Where’s the line between fact and fiction? And does there really need to be one anyway?
Over the years, there have been quite a few examples of non-fiction books being exposed as not as factual as their authors wanted everyone to believe. Should we expect writers to be scrupulously honest with us, and is there really such a thing as non-fiction anyway?
Recently Surviving with Wolves by Misha Defonseca, a memoir of a six year old girl surviving the Holocaust and making her way through Europe in search of her parents, turned out to be a hoax. James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces, his memoir of coping with addiction, has been re-packaged as semi-fictional after an article on The Smoking Gun website exposed it as not entirely true.
It’s an odd genre; non-fiction. It includes a variety of different types of books, from self help, instructional manuals and travel writing to the abundant misery memoirs that seem to have swallowed up an entire section in most book shops and libraries. Some, arguably, require a bit more creative insight than others, and it’s fairly clear, to me at least, that certain types of non-fiction will inevitably involve some degree of flexibility with the truth. If you’re researching a book on the history of the prune in western culture, (don’t bother trying to steal that idea, by the way, I’ve got that one locked down with my agent, thank you very much) and the old prune farmer you’re talking to blathers a bit, is it really damned lies to edit his words into a more succinct and coherent testimony?
During my MA in Writing (that’s right, I am a Master of writing, which is obviously already clear to you from reading this blog), the module I enjoyed and found most inspiring was non-fiction. The tutor said many amusing and useful things during the seminars, including that if you think you might be slandering someone, there’s no need to stop and rewrite, instead swapping their gender (or your own if you’re doing it anonymously) is a good way to make sure they can’t sue you for it. And that if you’re going to misquote someone, give them the best line, because people never complain about that. She’s a genius.
The most compelling thing my tutor said was when we discussed the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Her aspiration is to write a non-fiction book that stepped over the line between fact and fiction until it was indistinguishable as either. That really stuck with me and it seems a way to make the non-fiction genre more creative, more like a work of art than the obvious narrative path. Whether there is room for this type of writing in the publishing world we’re clinging onto at the moment is another question for another blog I might write when I’m a feeling a bit pessimistic.
With some books like Surviving with Wolves and A Million Little Pieces however, it appears clear cut: both Defonseca and Frey sold their books as true to life memoir and the facts, easily researchable facts, clearly demonstrate that not all the things they write about actually happened. That’s a bit different from shuffling around the chronological order of your prune research to make it dovetail into a neat little bit of psychobabble about human existence. (For some reason, non-fiction books can’t just be interesting, they have to have a narrative arc and a point and ideally offer the reader some kind of message about life. They tried that with the Bible and look where that got us.)
You could argue that everyone has their own version of the truth, but it’s hard to stretch that to imagining yourself wandering, a lone six year old, through the streets of Europe, desperate but plucky, in search of your parents. It makes a great story but the fiction market is full of great stories, so it seems like the real motivation of the writer isn’t to create art but to give their book an edge and get it noticed.
In her upcoming book Textual Deceptions: False Memoirs and Literary Hoaxes in the Contemporary Era, Professor Sue Vice suggests that we should view these types of books based on the brilliance of their writing, rather than declaring the writer a hack and pulping all remaining copies:
“Readers might feel angry or betrayed when they discover the truth. But I wonder if very strict boundaries between different literary genres are partly to blame. If memoirs include even a small amount of fictional or reconstructed material, they may be judged as wholly worthless, even though they may have value in literary or psychological terms that exceeds their truth value.”
Personally, I don’t care about “truth value”, whatever that is. I mean, if I buy a book that is going to teach me how to wire a plug then ok, I expect the contents to be true, so my lamp will work and I won’t electrocute myself, but generally any memoir or more creative non-fiction book doesn’t have that burden. No one died because they found out that Frey had wandered into the realms of make believe, or because they didn’t find out and believed every single word.
Disastrous consequences aside, what good is the non-fiction genre doing us? Apart from solid factual books that offer recipes and tips for gardening or DIY, it seems a bit too narrow to really encompass the mass of sub genres and categories that shade uncomfortably under its umbrella. When it comes to something like memoir, travel writing, or even collected essays, non-fiction is a poor heading. It automatically outlaws any attempt at make believe or creative blurring of reality and imagination.
Not that there aren’t books out there doing that already; Hunter S Thompson and Carlos Castaneda both have their forays into the unreal explained by the drugs they took: they’re describing a truth distorted by chemicals, so what do you expect? Like Professor Vice says, “strict boundaries” between the genres are the problem. Do we need genres anyway? Can’t we just read a book because it’s good and not have to question whether that reality is really real? By reading we’re thinking the (edited) thoughts of someone else – it’s literally the best (if not only) way to get inside someone else’s head. They wrote it so they’ve been there too – and we’ve gone with them, even if it’s not strictly true. We’re passengers of someone else’s truth – what does it matter if it never really happened? When we read it, it’s as real for us as if it did happen.
If you like this, why not read my post feltism and consumer culture – what’s the price of art?