Facts and Fiction

It seems that every few months—or sometimes every few weeks—a new scandal arises involving some “nonfiction” writer who has played fast and loose with the facts.

Most recently we had the story of Mike Daisey—the monologuist of “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” who was discovered to have stretched the truth about abuses he witnessed while visiting a Chinese factory that produces iPhones and iPods.

Before that, there was the publication of a curious book titled The Lifespan of a Fact, which is essentially the email correspondence between John D’Agata, the author of a piece of “creative nonfiction” about Las Vegas, and Jim Fingal, who was given the task of fact-checking D’Agata’s essay by the literary magazine that was going to publish it.

After he was outed, Daisey wavered between contrition and defiance, sometimes defending his fabrications as part of some higher dramatic truth—even though he presented his monologue as the more run-of-the-mill variety of truth, the kind you could actually believe.

D’Agata, judging from a hilariously scathing review of The Lifespan of a Fact in the New York Times Book Review, had no qualms whatever about his “creativity” with the facts. Just to take a random minor example, when confronted with the fact that there were 31 licensed strip clubs in Las Vegas rather than 34, as his essay would have it, D’Agata responded that he’d arrived at the alternate number “because the rhythm of ‘34’ works better in that sentence than the rhythm of ’31.’” (Who is this guy D’Agata, you may ask? The answer is chilling: He teaches in the most prestigious graduate creative writing program in the country, at the University of Iowa.)

But my point here is that many people instinctively recoil at the notion of something being labeled “nonfiction” when, in fact, it contains elements that are distorted, exaggerated, or flat-out invented. I count myself as one of those people.

But what about the opposite situation? What about something that’s labeled “fiction” but in fact contains some elements that are actually true? Is there anything wrong with that?

I think most of us would say “no,” and with good reason: many, if not most, novels and short stories incorporate their authors’ own experiences or observations of other people’s experiences. In fact, if writers of fiction were forbidden from incorporating elements taken from real life—even authors of science fiction—they’d probably have to just throw in the towel.

I’ve written two novels that were inspired by some version of reality: one historical, based on the lives of real people who lived over 200 years ago; and the other contemporary, based in part on an experience I myself lived through.

Of the two, the historical novel contains far more “fact.” Much of it consists of actual 18th-century letters and other documents, and I was consciously striving to recreate, with the help of my imagination, the lives of real people who were long gone. By contrast, when I wrote the contemporary novel, I was consciously striving to get away from the facts as I knew them, to invent characters who might have had some roots in the reality I knew at first hand but who were, ultimately, independent creations.

And yet—perhaps not surprisingly—it’s the contemporary novel that has caused the greater stir, prompting accusations that it’s a thinly veiled, and some even say defamatory, depiction of real people.

I don’t want to get into defending myself against these accusations here (I’ve already done that—see, for example, my previous blog post). But it did occur to me—as I was listening to the excruciating interview conducted with Mike Daisey by Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life,” a radio show that had aired his monologue—that I’m the obverse of the author who’s trying to prove that his nonfiction is really, in some sense, true. I’m the novelist who’s trying to prove that her fiction is invented. And in some ways, I have the more difficult task.

You can’t really fact-check a novel. Well, I suppose you could try. William Safire included some 50 pages of notes at the end of his novel Scandalmonger, set in the 18th century and based on the lives of real people. And I did something along those lines in my own historical novel, A More Obedient Wife: I put all the letters and other historical documents that I incorporated into the novel (and interspersed with fictional diary entries) in italics, so that readers who were interested could discern the facts, at least to some extent, by paying attention to the typeface.

But I’ve found that most readers of A More Obedient Wife don’t keep track of what’s in italics and what isn’t. And actually, I think that’s a good sign. They get so caught up in the story that they don’t stop to wonder what’s factual and what’s invented. And the bottom line is that the book is essentially fiction, despite the historically documentable skeleton. By using my imagination to try to bring these long-dead people to life, I’ve made them into new creatures, characters of my own invention.

Trying to separate “fact” from “fiction” in a contemporary novel is even more fruitless. I would compare it to presenting someone with a loaf of bread and asking them to separate, say, the yeast that went into it from the flour, or the flour from the water. You can’t do it. You may have started with certain identifiable ingredients (one part “fact,” perhaps, to five parts invention), but by the time you’re done you have a completely different animal.

I’ve written both nonfiction and fiction, and I think I know the difference. Each of them presents its own set of challenges. Part of the challenge of writing nonfiction is taking the set of facts you’re given, or that you can observe, and creating something meaningful. It’s hard, painstaking work, and I remember thinking, as I was waiting and hoping for a “scene” to emerge from the randomness of the actual life of some person I was following around, that it would be a lot easier to just make it up.

When I did start to make it up, I discovered that it wasn’t all that easy. The challenge of writing fiction is different: you don’t have a given set of facts, you have the whole uncabined universe of your imagination, and the difficulty is figuring out which of your nearly infinite inventions are worthy of inclusion in your narrative. And you don’t have the natural advantage of the nonfiction writer, which is the legitimacy you get from labeling your story as “true.” You actually have to make your reader believe what you’re telling her.

That may be one reason I’m drawn to historical fiction based on real people’s lives: because I’m working within the outlines of what I can find out about them, my uncomfortably infinite choices are narrowed, and I feel some assurance that what I’m writing is believable. It’s also one reason I get so riled by writers whose “nonfiction” turns out to contain deliberate invention: they get an unfair boost by tweaking the facts so they can have it both ways. They’re not constrained by what they’re able to observe and verify, the way I was. If the “right” scene doesn’t happen, or if the right facts don’t come to hand, they do just make it up. And they don’t have to make it convincing, because it comes labeled as nonfiction.

It’s fairly easy for readers to see the problem with inserting fiction into what’s supposed to be a factual narrative. We’ve all had to write research papers in school, or other nonfiction productions, and we have an instinctive sense that you’re not supposed to just insert lies (even if some of us may have succumbed to the temptation to do so).

But not that many readers have written fiction. It’s a mysterious process, even to those of us who do it, so maybe it’s understandable that those who haven’t done it sometimes don’t quite get it. They may see a character who reminds them of someone they know and assume that—despite the obvious inventions of the plot—the author’s portrayal of that character reveals what she really thinks of that real-life person.

I can’t speak for other writers—and there’s no way for me to prove this, in the way that Jim Fingal proved that John D’Agata had the wrong number of licensed strip clubs in Las Vegas—but I can say that wherever my characters originate, by the time they hit the page they’re their own independent beings, baked in the oven of my imagination.