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Truer Words 

Writers tackle the ethics of nonfiction


Creative Nonfiction Literary Festival

A Kinder, Gentler Approach to Literature

Chuck Kinder

Once, the easiest way to elicit cynical laughter over the word "ethics" was to use it in the same sentence as "politician." Lately, another profession might serve nearly as well: writer. Our pundits are paid for opinions, not factual accuracy; memoirists are revealed as fakes, novelists as plagiarists. Looming over this landscape is the dark cloud surrounding James Frey, whose best-selling memoir A Million Little Pieces was exposed earlier this year as rife with exaggerations and outright lies.

The controversy over who's putting fiction in their nonfiction is a familiar one to Lee Gutkind. The University of Pittsburgh writing instructor is a key longtime advocate for the genre known as creative nonfiction, which shares a name with the Pittsburgh-based journal he founded 1994 and still edits. The movement seeks to express real life -- traditionally journalism's turf -- in terms of narrative art once reserved for the novel.

Rather than offer simple news-story chronologies, writers of creative nonfiction -- such as practitioners of the New Journalism that arose in the 1960s -- set scenes to build drama. Rather than simply quoting people they interview, practitioners of creative nonfiction employ dialogue, showing their subjects talking to each other. Sometimes they write in the interior voices of their subjects. Unlike "invisible" reporters, creative-nonfiction writers can be part of the stories they write, or even become the stories.

It's an honorable genre, by now even venerable: Think In Cold Blood, The Right Stuff. But this "literature of fact" -- especially when it's defined to include memoir -- has a relationship to the truth that's fraught with risk. There are temptations for the writer. There are questions for the reader: Why not invent a scene if it makes a better story? Can we trust a writer to accurately render a conversation that happened 20 years ago?

Sparked by the Frey episode, the question of when nonfiction gets entirely too creative provides the theme for this year's 412 Creative Nonfiction Literary Festival. It runs Nov. 6-11 and is subtitled "Ethics in Writing: Can YOU Handle the Truth?"

The Frey scandal broke in January, when Web site The Smoking Gun revealed that much of the author's addiction-and-recovery memoir, though presented as fact, wasn't. For instance, Frey once spent a few hours in jail -- not, as he wrote, three months. Recriminations included a tongue-lashing from Oprah Winfrey, whose TV endorsement had vaulted the top-selling Million Little Pieces into the publishing stratosphere. Frey and his publisher, Doubleday & Anchor, apologized -- Frey's self-serving act of contrition appears in subsequent editions -- and commentators had a field day.

"In some respects, the whole controversy took the field way back," says Gutkind, whose own books of creative nonfiction have explored subjects from transplant surgeons to major-league baseball umpires.

Gutkind says Frey violated the two golden rules of creative nonfiction: Don't make stuff up, and if you're going to take imaginative liberties, such as indulging in speculation, tell readers what you're doing. "[Frey] let the story carry him away from the facts," he says.

Yet Gutkind sympathizes with Frey, and not just because it was Frey's success that got him busted for crimes lesser-known writers have long gotten away with. Gutkind contends that the truth of an event -- not to mention the memory of it -- can itself be subjective. "It's a very blurry, foggy line" between what's allowed and what's prohibited in creative nonfiction, he says.

"Most creative writers understand the flexibility of the form and how difficult it is to pinpoint truth in literature," he writes in A Million Little Choices, a new special issue of Creative Nonfiction. "[T]here are higher truths ... that may not be easily fact-checked."

Some writers, for instance, consider it acceptable to "compress" two or more situations into a single scene -- this even though combining two conversations into one was a key element in the famous 1980s libel case against The New Yorker's Janet Malcolm, over her profile of controversial psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson.

Gutkind isn't against compression, or creating composite characters for effect -- as long as the writer acknowledges it. "Making literary decisions based on good narrative principles is often legitimate -- you are, after all, writers," he says. "Journalists are much more rigid about where this line is," he adds. "Frankly, I think life is not that way."

