The right way to tell the right stuff
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