, Robert Boynton claims that our best contemporary nonfiction writers are our journalists who follow “the great issues of the day.” But great issues fade and what is most boring in Montaigne isn’t his analysis of his bowels so much as his descriptions of the French Civil Wars. Boynton claims that the “days in which nonfiction writers test the limits of language and form have largely passed.” Clearly here he is only referring to journalism, because within the world of the essay and memoir some serious testing is going on. Things are wide open. On the hallway where I teach there are three other professors who teach so-called creative nonfiction and I know that we all have widely varying opinions about the degree that this sort of writing should be absolutely factual. This might be confusing, not just to the students but to ourselves, but it is also exciting. There is always danger on the frontier. The rules aren’t clear yet. The form has not calcified.
Should our stories be as factually accurate as memoirists and essayists can make them? Of course. Just because a thing is emotionally true doesn’t mean it can’t be factually true, too. But at the same time a memoirist who says their sister had blonde hair when it was light brown shouldn’t be held to the same standards of Stephen Glass. It is the nature of memoir and essay that memory is telling the story and these forms will never be as clean as journalism. In the best literary nonfiction the true rules that need to be followed are artistic ones. Those rules are developed in each individual book by each individual artist, and they should be judged that way, individually, not in a great hue and cry of moralistic oversimplification. Yes, it is wise for writers of memoir to hew as closely as they can to the facts. But my worry is that we will, as usual, overreact and learn too literal of a lesson. That in rushing to rein things in we will choke off what is creative and alive in the form.