The right way to tell the right stuff

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Trent Dal­ton

Telling True Sto­ries By Matthew Rick­et­son Allen & Un­win, 288pp, $39.99 WI­MOWEH. One of the great pieces of jour­nal­ism I’ve read re­cently was a 10,000-word ex­plo­ration into the ori­gins of that word and the 75-year jour­ney of a haunt­ing 15-note African melody that forms the in­fec­tious and heart­warm­ing hook to The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

I don’t much hear Rian Malan’s name men­tioned in dis­cus­sions about mod­ern greats of jour­nal­ism but, from read­ing the South African’s wi­moweh epic — which took him across the globe build­ing a tense, ser­pen­tine story that even­tu­ally proved the melody’s Zulu cre­ator, Solomon Linda, died a pau­per po­ten­tially owed mil­lions in roy­al­ties from ev­ery­one from Brook­lyn doo-wop group the To­kens to Walt Dis­ney — I reckon there would be few jour­nal­ists out there who could top Malan as a teller of true sto­ries.

At the risk of los­ing the truth in the con­struc­tion of my nar­ra­tive here — or let­ting the truth get in the way of a good story — I should de­clare that the phrase “true sto­ries” came from Matthew Rick­et­son, pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Can­berra and teller of the odd cracking true story or two in The Aus­tralian and The Age.

It’s the term he’s set­tled on af­ter some ad­mirably deep thought into what the hell it is that “long­form jour­nal­ists” do. These are the kind of quan­daries fea­ture writ­ers pon­der in the mid­night dark­ness of our bed­rooms, sweat­ing over other im­pos­si­ble ques­tions such as, “Should I

June 7-8, 2014 use that quote?”, “Should I save him from him­self?” and “How am I serv­ing the reader by de­scrib­ing the smell of the drunk su­per­model’s mum’s wine burp?”

“Terms like ‘lit­er­ary non-fic­tion’ sound pre­ten­tious and bor­ing,” Rick­et­son writes. We tell true sto­ries. True in the sense that it is “ac­tual people, events and is­sues that are be­ing writ­ten about”. Sto­ries, he says, in the sense that these people, events and is­sues will be part of a nar­ra­tive that “prom­ises to en­gage the reader fully”.

But, like any good story, com­pli­ca­tions en­sue. While Rick­et­son looks here at the crit­i­cal role long­form jour­nal­ists such as Malan play in the land­scape of print me­dia, the heart of his ex­plo­rations rests in a ques­tion of whether or not eth­i­cal is­sues will arise the very mo­ment the jour­nal­ist chooses to take a nar­ra­tive sto­ry­telling ap­proach to the reporting of facts.

En­ter Tru­man Capote, the man who in­vented “the non­fic­tion novel” with In Cold Blood (1965) and a writer who con­sid­ered jour­nal­ism “the most un­der­es­ti­mated, the least ex­plored of lit­er­ary medi­ums”. Capote’s ac­count of the 1959 mur­der of four mem­bers of a Kansas farm­ing fam­ily, the Clut­ters, has been “canon­ised” by jour­nal­ists and nov­el­ists alike, says Rick­et­son, de­spite the fact an Esquire ar­ti­cle pub­lished six months af­ter the book sug­gested Capote al­tered facts and quo­ta­tions to “sub­stan­tially skew his por­trait of one of the killers, Perry Smith, mak­ing him look less like a cold-blooded mur­derer than a vic­tim whose con­sid­er­able po­ten­tial had been crip­pled by a mis­er­able child­hood”.

The moral dilem­mas are many and Rick­et­son — with the help of some of our great­est true sto­ry­tellers, He­len Garner, Chloe Hooper, David Marr, to name a few — ex­haus­tively un­picks each one: Should the all-know­ing narra- tive voice be used in non­fic­tion? Can a writer prop­erly re­port on an event they did not wit­ness? Can the flowery de­scrip­tions of scenes and decade-old re­flec­tions be con­sid­ered ap­pro­pri­ate records of mo­ments in time? Rick­et­son cites ex­am­ples through his­tory, in­clud­ing “an am­bas­sador peer­ing down the front of Queen El­iz­a­beth I’s dress and notic­ing the wrin­kles”.

There’s a fas­ci­nat­ing chap­ter on the per­ils of the in­te­rior mono­logue — where the non­fic­tion writer types away from the mind of his sub­ject — which Tom Wolfe em­ployed in his 1979 non­fic­tion novel The Right Stuff, about US test pi­lots and pi­o­neer­ing NASA as­tro­nauts, caus­ing Pulitzer prize-win­ner and fel­low nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion writer John Hersey to re­mark: “Right Stuffers who are al­leged to speak noth­ing but Army Cre­ole are gar­landed with el­e­gant tid­bits like es­prit, joie de com­bat, mas alla! … God help us, God be­comes Tom Wolfe and with His sweet ear chooses the Wolfeish ‘ninny’.”

Part user’s guide, part his­tor­i­cal look at the evo­lu­tion of an im­por­tant and en­ter­tain­ing medium, Telling True Sto­ries is a de­tailed, auth-

In Cold Blood ori­ta­tive book for any­one who wants to tell such things and any­one who wants to read them.

The sharpest in­sight in the end comes from one of the au­thor’s own true sto­ries, an elo­quent re­flec­tion on be­ing a young jour­nal­ist reporting on the Ash Wed­nes­day bush­fires. “What struck me most and what I still re­mem­ber to­day is the gap be­tween the enor­mity of the event and the means at my dis­posal to com­mu­ni­cate it — a short news ar­ti­cle,” he writes.

The great gift of a longer, nar­ra­tive ap­proach to jour­nal­ism is the time to tell a story prop­erly; to un­pick an is­sue or a per­son and maybe find the hard truth be­neath the easy one. A nar­ra­tive ap­proach can bring great power. Af­ter Malan made his long, heart­felt ex­plo­ration of a beau­ti­ful 15-note African melody, an ac­count was es­tab­lished in the name of Solomon Linda’s de­scen­dants so a small por­tion of the mil­lions of dol­lars made from The Lion Sleeps Tonight can go where it be­longs. True story.

Tru­man Capote’s in­tro­duced the non­fic­tion novel to the world

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