Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Devil is in The Details

Most people have heard the old blues legend about Robert Johnson. As a young and mediocre musician he encountered the devil at a crossroads one night and there sold his soul. In return his guitar was tuned in such a way that he could play anything he wanted. Johnson went on to write the greatest blues songs ever written, to become the greatest bluesman who ever lived.

You could argue modern literary non-fiction was born out of a similarly Faustian arrangement. It involved the creation of what is widely regarded as its foundation stone, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966).

Anyone who has seen Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the film Capote (2005) will have a fair idea of what its devilish bargain was: in depicting the brutal 1959 murder of a Holcomb family Capote cultivated the friendship and trust of their killers on death row.

In doing so he produced one of the biggest selling books of all time and what he regarded as a genuine artistic innovation, a new literary form he called “the non-fiction novel”. The title of In Cold Blood had a double meaning related to the killings of the Clutter family and the later execution of the Perry Smith and Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock. But it was also fatally suggestive of Capote’s exhaustive process over six years and dubious ethical decisions that would allow him to get his story in the end.

As a feat of research and the art of translating fact into literature it remains almost unbeatable. Despite Capote’s protestations of 100% accuracy, however, there were many minor elements in the book that have since been questioned, and one crucial closing scene that never took place in a graveyard. In Cold Blood had only the sordid, the sad and the horrifying on offer. Capote needed a happy ending for his masterpiece and he simply invented one.

It’s tempting now to imagine Capote out there on the crossroads between fiction and non-fiction with the devil whispering in his ear. Any non-fiction writer worth their salt – and many more who are not – have been out that way and heard the same call: Go ahead, bend the truth a little. Make a few things up if you need to. Who is going to know? And who cares anyway? All that matters is the story…


Aestheticizing reality involves a lot more than overcoming unhappy endings. It goes to the core of a literary non-fiction work and its veracity, and how any journalist or writer balances the need for storytelling and fine prose with a respect for the facts and their own role as the witness or so-called ‘reliable narrator’.

Can you be both a writer and a journalist – or is there at heart a tension, something irresolvable and necessarily opposed about these perspectives? There are undoubtedly times when the imperatives of journalism and literature contradict one another and a choice appears necessary: a compromise of artistic purpose versus a tempting moment of exaggeration, a lie of omission, a flight of fancy. Either inclination betrays the greater goals of any fully realized work, but the latter seems the more slippery slope into disaster.

And yet it’s na├»ve to presuppose a world of easily reduced absolutes where all is reportable and verifiable and unquestionably true. Even day-to-day, just-the-facts-ma’am journalism involves the editing and syntactical ‘cleaning up’ of quotes, the selective ordering of information, an emphasis on particular details and thereby their interpreted weight in a reader’s mind: ‘the angle’ your editor is looking for; the theme you are developing.

A comparative study of the front pages of The Australian versus The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age can be a case study in how so-called objective reporting comes up with different, even opposing views of the very same story. Having a plain style or sober voice is no guarantee against lies and distortion, anymore than longing to be a poet of reality makes you less reliable.

As I like to tell my students, there’s no such thing as objectivity but there is such a thing as balance, or finding some poise between what you think or feel about a story and what other voices are telling you. For that matter, the story may not even have a conclusion so much as a question mark underlying it. How will you capture that?

Despite the bizarre synchronicities and unbelievable-but-true coincidences that no self respecting novelist would (or even could) stoop to – but for that powerful rubber stamp on events that says ‘NON FICTION’ – reality is more often messy, unbalanced, incomplete and downright frustrating to hammer out into a narrative or poetic form. It is full of things that don’t fit, don’t make sense, do not develop or won’t end.

The American writer Richard Rhodes hints at this in an interview with Norman Sims for the 1984 book, The Literary Journalists (subtitled ‘The New Art of Personal Reportage’). Rhodes alludes to, “The kind of architectonic structures that you have to build, that nobody ever teaches or talks about, [which] are crucial to writing and have little to do with verbal abilities. They have to do with pattern ability and administrative abilities – generalship, if you will. Writers don’t talk about it much unfortunately.”

As much as the real-life gift of fully formed characters, dialogue, events and places, and yes, sometimes, even a near perfect story can be handed to you on a plate, it is often the obstructions and incongruities in a story that provide the most challenging opportunities for literary non-fiction writers. It is, in other words, it is the problem solving element of non-fiction as much as literary flair and journalistic precision which give it formal grace and adhere to its basic tenets: accuracy, and more deeply, believability.


The ‘truth’ then is that most self respecting literary non-fiction writers feel a pressure to make their work more precise than anything else on a subject in order to enhance and protect their prose indulgences. Time helps in this process and depth of research with it, in part to give the writer confidence to make literary leaps with the real-life material at hand. In part because it is the basic working gap between a journalist reporting on a story within a day, and a feature writer who spends weeks, even months developing an article.

