The Ethics of Truth-Telling

Writers of creative nonfiction have widely different views on how much they can make up and still call their work “nonfiction.” Investigative journalists, for instance, believe that it’s fine to use the techniques of fiction — characterization, dialogue, sensory description, and such — as long as they stay true to the facts. But for writers on the “creative” end of the nonfiction spectrum, facts may be a mere scaffolding on which the much-embellished story hangs.

Gay Talese and Judith Barrington represent these two extremes:

“I write nonfiction as a creative form. Creative, not falsified: not making up names, not composite characters, not taking liberties with factual information, but getting to know real-life characters through research, trust, and building relationships.”

– Gay Talese, Telling True Stories

 “I sometimes reorder events to make the narrative work. I approximate dialogue that I can’t recall word for word. I frequently leave out whatever makes the story too complicated for a stranger to grasp. At the same time, while taking these liberties, I feel honor bound to capture the essence of the interaction in the events as I order them and in the dialogue as I recreate it.”

– Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir

What’s an editor to do?

A writer trained in investigative journalism, like Gay Talese, poses no moral dilemma for editors. They may have to check facts, but they do not have to question the veracity of the story.

It’s writers of memoir and other forms of creative nonfiction that lead me to ask, How much lying is okay?

These writers are often willing to alter what happened, in big or small ways, to express a truth that they feel is truer than the facts. Or maybe they don’t remember exactly what happened but want to tell their story anyway.

Were we to visualize truth-telling on a continuum from fact to fiction, the genres would line up something like this:

investigative journalism ►biography ► personal essays ► memoir ►historical fiction

As we move from left to right, the writer relies less on research and more on memory. As we all know, memory is not a complete and accurate record of the past. We remember some events vividly, some dimly, and some not at all. The more a writer relies on memory, the more the writing inches toward fiction.

With the surging market for memoirs that read like novels, the line between fact and fiction is becoming blurrier. Is a novel that has strong historical or autobiographical elements a work of nonfiction in disguise? Is a memoir that recreates conversations from the distant past a creature of the imagination?

Sometimes, even the publishers and reviewers don’t seem to know. Kingston author Merilyn Simonds’s autobiographical collection of short stories, The Lion in the Room Next Door, has been described as both fiction and nonfiction:

This is fiction at its best, a book for serious readers who love language and the quicksilver arcs of time as much as story. Simonds deserves a place next to her well-known Canadian contemporaries Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood.

– Washington Post

Simonds looks back at her own life through 11 stories set in Brazil, Canada, Sweden, Mexico, Greece and Hawaii. At one point early in the book’s development, Simonds thought she was writing a travel memoir, but rethought it after a while, “because it’s not about travels to a place or through a place, it’s more about how we carry place home with us and how we carry place through our lives.” The result is a lucid and poetic book that reads more like a novel than a collection of – essentially non-fiction – short stories.

– January Magazine

As editors, how should we deal with truth-telling or its lack? For starters, if the author presents the work as creative nonfiction, I think we should ask what they mean by that. How much does the author know about the person or events they’re writing about? How much is it possible to know? What liberties have they taken to fill in the gaps?

One author/friend, let’s call him Dan, wrote a book about an uncle he had never met who died in the Second World War. Dan interviewed people and visited the places where is uncle lived. But much of the story was invented.

“It’s all lies, Ellie!” he said gleefully, draining his third glass of pinot grigio.

“What about readers’ expectations?” I said. I’d read somewhere — and it sounded reasonable — that writers of creative nonfiction enter into a pact with readers: they promise to write about real people, places and events, not made up people, places and events.

Dan went along with me until I said “events.” That’s the part he made up, he said, and there would be no book otherwise. What’s more, he didn’t give a hoot about readers’ expectations.

When I pressed him, he admitted that the “plot” that he invented was true to his uncle’s character. He didn’t invent the events out of ether. He immersed himself as much as he could in his uncle’s life and time. When the facts trailed off, he imagined what happened, but his imagination was informed by what he knew about the man. That’s acceptable to me.

Readers’ expectations strike me as a nebulous thing. Will readers care whether an author has portrayed several neighbours as one neighbour, combining traits from all of them? Will they be troubled to learn that an author has compressed a recurring event, like family dinners, into a scene that purports to present one particular dinner? Will they wag their index finger if an author leaves out details to intensify the drama? Writers of creative nonfiction have done all of these things and not lost readers’ trust.

But it’s possible for writers to veer off course on the wings of invention. There have been several high-profile cases in recent years of writers who have strayed radically from the truth and outraged readers. Rigoberta Menchu won the Noble Peace Price in 1992, partly based on her autobiographical account, I, Rigoberta Menchu, of growing up as an uneducated and oppressed member of an indigenous group during the civil war in Guatemala. An American anthropologist, David Stoll, investigated her story and found that many key events, including land feuds and killings, did not happen the way she described them. Menchu had heavily slanted the truth to tell an “everywoman” story rather than her own — but she kept the Nobel Prize.

A big controversy blew up over James Frey’s memoir of his criminal career and addictions, A Million Little Pieces. In October 2005, Oprah Winfrey interviewed the author and chose his memoir for the Oprah Book Club. The book shot to the top of the bestseller lists and sold more than 3.5 million copies. But in January 2006, the investigative magazine The Smoking Gun revealed that Frey had “wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details” to portray himself as a larger-than-life villain. Winfrey immediately denounced the author, claiming that he had “betrayed millions of readers.” She also attacked the publisher, Nan Talese of Doubleday, for failing to check Frey’s story.

“I’m trusting you,” Oprah said to Talese, “I’m trusting you, the publisher, to categorize this book as fiction or autobiographical or memoir. I’m trusting you.”

In other words, Oprah is trusting the editor to get it right.

But when it comes to creative nonfiction, editors themselves rely on trust — trust that the author has good intentions and has been as true to the story as possible. It is simply not feasible or desirable for editors to police the truthfulness of creative nonfiction. Yet we can, through conversations with the author, ask what sort of “poetic license” the author has taken. We can suggest that the author add a preface to the memoir explaining what facts were changed and why. And we can alert the author to the consequences of fabrication.

In all my reading about writing creative nonfiction, I have yet to come across a satisfactory answer to the editor’s role in the ethics of truth-telling. I’d love to hear from you about your experiences and insights. Please leave a comment.




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