But Gutkind says a more important point might be simply that telling stories that are true are well as beautiful and moving requires more than writing skill: It takes time, patience, and a lot of old-fashioned legwork. "A good writer can get the factual truth and the emotional truth simultaneously, if he's willing to work hard enough."

Exhibit A might be H.G. Bissinger, who'll be among the festival guests discussing ethics with Gutkind. In 1988, Bissinger and his family moved to Odessa, Texas, for a full year to research a book on high school football. The result was the remarkable Friday Night Lights. The 1990 book went beyond the town's obsession with its Panthers to explore racism, social class, politics and, even more stunningly, the world of the teen-age athletes warped by football mania.

A Pulitzer-winning newspaperman before he became an author, Bissinger decries a decline in regard for truth in nonfiction. "The ethical line is becoming more and more blurry," he says by phone from his home, in Philadelphia. Part of the blame lies with publishers, and the reading public: "The pressure is more enormous than ever to hype books up and make books sensationalistic."

Bissinger went to Odessa expecting to write a Hoosiers-like look at sports and small-town life. While his book's revelations of injustice raised local ire, he's proud that Friday Night Lights is populated by human beings, not good guys and bad guys.

Gutkind says some writing students to whom he assigns Friday Night Lights question its credibility -- how Bissinger could know what the young players were thinking in certain scenes. Bissinger says he just asked them, conducting intensive interviews that got him inside their heads.

But Bissinger says work like his is endangered. Notwithstanding sales bumps from hot topics like the Iraq War, he says, the market for serious nonfiction is declining: Americans are simply less interested in book-length journalism.

Gutkind disagrees. Sales of A Million Little Pieces itself plummeted after Frey was exposed, but "It's an easier market for narrative nonfiction than it's ever been," says Gutkind.

Yet it's a different kind of market, says Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of trade journal Publishers Weekly. The Frey scandal "has made publishers more cautious about publishing nonfiction, memoir in particular," she says. "They are asking more questions of their authors." They're also using more "based-on-a-true-story" disclaimers, if only to cover themselves.

Of course, there's another distinction to be made between memoir and more journalistic nonfiction. In his "Notes on Frey" in Creative Nonfiction's special issue, Albany, N.Y.-based essayist Daniel Nester -- without explicitly defending Frey -- adduces Gore Vidal and others to argue that it's the memoirist's job to shape his or her life for the page. Writer Vivienne Gornick is among those who have argued that memoir isn't journalism, but literature.

Kathryn Harrison takes a different tack. The New York City-based writer -- another guest at the upcoming Creative Nonfiction festival -- herself stoked controversy with her 1997 memoir The Kiss. The book about her sexual relationship with her father, which began when she was 20, told a story very similar to that of her first novel, Thicker Than Water, published five years earlier.

Asked about the Frey controversy, Harrison says, "I was less troubled by it than many other people seemed to be." But that was only because, while she found Frey's book "readable," she never took it seriously as memoir. Harrison says Frey was less interested in the memoirist's legitimate project of understanding himself than in self-mythologizing. For Harrison, the book turned unbelievable when Frey recounted undergoing a root canal sans anesthesia.

"In memoir, there may be such a thing as being true to the spirit or emotional tone of an event, if not its facts. But when the author's hidden agenda is to make himself look good, or at least look the victim," says Harrison, "memoirs can fail on both counts."

In Harrison's historical novels, story takes precedent, and research inspires imagination: "I'm not serving history," she says. "I'm making history serve my story." But facts do matter: The Kiss arose because Harrison felt the need to tell a factual version of the story she'd fictionalized in a novel whose protagonist, for instance, was "younger, sweeter, more vulnerable" than Harrison had been in real life.

All memoirists err, she says, but there's a difference between honest mistakes and dishonest. Harrison's rule of thumb: "You know when you're lying, so don't do it."

click to enlarge H.G. Bisssinger: "The pressure is more enormous than ever to ... make books sensationalistic."
  • H.G. Bisssinger: "The pressure is more enormous than ever to ... make books sensationalistic."

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