“fact vs. artistic license”

Thanks to Pops for today’s prompt (and post title). He sent me this article, from the New York Times. I hope that link works! If it doesn’t, it’s called “The Fact-Checker Versus the Fabulist”, written by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, published February 21, 2012, so hopefully you can find it online. In a nutshell, it discusses the following situation:

“Hi, John. I’m Jim Fingal. I’m the intern who’s been assigned to fact-check your article about Las Vegas, and I’ve discovered a small discrepancy between the number of strip clubs you’re claiming there are in Las Vegas and the number that’s given in your supporting documents.” To which [John] D’Agata responded: “Hi, Jim. I think maybe there’s some sort of miscommunication, because the ‘article,’ as you call it, is fine. It shouldn’t need a fact-checker; at least that was my understanding with the editor I’ve been working with. I have taken some liberties in the essay here and there, but none of them are harmful.”

The article under discussion, called “What Happens There,” is purportedly nonfiction, but takes liberties, as its author says, with the facts. Lewis-Kraus discusses what it means to take liberties with fact in nonfiction writing. D’Agata makes a case for the higher purpose of “art” taking precedent over facts. I think we can probably agree that this concept, taken to an extreme, is bad for nonfiction. But the fact (heh) is that much nonfiction, arguably most nonfiction, even more arguably, perhaps, all nonfiction leaves some room for concern over absolute truth. I mean, come on, truth is relative, in the eye of the beholder, and always subject to some argument.

Pops expresses concern over

the view of any given writer that s/he is creating art or entertainment, and therefore an obsession with extreme fact-checking just gets in the way (100% fact checking is exhausting & distracting from the writing process) – and it doesn’t matter because readers understand artistic license. It hadn’t occurred to me that writers could so knowingly & sincerely take this approach with eyes wide open.

And indeed, the attitude of D’Agata as expressed in Lewis-Kraus’s article is alarming. He seems pretty cavalier about the importance of facts (and fact-checking). But I was already aware of the blurry lines, even within “nonfiction”, between fact and… liberties. How do we tell the difference between pure fact and all the nuances that then follow, along a continuum, between pure fact and pure fiction? It’s an interesting and concerning issue. I’m not bothered by fiction, nor am I bothered by the many hybrids, but I think understanding what it is that we’re reading is important. If a reader forms a world-view based on a book, it’s pretty important that that reader be clear on where fact ends and personal opinion, interpretation, or imagination begins.

So how do we tell? Ideally, fiction is easy to identify. It’s in the realm of nonfiction – which label tends to be liberally applied – that we can get into trouble. Memoirs are famously vague in terms of fact, and I think that many readers are aware of that vagueness, but I’m sure many aren’t. And there is likely to be a very large portion of what we think of as nonfiction – that is published as such – that has some questionable areas of “fact.” Who polices these things? In theory, publishers do, at least to avoid embarrassment a la James Frey or Greg Mortenson. But how much of your life savings would you bet that every detail in that latest personal narrative is factually truthful?

We could impose a ratings system, I guess. But even if we were prepared to deal with the censorship threat implied, who would do the fact-checking and rating? The authors themselves? Editors? Publishers? A newly established institution subject to corruption and favoritism, and imposing a new cost on publishing? No, that’s not going to work.

I think the best solution – as is often the case – is to be responsible consumers of nonfiction. Reading authors’ notes, afterwords, acknowledgements, introductions, and footnotes should, in theory, assuming thorough and honest authors, give us an accurate idea of how much fact and how much author impression we’re getting. I love Sharon Kay Penman for her detailed author’s notes, in which she makes clear what is researched fact, what is educated extrapolation, and what is fiction. If all authors of historical fiction and nonfiction followed her lead, I would feel safer. But in practice, we’re pretty far from this standard.

I’ve blogged about this concept before, and I still don’t have an answer. And yet I still love to read historical fiction, and I read a lot of nonfiction, too. I’m sure I’m a more informed consumer than many; but I’m a long way from perfect. What advice would you give to me, or any reader of nonfiction and historical fiction, in keeping our facts straight? Is there anything we can do? Does the slippery slope of fiction vs. non bother you too?

A few authors’ notes:

Though this is not a work of fiction, it has some fictionalizing in it. Its facts are factual and the things it says happened did happen. But I have not scrupled to dramatize historical matter and thereby to shape its emphases as I see them, or occasionally to change living names and transpose existing places and garble contemporary incidents. Some of the characters, including at times the one I call myself, are composite. People are people, and if you put some of them down the way they are, they likely wouldn’t be happy. I don’t blame them. Nevertheless, even those parts are true in a fictional sense. As true as I could make them. —Goodbye to a River, by John Graves

The Edward Abbey of my books is largely a fictional creation: the true adventures of an imaginary person. The real Edward Abbey? I think I hardly know him. A shy, retiring, very timid fellow, obviously. Somewhat of a recluse, emerging rarely from his fictional den only when lured by money, vice, the prospect of applause. –Edward Abbey, from his journals, as quoted in The Life of Edward Abbey, by James M. Cahalan

What reactions do you have to these statements? Do these ambiguities about fact or “truth” compromise the integrity of the “nonfiction” works in question, or is their integrity somehow solidified by these explanations? Have you seen any interesting authors’ notes or statements of nonfictionality to share with us?

2 Responses

  1. Lovely read, expressing a few good conerns.

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