The ultimate goals are depth not exaggeration; richness and complexity, rather than journalism’s formulaic tendencies toward compression and simplification. In egotistical terms you might also boil it down to this: the literary non-fiction writer wants to tell a true story more comprehensively and accurately, more soulfully and stylishly, than anyone else ever has – or ever will.

All very grand in theory, but in the past few years this undertaking seems to have gone out the window as one non-fiction hoax after another has been exposed in the book publishing realm. Narrative journalism has hardly been bullet-proof either as a series of scandals in the USA have blighted major newspapers and magazines: Stephen Glass at The New Republic, Jayson Blair at the New York Times, and the Pulitzer Prize nominee Jack Kelley from USA Today were all found to have extensively fabricated and plagiarized articles, sometimes for years.

James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, a memoir of the author’s time in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinic, was the major turning point in the publishing world. A Million Little Pieces became the second biggest selling book in the USA in 2005 thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club support. It all turned to mud when the author was revealed to have grotesquely exaggerated or made up numerous events. A groveling and somewhat shifty mea culpa from Frey now opens his book by way of half-baked apology.

Australia dealt with a similarly high-profile scandal in Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love (2003), an account of the honour killing of the author’s best friend in Jordan. In 2004 the Sydney Morning Herald’s then Literary Editor, Malcolm Knox, would reveal Khouri to be the complete con-artist. None of her book was true.

As recently as March of this year two more books have been similarly exposed: Margaret B. Jones’ L.A. gang memoir Love and Consequences and Misha Defonseca’s autobiography, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Year. In the well-reviewed Love and Consequences Jones purports to be a half Native American girl who ran drugs for ‘the Bloods’ in South-Central L.A. The all-white author Margaret Seltzer is actually from a middle class Episcopalian family and never went through the experiences she writes about.

Defonseca’s Holocaust memoir is also a complete invention. One would have thought a section on how she was raised as a cub by a pack of wolves, after collapsing in a forest while trying to make her way to her parents in Auschwitz, might have raised eyebrows sooner. The facts are that Defonseca sat out the war in comfort and safety, the Belgian Roman Catholic daughter of an alleged Nazi collaborator. After being exposed Defonseca released a statement: “The book is a story, it’s my story… It’s not the true reality, but it is my reality. There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world.”

The Australian non-fiction writer John Birmingham (Leviathan; Off One’s Tits) sees these scandals in frank terms. “I suspect that literary non fiction is like any growing market. It quickly attracts carpetbaggers. I can remember reading ten years ago about how nonfiction outsold it’s made up sibling by five to one. Rubbery figures, with no baseline, but enough to bring a cabal of shonks and bullshitters running to cash in. Related to that is the issue of identity politics. How many of the charlatans have fabricated personal histories? Almost all of them.”

Undoubtedly the narcissism of the times is a factor and the memoir is its natural home, a commercial drain pipe for all that confessional, blogging, chatting energy that now passes for communication and reflection today. Ironically Hunter S. Thompson gave a 1997 interview to The Atlantic Monthly wherein the ‘Godfather of Gonzo’, the most subjective and extreme of the literary non-fiction forms, expressed grave concerns about the explosion of opinion on the internet: “There is a line somewhere between democratizing journalism and every man a journalist,” Thompson said. “You can’t really believe what you read in the papers anyway, but there is at least some spectrum of reliability. Maybe it’s becoming like the TV talk shows or the tabloids where anything’s acceptable as long as it’s interesting.”

Author Anna Funder (Stasiland) is interested to hear of Thompson’s concerns. “It may be that we are now, hopefully, seeing the last dying gasps of post modernism in popular culture, this your-truth-is-my-truth idea where everything is relative,” she says. “And that’s related to the death throes of this other idea that everybody can do everything. That anyone can be a star attitude you get from MySpace. This democratization you get in popular culture with shows like So You Think You Can Dance? So you think you can sing? So you think you can be a journalist, so you can be a writer? It’s a phase Western culture is going through. But at the same time there’s a growing recognition of expertise in reaction to all that, I think. And also that a part of those abilities is a genuine gift – and there’s absolutely no democratizing that.”

Matthew Ricketson, the Media and Communications Editor at The Age and the editor of Best Australian Profiles (Black Inc) counters that the net is not simply a corrupting free-for-all. He talks about “a new mood for transparency being propelled by a similar transparency online. We have a nation of media watchers who are literate about the media and they have to tools to both check-up on us like you never could before - and tell us in public as well.”

John Dale, the Director for the Centre for New Writing at U.T.S. (and the author of the non-fiction works Huckstepp and Wild Life) is similarly skeptical about any proposed atmosphere of crisis in the literary non-fiction realm. “I don’t think there’s been a decline in standards. Since Capote the temptation to invent has always been there. The really dangerous push has been for publishers to ignore the warning signs and just see sales. But how many cases of deception among all the writers published are we actually seeing? Most writers are very well meaning, and publishers are becoming more vigilant because of the frauds, as are readers too.”

