Ac­cord­ing to whom?

The fic­tion/non-fic­tion bi­nary is un­der pres­sure from both sides of the di­vide, as a new breed of cre­ative writ­ers ex­per­i­ment with es­say, re­portage and mem­oir as in­ter­change­able con­cepts

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY BREN­DAN BARRINGTON

Speak­ing truth through cre­ative non-fic­tion

Eight or 10 years ago, I started to hear in­ter­est­ing re­ports from peo­ple I know who teach writ­ing. Stu­dents, these writ­ers told me, were ex­press­ing an im­pa­tience with the dis­tinc­tion be­tween fic­tion and non-fic­tion. They did not see any­thing wrong with in­vent­ing in­ci­dents or al­ter­ing facts in works that pur­ported to be truth­ful. For these stu­dents, it seemed, the key word in “cre­ative non-fic­tion” was “cre­ative”, and to be cre­ative was to be free to make things up.

Not long after that, in 2012, a book called The Life­span of a Fact was pub­lished. It con­tained an es­say by John D’Agata about a teenager’s dra­matic sui­cide in Las Ve­gas, jux­ta­posed with doc­u­ments sup­pos­edly aris­ing from a fact-checker’s seven years of work on the piece. As a ve­hi­cle for ad­vanc­ing D’Agata’s view of non-fic­tion – that there is an ab­so­lute and ir­re­solv­able con­flict be­tween fac­tual ac­cu­racy and art – the book was a te­dious fail­ure. But as a piece of lit­er­ary trolling, it had an odd sort of suc­cess.

From the first page, it was clear that the book was not the doc­u­men­tary record of an epic fact-check­ing ex­er­cise, but a dra­mat­i­cally em­bel­lished or reimag­ined ver­sion of those doc­u­ments. And yet, cer­tain smart crit­ics were so fu­ri­ous about D’Agata’s views, or so en­chanted by the drama the book staged, that they failed to grasp the fic­tive na­ture of the ex­er­cise.

De­spite its dull­ness and lack of sub­tlety, the book ef­fec­tively ex­posed a weak­ness in peo­ple’s think­ing about writ­ing and truth, and it ex­erted a strange fas­ci­na­tion. If you’ve got the money, you can now see an adap­ta­tion on Broad­way, star­ring Daniel Rad­cliffe.

I have been an edi­tor for a bit over 20 years, and have pub­lished a lot of “cre­ative non-fic­tion”. As of 2012, when The Life­span of a Fact came out, I had never en­coun­tered the view­point de­scribed to me by my friends who taught writ­ing (ie it’s okay to make things up in non-fic­tion), or any­thing even close to the D’Agata po­si­tion (ie if it’s all true, it’s not art). Some­thing was shift­ing, though. The D’Agata ten­dency has not gained any pur­chase with se­ri­ous writ­ers; but strange and ex­cit­ing things are hap­pen­ing in the bor­der­lands of fic­tion and non-fic­tion.

When­ever I come across some­one who ques­tions the use­ful­ness of the dis­tinc­tion be­tween fic­tion and non-fic­tion, a part of me feels a bit ner­vous. Some­times – con­nect­ing the dots be­tween lit­er­a­ture and the present po­lit­i­cal mo­ment – I even feel a bit an­gry. I am re­minded of Re­becca Sol­nit’s take on the sub­ject: “it’s a slip­pery slope from the things your step­fa­ther didn’t ac­tu­ally do to the weapons of mass de­struc­tion Iraq didn’t ac­tu­ally have”. But an­other part of me is awk­wardly aware that there is noth­ing re­ally new about writ­ers – even great writ­ers – try­ing to claim both the au­thor­ity of non-fic­tion and the free­doms of fic­tion.

If you love im­mer­sive and beau­ti­fully writ­ten re­portage, you may be a fan of Ryszard Ka­pus­cin­ski, who, we now know, had a loose way with facts.

