On the Banks of the River Ose

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Alexander Kerensky, really.

For me, it’s all about storytelling. That’s the first value. After that, language. A great sentence trumps all kinds of more prosaic concerns, like who’s a composite character and what’s a fabrication, about what rule applies and who might be offended. Still, fiction and nonfiction aren’t the same. I never have the faintest question which category a given idea fits into as I start the day’s work. Definitions: Fiction, I make up the stories. Nonfiction, I don’t. Fiction, I might use corners of my life to help create verisimilitude. I’ve worked in a restaurant, so I can invent a kitchen. I’ve had sex, and so can write it, and really writing about it is a way to have more, since the sex I’ve had lives in the same part of my brain as the sex I’ve imagined. But if I haven’t been an Olympic skier, I don’t let that slow a fictional character down (see my novel, The Smallest Color). In nonfiction, I don’t say I’m an Olympic skier. I just show myself trudging through the woods on my backcountry skis fat and sweating, sufficient. People, however, have their own imaginations, and often look through the fictional character and think they’re seeing the writer. I love this form of lying, which is unintentional. Plenty of people think I was a world-class skier, though I’ve never said so in any remote fashion. And people who think they know a liar when they see one almost never do–what they’re good at spotting is bad liars. It’s just a fact of life.

I write for readers who like sentences and paragraphs and scenes. And surely for readers who want to learn a thing or two about beavers or red topers or Olympic skiing. I’m happy to do the research for them. More importantly, I’m happy to shape it all into a pleasing, rocking, poignant, maybe funny story. I don’t write for readers who don’t read for writing. The guy who investigates a writer’s past to compare it to the story in the pages isn’t a reader, he’s a detective. Probably bullied by writers like Gessner on the playground of life. He wants to get back at us. And if he’s not a detective, worse: he’s jealous. And he’s got time, cuz he can’t keep a job. Still, there’s very little reason to worry about your piece being fact-checked by the hostile pee-wees of the world unless you plan to get very famous, or even very-very famous, which is where the really black form of jealousy kicks in, and anything goes.

But let’s not blame the reader entirely. The writer bears a lot of responsibility here. The reader who reads me for story but doesn’t believe my story (true in the original or not) is not a detective but a reader I’ve left unseduced. There are craft issues involved. Lying itself is a craft. Lying for print is an art.  Clues must be dropped all along the way. Edges must line up. If your good scenes are beyond the realm of possibility, get to work on the realm, not the scenes. Annex territory. Build some castles. Don’t give into the pedants, the gripes, the losers, the people who can’t see the difference between a newspaper and a memoir, a life and a novel.

James Frey was a junkie and petty thief (or was he–how would we know?),  and of course he lied. Why would anyone think otherwise, or be so extravagantly offended? His book was meant as entertainment. His lies were harmless, despite what many pundits said. I think journalists went to town on the guy (thousands of news stories and opinion pieces) to symbolically punish themselves for letting Bush and Cheney get away with the colossal lies they were pushing, lies that left hundreds of thousands of people dead, and set the world economy on a crash course. What else could explain that show? Journalists routinely get it wrong, very badly wrong, deadly wrong (many while writing very bad sentences). Watch out for guilty people—they do awful things to defray their self-hatred. Just think of J. Edgar Hoover in his party dress and panties, whipping Roy Cohn.  Or that anti-gay senator guy with his rent-a-boy travel companion.  Guilt, jealousy, envy, greed–the petty emotions always act out ugly.

When I’ve written magazine journalism, I’ve worked with fact-checkers. The career kind, not the moles in front of their computer screens with jism on their pants and shoes looking to hurt someone. No, I mean these very smart people who look into every assertion I make, even the most minor. This is immensely helpful, always broadens the work. I’ve written a little about these encounters in Writing Life Stories, so won’t repeat here, except to say that Harper’s fact-checked my works of memoir. Fascinating, and again, very helpful–the brilliant young woman assigned to my work saved me from several errors I really didn’t want to make. And she was unbelievably thorough. Oddly, I was one of her sources: Bill, is it true that your dad worked at Mobil? May we call him?  No, you may not. Bill, you couldn’t have wired a million switches in your construction days. To wire a million switches you’d have to wire 100 a day for 10,000 days. That’s called hyperbole, ma’am. Which, she noted, is the opposite of litotes.