Dale also argues that non-fiction tends to lose its authentic tone when writers get carried away with their prose and start inventing things. The infamous graveyard scene in In Cold Blood is one of the few unconvincing moments in a stunningly well-researched book, just as Frey’s blow-hard machismo in A Million Little Pieces hinted he was someone you shouldn’t put your faith in. “I think the readers are actually more intelligent that people give them credit for,” Dale says. “Readers can certainly cotton on to whether they trust a writer or not.”

Malcolm Knox, who writes both fiction and non-fiction and is currently an investigative journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, adds that the state of literary non-fiction “would only be corrupt if publishers, book sellers and readers didn’t care when these things come out. The fact the books are generally withdrawn is evidence against that,” though the continued publication and sales of Frey’s work remains, for him, a distasteful exception. He compares Frey’s book to Gregory Robert’s Shantaram, which was published as a novel. “There’s a strong suggestion that he [Roberts] was the character in that book, but because anywhere between 20-50% has been made up he and his publisher rightly decided it should be published as fiction.”

In defence of publishers Knox also notes how hard it can be for them to detect a fraud. “Norma Khouri’s publishers copped a lot of flak for not realizing she was a fake. But she had the master criminal’s application to covering her tracks and making it very difficult to check her story. They couldn’t have found her out. The fact is that publishers take an awful lot on trust. And if you can concoct a good enough firewall between your publisher and the truth you can get away with it.”

It’s a somewhat backhanded defence but Matthew Ricketson points out that “the effort it takes to research and write a book tends to dissuade opportunists. It’s just too much hard work.” It’s nonetheless true that “what you might call the literary high jump bar comes down when a true story is being promised. If you looked at Forbidden Love as a novel it was melodramatic and not written that well.”

Funder agrees. “You can probably get away with worse writing if you say something is true. But I don’t want to read some bullshit artist who has written something that is not well done, not beautiful and not true as well! What’s the point?”

Writers like W.G. Sebald have meanwhile signaled how the feedback and overlap between fiction and non-fiction can be used to create great works that blur the memoir, fiction and the essay forms to create unexpected openings, even what might be another form of literature.

John Hughes (The Idea of Home; Fictional Essays) believes the “borderlands between fiction and non-fiction are a very interesting place to be. But this is also where it becomes very difficult with morality and ethics.” He compares what has been happening to literary non-fiction with “when the novel was born. Some of the most brilliant stuff ever written in the novel form occurred at that moment in history and yet so much rubbish came out as well. With a new genre there is just so much energy, so many possiblities.”

- Mark Mordue

* Story first published in Australian Author, Volume 40, Number 1, April 2008. Australian Author is the quarterly journal for the Australian Society of Authors.

+ + Colour photo of James Frey reading his latest book, a novel called Bright Shiny Morning, at Whisky a Go-Go in Los Angeles was taken by George Ducker, May 2008:


Anonymous said...

Just to play devil's advocate. . .

It's too harsh to say about Norma Khouri that "None of her book was true." Although there apparently is no real-life Dalia, the River Jordan does not run through Amman and never has, and there are no co-ed hair salons in Jordan, inter alia, I can vouch that the core of what Norma wrote about is very much the truth. Dishonor killings happen in Jordan on a regular basis, and more or less as Norma described.

Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
"Reclaiming Honor in Jordan"

Mark Mordue said...

Hi Ellen,

Maybe you're right and I should have refined what I said to "None of her confession was true". In the sense that Khouri never had such a friend, let alone all the basic facts she got wrong as a result of her lies. The shame of it is that in fabricating a memoir Khouri discredits your own work and muddies the issue that concerns you most. Thanks for taking time to read my essay... given you interest in the Middle East you might want to have a look at my book Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip (Hawthorne Books, USA) as there is a major section in it on Iran.

Yetta said...

The Rosenblat story is so sad. Why is Atlantic Pictures making a film based on a lie? Why didn't Oprah check the story out before publicizing it, especially after James Frey and given that many bloggers like Deborah Lipstadt said in 2007 that the Rosenblat's story couldn't be true.
Genuine love stories from the Holocaust do exist. My favorite is the one about Dina Gottliebova Babbitt - the beautiful young art student who painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the children's barracks at Auschwitz to cheer them up. This painting became the reason Dina and her Mother survived Auschwitz. After the end of the war, Dina applied for an art job in Paris. Unbeknownst to Dina, her interviewer was the lead animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They fell in love and got married. It's such a romantic love story. Another reason I love Dina's story is the tremendous courage she had to paint the mural in the first place. Painting the mural for the children caused her to be taken to Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death. She thought she was going to be gassed, but bravely she stood up to Mengele and he made her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber.

Dina's story is also verified to be true. Some of the paintings she did for Mengele in Auschwitz survived the war and are at the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum. The story of her painting the mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the children's barrack has been corroborated by many other Auschwitz prisoners, and of course her love and marriage to the animator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the Disney movie after the war in Paris is also documented.

Why wasn't the Rosenblatt's story checked out before it was published and picked up to have the movie made?? I would like to see true and wonderful stories like Dina's be publicized, not these hoax tales that destroy credibility and trust.

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