You may ad­mire the won­der­ful New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, who, we now know, pub­lished pro­files of in­vented peo­ple (with the full knowl­edge and in­deed en­cour­age­ment of edi­tor Harold Ross, cre­ator of the mag­a­zine’s fa­mously per­nick­ety fact-check­ing de­part­ment).

If, like me, you de­voured the as­ton­ish­ing works of Janet Mal­colm be­fore read­ing about the li­bel case she spent a decade de­fend­ing (suc­cess­fully) in the 1980s and 1990s, you were prob­a­bly dis­ap­pointed to learn what the case re­vealed about her meth­ods. She tes­ti­fied that, in the case of one of the con­tested pas­sages, she had trans­posed a key quote from a con­ver­sa­tion in New York to a lunch in Cal­i­for­nia – and she did not have ei­ther a tape record­ing or a con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous note to sub­stan­ti­ate the quote.

Per­haps the sin­gle most star­tling rev­e­la­tion in Patrick French’s bi­og­ra­phy of VS Naipaul – a book with a con­sis­tently high star­tle fac­tor – was the news that al­though his wife and col­lab­o­ra­tor, Pat, ac­com­pa­nied him for most of the trav­els around In­dia that he wrote about in An Area of Dark­ness (and kept a de­tailed di­ary while he kept none), Naipaul sup­pressed this fact in print. On the page, the pro­noun is “I”; in re­al­ity, it was “we”.

Con­sid­er­ing this line-up of some of the finest non-fic­tion writ­ers of all time, you might won­der if there is any point in in­sist­ing that non-fic­tion is in­com­pat­i­ble with fab­ri­ca­tion. For my part, cer­tainly, I am hop­ing never to learn from some fu­ture bi­og­ra­pher that James Bald­win didn’t re­ally get thrown in jail for be­ing in re­ceipt of stolen goods, as nar­rated in his mas­ter­ful es­say Equal in Paris, or that Dervla Mur­phy didn’t re­ally cy­cle all the way to In­dia.


And if you’re any­thing like me, you might have been a lit­tle bit thrilled by a com­ment made by Joan Did­ion in a re­cent doc­u­men­tary film. She was asked about her en­counter, in Haight-Ash­bury, with a five-year-old child called Su­san, who had been given psy­chotropic drugs by her mother – as de­scribed in her es­say Slouch­ing To­wards Beth­le­hem. Did­ion spoke not of the hor­ror of the mo­ment but of its use­ful­ness to her as a writer: “It was gold,” she said.

Some peo­ple have re­coiled from the piti­less­ness of this. For my part, I find my­self at­tracted not only to Did­ion’s will­ing­ness to own up to her piti­less­ness, but also to the more im­por­tant un­der­ly­ing mes­sage: the re­al­ity of the world is al­ways strange and dra­matic enough for the jour­nal­ist or the es­say­ist. You’ve just got to put your­self in a po­si­tion – phys­i­cally and men­tally – to wit­ness it. And then, of course, you’ve got to write it. The way Did­ion wrote it – in a de­gree-zero style, sup­press­ing her usual tonal com­plex­ity – sig­nalled her deep re­spect for what

‘‘ In or­der to tell the truth, you’ve got to have a ca­pac­ity for ob­jec­tiv­ity. But to write some­thing that is truth­ful, you have to own your sub­jec­tiv­ity, which is the en­gine of so much of what is valu­able in es­say, mem­oir, and even re­portage

she had found:

For a year now her mother has given her both acid and pey­ote. Su­san de­scribes it as get­ting stoned.

I start to ask if any of the other chil­dren in High Kinder­garten get stoned, but I fal­ter at the key words.

‘She means do the other kids in your class turn on, get stoned,’ says the friend of her mother’s who brought her to Otto’s. ‘Only Sally and Anne,’ Su­san says. ‘What about Lia?’ her mother’s friend prompts.

‘Lia,’ Su­san says, “is not in High Kinder­garten.