The Atlantic Monthly took it a fascinating step further and fact-checked my fiction. “Harbinger Hall” is the story of a young boy who skips school and meets a rich old Russian nobleman exiled to a mansion on the next block. The story lets the older gent tell the history of the Russian Revolution. The fact-checker reminded me that the city was Petrograd during the years that encompassed part of my tale. Wonderful. She noted that my young boy wouldn’t have been in school on a Sunday, which was the date in 1962 that I’d put on the note he writes. That’s important enough, I guess. And on and on. When we were all done, dozens of faxes back and forth to my hotel in Sydney (Australian book tour for my spectacular blockbusting novel The Smallest Color, but more on that later!), I waited for the finished gallies. But no—she’d had an idea. She just wasn’t so sure about my grasp of Russian History. So, she’d contacted a historian. A Russian scholar in St. Petersburg. He read the story with interest, or so he averred in a long letter with about 23 bullet points, each like a bang of a shoe on a desk, but I’d gotten things all wrong. He was right on a couple of points of fact, but mostly, what he was arguing was politics. My character was a nobleman, with a nobleman’s point of view. Not so our historian, who was more of a Bolshevik, as far as I could see. I had to convince the fact-checker that we needed to leave politics aside. Also, our historian took exception to my use of the River Ose as a setting. There is no such river! Or so he declared apoplectically. And there was no such village as the one I described.

It’s fiction. I told the fact-checker.  She relayed this to our man.  He had the last word in that exchange: Even fiction must be the truth! But I had the last word on the gallies: STET!

I have given my two rules for the truth of literature in Writing Life Stories, but here it is again, new context: 1.  When I read fiction at this or that event, someone invariably slips up to me, gives me a compassionate look, says, “I know that was you. That guy, in your story, so sad, I know it was you.”  2.  When I read nonfiction, a different sort marches up, or better yet, makes herself known in the Q and A session: “You made that up.”

You can’t win, so you might as well just tell the damn story the best way you know how, right in your reader’s face, and to her heart, and let the shit fly where it will.

  1. Steven Stafford writes:

    Seriously great post. Lots of real talk–especially at the end there. I’m on board with you 100%.

    My theory, though, as to why we even have a need for such posts is that people have grown confused in modern times over what morality means. Look at all the moralistic language when it comes to this stuff! Look at the big, powerful words that get dragged around–Truth being the most notable one and the one who has suffered the most lamentable fate.

    It seems that people are unable to distinguish between (1) hypotheticals and realities (see the death of the subjunctive tense); (2) morality and…everything else–linguistically we’re still caught up in the whole Kant v Bentham deontological v utilitarian/consequentialist false dilemma. So there’s all this confused talk about “obligations,” without anyone really having a clue where they come from or why they exist, etc.

    But I think everything you said in this post was dead-on.

  2. John Jack writes:

    Interesting. Is this the modern politics of literature in all its splendor? I wondered once upon a time or two what might be the polarity of literature’s politics. I did a casual survey. As in life and political politics, liberalism and conservatism predominate, favoring liberalism for the need of narrative to have central proactive characters in pivotal roles.

    A hero seems a liberal by the classic definition: An individual’s needs are sovereign before the needs of the state. Individualism seems readymade for heroes’ quests. Classic Conservatism: The state’s needs are sovereign before the needs of the individual. Collectivism seems readymade for resistance to changing the entrenched status quo.

    The pick-and-choose neoclassic definitions of conservatism and liberalism of Industrial Age Modernism were reinvented during tumultous mid Twentieth century Postmodernism due to new questions, challenges, and understandings of what equality means. Nowadays, I suppose there’s liberal conservatism and conservative liberalism and moderates and extremists and fundamentalists and independents and anarchists and etc., too, in literature, like in life and politics.

    • Bill writes:

      Liberal, conservative–these words mean very little anymore… John, do you really think most people identifying themselves as conservatives in the US these days would say the state’s needs are sovereign? And a hero can as easily protect the needs of the state as those of an individual and still have a place in our literature… I don’t think we writers get anywhere drawing lines between abstractions… Let’s just put our people in motion and see what happens…

      • John Jack writes:

        Yep, today’s socio-cultural political distinctions are so abstract they’re all but impossible to meaningfully fathom.

        The best way I see forward is to distinguish between predetermination and free will, seeing where my characters tend to start and where they tend to end up, in the sense that the process is one of narrowing choices until an end is inevitable, perhaps with an unforeseen but equally inevitable reversal or revelation.

        On the other hand, working beyond contemporary structural and aesthetic expectations appeals to me. If I could figure out how to make it work, I’d be all over it in a heartbeat.