Would Slouch­ing To­wards Beth­le­hem have been more truth­ful, and would it have been bet­ter, if Did­ion had owned up in its pages to the writer’s lust for such hor­rors? Per­haps – but it’s worth not­ing that the es­say is writ­ten in the present tense. “I fal­ter at the key words,” she writes. In the mo­ment, we un­der­stand, she strug­gled to speak of such things with a five year old. Maybe it was only later, re­view­ing her notes or writ­ing the piece, that the “gold” took shape. Or per­haps her fal­ter­ing was the con­se­quence of an over­loaded con­scious­ness: maybe, in the mo­ment, she strug­gled to speak be­cause she was too ex­cited.

In any case, one of the won­ders of Did­ion’s es­says is the way they in­cor­po­rate the writer’s er­rors and per­sonal flaws into the reck­on­ing. In lesser writ­ers, this sort of thing can be an an­noy­ing tic – you get the feel­ing you’re read­ing a dis­claimer, or just drown­ing in swampy sub­jec­tiv­ity. But Did­ion, like other great artists of es­say, re­portage and mem­oir, is coolly ob­jec­tive about her sub­jec­tiv­ity. She un­der­stands that, of­ten, the only way to tell the truth is to be frank about the ways in which you are ill-equipped to do so.

The idea of the “con­tract” be­tween non-fic­tion writer and reader is an im­por­tant one, but the anal­ogy is im­per­fect. The reader is not a uni­tary en­tity. Some read­ers’ at­ti­tude to the non-fic­tion writer can be sum­marised as “I am in your hands; do with me what you will.” For oth­ers, it’s more like “I am in your hands; don’t you dare lie to me.” Edit­ing es­says, mem­oir and re­portage for the

Dublin Re­view, one of my jobs is to rep­re­sent the in­ter­ests of the lat­ter cat­e­gory of reader. We do not have the re­sources to do com­pre­hen­sive fact-check­ing, so I check the most con­se­quen­tial facts and oth­er­wise rely on a sort of smell test. A dodgy truth-claim has a way of re­veal­ing it­self, even to a reader who has no spe­cial­ist knowl­edge of the sub­ject mat­ter. Some­times this hap­pens on the level of logic, and some­times on the level of lan­guage: a bad pas­sage of writ­ing may be a sign that in­for­ma­tion has not been prop­erly as­sim­i­lated by the author.


I should be clear that I’m talk­ing here about writ­ers get­ting things wrong in non-fic­tion – not mak­ing them up. In my own edit­ing I have never un­cov­ered au­tho­rial in­ven­tion in a piece of re­portage, though of course it is pos­si­ble that I have been de­ceived in this re­gard. As far as I can tell, among se­ri­ous writ­ers, in­ven­tion in re­portage re­mains en­tirely ta­boo. That is not to say that it doesn’t hap­pen – clearly, it does. But it is rare, and it is done sur­rep­ti­tiously; and when it is un­cov­ered, there is a scan­dal.

What in­ter­ests me more these days – as an edi­tor and as a reader – is writ­ing that is rooted largely or wholly in the author’s own life-ex­pe­ri­ences and con­scious­ness. In this realm, the fic­tion/non-fic­tion bi­nary is un­der pres­sure from both sides of the di­vide. Some of the best fic­tion of re­cent years reads like mem­oir or es­say. Nov­el­ists like Teju Cole, Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti have found com­pelling ways to tran­scend the peren­nial dis­con­tents of plot and char­ac­ter.

It may be tempt­ing to take such work as ev­i­dence that the dis­tinc­tion be­tween fic­tion and non-fic­tion is out­dated or just il­log­i­cal. In some cul­tures, the bi­nary does not re­ally ex­ist. Alek­san­dar He­mon has sug­gested that, in the An­glo­phone world, the dis­tinc­tion has roots in Pu­ri­tanism, with non-fic­tion be­ing seen as morally su­pe­rior to the mere en­ter­tain­ment of fic­tion.

But this does not chime with the way fic­tion is ac­tu­ally talked about in the An­glo­phone world. Fic­tion, we are fre­quently told, can ac­cess a deeper truth than non-fic­tion. After form­ing part of the jury that awarded a prize to Richard Lloyd Parry for his book about the Ja­panese tsunami of 2011, the nov­el­ist Jim Crace was able to write the fol­low­ing words: “You don’t ex­pect a work of non-fic­tion to ex­press it­self with lit­er­ary beauty, and still hold an un­shak­ing mir­ror up to real events . . .” Please get in touch, Jim – I’ve got a few books I’d like to rec­om­mend.

The el­e­va­tion of fic­tion above all other lit­er­ary forms is par­tic­u­larly pro­nounced in Ire­land. But here, as else­where, things are chang­ing. The idea of launch­ing a writ­ing ca­reer with a col­lec­tion of es­says would have been all but in­com­pre­hen­si­ble for an am­bi­tious Ir­ish writer un­til very re­cently; now, as writ­ers like Em­i­lie Pine, Kevin Breath­nach and Sinéad Glee­son are demon­strat­ing, it is a real path­way. The species “Ir­ish es­say­ist”, long crit­i­cally en­dan­gered, is now in rude health. Re­mark­able work by new non-fic­tion writ­ers is turn­ing up un­so­licited in my

Dublin Re­view in­box at an un­prece­dented rate. The bril­liant non-fic­tion writ­ers I work with un­der­stand that lit­er­ary art is not in­com­pat­i­ble with telling the truth – and that some kinds of art can be forged only out of an in­tense en­gage­ment with the ac­tual. They un­der­stand that mem­ory is fal­li­ble, but that this does not mean, as is some­times glibly as­serted, that mem­oir is in­dis­tin­guish­able from fic­tion. It is, rather, a re­port from mem­ory, an ac­count of what is rec­ol­lected. Most read­ers are in­tel­li­gent enough to know that some of what is rec­ol­lected may not be com­pletely ac­cu­rate, but that there is a pro­found dif­fer­ence be­tween this and con­scious fab­ri­ca­tion.

These writ­ers un­der­stand, too, that ob­jec­tiv­ity and sub­jec­tiv­ity are not an­ti­thet­i­cal: only a psy­chopath could write a piece of non-fic­tion in which one or other of these qual­i­ties was com­pletely ab­sent. In or­der to tell the truth, you’ve got to have a ca­pac­ity for ob­jec­tiv­ity. But to write some­thing that is truth­ful, you have to own your sub­jec­tiv­ity, which is the en­gine of so much of what is valu­able in es­say, mem­oir and even re­portage.

To be en­tirely truth­ful my­self, I must con­fess that these con­fi­dent as­ser­tions of what the writ­ers I work with un­der­stand about their craft are, for the most part, ex­trap­o­lated from the way they write and from our ed­i­to­rial ex­changes. Only rarely do we ac­tu­ally dis­cuss the na­ture and prin­ci­ples of art­ful non-fic­tion: we’re too busy do­ing other things.

This is one of the rea­sons I’m look­ing for­ward to our first Dublin Re­view Con­ver­sa­tions event, at which I’ll be talk­ing about these ques­tions with three of the most ex­cit­ing writ­ers cur­rently at work in Ire­land: Roisin Kiberd, Doire­ann Ní Ghríofa and Mark O’Con­nell. Each of them is an artist, and each a truth-seeker, tak­ing a deep in­ter­est in re­al­ity with­out ever be­ing fool­ish enough to imag­ine that they’ve pinned it down. I fully ex­pect each of them to com­pli­cate the pic­ture I’ve pre­sented here, to raise is­sues I’ve never even con­sid­ered, and to make me, and the au­di­ence, feel a bit un­com­fort­able.

The first edi­tion of Dublin Re­view Con­ver­sa­tions, with Roisin Kiberd, Doire­ann Ní Ghríofa and Mark O’ Con­nell dis­cussing “Truth, Artistry and the Bor­der­lands of Lit­er­a­ture”, is on at S mock Al­ley on Wed­nes­day, Nov 28 that 6.30 pm. Tick­ets (¤5) can be booked via Smock Al­ley: smock­alley.tick­et­


Clock­wise from above: Mark O’Con­nell, Em­i­lie Pine, VS Naipaul and Joan Did­ion.

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